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I See You, Space Cowboy...
By Nadia Oxford
October 18, 2007
As a warm-blooded human being who considers herself an anime fan, the gravest sin I've committed is--get ready for this--depriving myself of Cowboy Bebop. Hallelujah I have seen the light and atoned for my error, and it's about damn time. Cowboy Bebop is possibly the greatest piece of work in the genre and is most definitely one of the most remarkable works of animation available today.
Why have I put off watching Cowboy Bebop until now? Because I have a tendency to do dumb things like sit in with friends who are watching the last episodes of epic anime series. I did this with Trigun, I did it with The Big O, and I did it a long time ago with Cowboy Bebop. Of course, all three of these series have, uh, special endings, so I didn't do myself any favours by watching them in reverse.
Spoiled ending or not, I can still say that Keiko Nobumoto's space-faring adventure is a masterpiece. When an anime fan hops in circles around people's ankles and starts yipping about how this title and that title are "Sooooo awesome," most non-fans respond with "Yeah yeah," and often follow with a swift kick. The problem with any genre of entertainment, anime included, is that it can be difficult to find titles that include everyone. Everyone loves The Exorcist and recognises it as a great film,but only a horror fan is going to bother with Saw XVIII or The Hills Have Eyes XXXIII. I loved Sailor Moon when I was a kid and appreciated the history behind the characters; my father, on the other hand, had no idea why the hell I was watching some badly drawn cartoon full of goofy monsters.
Cowboy Bebop is a rare piece of entertainment that includes everyone, partially because it mixes so many genres and themes without turning the anime into a car wreck. The story's main character is Spike Spiegel, a nice Jewish boy from Mars. Spike is a bounty hunter who glides through the vacuum of space in his trusty ship The Bebop, picking up criminals in hopes of earning enough money to eat. Along the way he also picks up a hell of a cast of characters.
Anime is oversaturated with space operas but Cowboy Bebop's presentation is unmatched. It presents a science fiction world that isn't loaded down with jargon: There aren't any blustery attempts to impress the viewer with the technology of the future. But at the same time a great deal of care is put into the universe's biology. Shoddy contract work on an interplanetary jump-gate caused the Earth's moon to explode and the resulting meteor shower wiped out most of Earth's population, forcing humans to terraform and live on other planets, moons and asteroids. The process wasn't as clean as most science fiction makes it out to be: Venus, for example, relies on certain plant life to put oxygen in the atmosphere, but the plants produce spores that can make inhabitants sick.
Despite the futuristic setting, Cowboy Bebop isn't full of moon people with two heads. Human life as we know it today continues to exist: There's poverty-stricken planets, colonies for the wealthy elite and a few, admittedly strange, surprises. But for the most part, once Spike lands on a planet to do his thing the atmosphere purposely takes on the feel of a spaghetti Western, pitting the hero (who usually opts to fight using martial arts) against the various desperados who thrive in the lawless galaxy. Spike's job, in fact, is one of the most endearing qualities of the series: Instead of reading names and faces on intergalactic post office "Wanted" signs, he (and the galaxy's other 300,000 bounty hunters) gets his jobs from a "Big Shots", a bounty hunter TV program done up in the style of a children's show. The hosts, a heavily accented Mexican and a big-breasted anime female stereotype, are outfitted in old-fashioned cowboy outfits and even spew some mangled lingo ("Shucks, howdy!"). Cowboy Bebop is made special by its characters and these dozens of fun-loving details rather than the overall plot.
The soundtrack also sets the anime apart. Performed by Yoko Kanno and The Seatbelts, the show's funky mix of jazz and blues makes for something far more distinctive than the techno J-pop that tends to come packaged with most anime. Cowboy Bebop's music is actually tailored around its action and its characters with the kind of loving care not seen since classic Bugs Bunny cartoons or Batman: The Animated Series. Several episodes are even named after famous songs, as is the movie based on the series, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."
Cowboy Bebop isn't reserved for anime fans, cartoon nuts or sci-fi freaks: It's for anyone who loves a damn good story put together by people who give a damn about quality. That's everyone, right? "You betchya, shucks howdy!"