I’ve decided to start a new feature for this blog: the recommended series. I’ve been writing reviews of individual manga volumes and plan to do some of individual anime DVDs, but sometimes it makes more sense to write a post on a series as a whole. To start things off, here’s a look at one of my favorite anime series, Cowboy Bebop. It wasn’t the first series that I watched and liked (Fullmetal Alchemist takes that honor), but it was the first series that I watched in its entirety.
Cowboy Bebop is set just a few decades in the future, in the year 2071. Interplanetary travel is now a reality, due to a network of hyperspace gateways set up throughout the solar system. But the gates come with a price: an industrial accident involving one gate has sent debris from the Moon raining down on Earth, destroying much of the world’s surface. As a result, most people have left Earth to find a better life in the colonies on colonies on the other planets, and those who remain on earth live underground.
Crime is flourishing in the colonies; to deal with the problem, authorities are offering bounties on wanted men and women. For the daring, hunting bounties is a way to make a living, and Spike and Jet, our protagonists, are trying to do just that, with mixed success. But earning enough money to buy food and repair their ships turns out to be the least of their problems. Spike, Jet, and the people they meet along the way all have histories that they’d rather not talk about, and running away from those problems proves to be more difficult than anyone could have expected. The episodes follow their efforts to collect bounties and deal with their pasts.
Cowboy Bebop‘s considered a classic for many reasons. First, it has top-notch production values. The fight scenes are inventively choreographed, while the film noir-inspired visuals make great use of light, shadow, and framing. On top of this, it has excellent voice acting. Kouichi Yamadera as Spike and Megumi Hayashibara as Faye are particularly wonderful. And the production’s rounded out by an unforgettable soundtrack. Yoko Kanno’s score riffs off of every type of music imaginable, including hard rock, jazz, country, and Latin.
The score thus reflects the show’s genre crossing. Cowboy Bebop is set in the future, but it isn’t just science fiction. It is about a group of bounty hunters, but it isn’t just a western. It’s also film noir, horror, and comedy, and often it’s several of these at once.
All of the above are reasons to admire this series, but I love it because the story also has a lot of heart. Though Cowboy Bebop is primarily episodic, it does eventually explore the various characters’ backstories; Spike’s past is particularly important as the series goes on. The last three episodes are an emotional roller coaster for viewers who have become invested in these shipmates.
On a final note, I’d suggest that Cowboy Bebop is a great starter anime for a lot of reasons. Not only is it incredibly well-made in all the ways that I described above, it also has few of anime tropes which tend to mystify to anime newbies. In addition, many of the references are drawn from Western pop culture, so viewers can engage on the story on many levels without needing an encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese culture. For example, some of the episode titles are taken from Rolling Stone songs, and specific scenes pay homage to movies like The Crow and Desperado. (The Real Folk Blues has a great list of the references in each episode. Just be careful of plot spoilers on other pages of the site.) And unlike many other series, Cowboy Bebop starts out pretty strong. The five episodes on the first DVD give you a good sense of what’s to come, and episode 5, “Ballad of Fallen Angels,” may just be the best episode in the entire series run.
Bandai’s has just released the 26-episode series in an affordable boxset (ASIN: B00102FF7U; $49.99), which makes this series a great selection for personal and library collections. The series is also readily available in video stores and via services like Netflix. If you’re interested in investigating anime, you won’t find many better places to start.