Cowboy Bebop is a well-regarded classic series that can hold its own against modern anime. Greater than the sum of its parts, it is definitely something that people should experience. At first blush it looks like a bit of a mishmash of an action/adventure/slice of life show with a solid dose of drama. In reality, it’s a very focused character drama with wild things swirling about it. I must say that it’s an interesting experience to revisit Cowboy Bebop with some friends close to 20 years after I had first seen it… it originally aired in 1998.
Purpose: Very Good
The challenge of Cowboy Bebop is that it looks like a mashup of a variety of genres, which hides the subtlety of what they were trying to accomplish. The anime is singularly focused on showing the viewer the characters. Everything else – the world, the plot, and the story all are designed to provide the context for them. This realization will bring clarity to how each of the design elements are interconnected and makes sense of the wild ride we’re presented.
Having just said Cowboy Bebop is about the characters is actually a tiny bit misleading. The characters don’t really develop much over the course of the anime. How they are at the beginning is pretty much how they are at the end – the way they act, the decisions they make, and so on. They’re built solidly and presented consistently throughout the different adventures we see them take part in. However, the subtlety of the show is that while the characters don’t change, your understanding of the characters changes. There’s plenty of stories in the show that diverge on wild tangents, but with each new experience the viewer’s knowledge of the character increases. That’s what makes Cowboy Bebop’s characters so very memorable – you actually get to know them in complex ways.
The setting is also a bit of a mashup of a future sci-fi world/bits of the present/western… it isn’t enough to simply call it a space-western. There are lots of interesting concepts that are barely touched upon in the show, often eclipsed or de-emphasized by the inclusion of many “modern world” elements. This ended up minimizing the impact of the background upon the viewer, which was, surprisingly, not jarring and not a bad thing. The decision to minimize the background had the effect of highlighting and emphasizing the characters more by preventing the viewer from becoming distracted by the odd elements of the world.
One of the weak points of Cowboy Bebop is the plot. While there’s a vague, loosely connected undercurrent that leads to the final few episodes, they aren’t solidly connected. This locks Cowboy Bebop into a very episodic format – the plots are limited to each episode. Unfortunately, because the plots are so short, this makes the events seem a bit rushed or jarring – things happen without too much buildup.
Due to the challenges in the plot, the storytelling isn’t able to shine as much as it should. With the narrative leaps, many scenes lose some of their emotional impact for the viewer. This creates an odd effect – while viewers may or may not necessarily feel anything about the events, the viewer can certainly understand how and what the characters are feeling. It ends up making it almost a bit of an academic exercise. That said, it doesn’t undermine what’s happening – it just grants it a bit of a distant feel, as though you’re an observer to these events instead of involved in these events.
The pace is a bit odd. It has both a whiplash and a slow-burn feel at the same time. Due to the nature of the plot, each episode ends up being very fast-paced, even when there’s not a whole lot going on. At the same time, where the anime ultimately goes ends up being slower – you get tiny pieces of what’s to come early on, although it takes a while to get there. When things ultimately happen, it’s again at a breakneck pace. Ultimately, it’s a little odd, but finishes well.