One of the aspects that defines Cowboy Bebop is its episodic structure, along with the varied approaches in style to each Session. In the context of Space☆Dandy a few years back, watching Bebop now actually feels a little bit like watching an anthology piece. While Space☆Dandy certainly gave the creators a lot more room to breathe, when watching Bebop again, you can definitely tell when certain staff are on certain episodes. Big names include the main scenario writer Nobumoto Keiko, anime script heavyweights Sato Dai and Yokote Michiko, and expert storyboard artist Okamura Tensai. Hell, Speak Like a Child features a guest appearance from anime visionary Kawamori Shoji, creator of Macross.
Between saving up to buy the series’ DVDs and trying to pick up where I left off on the TV broadcast, it took me a while to actually watch through Cowboy Bebop at first. And given the lack of access to anime at the time, I ended up picking up episodes here and there that I really liked and watched them randomly, over and over again. As a result, I have only seen the show from start to finish in sequence a handful of times.
This time around, it was clear to see how the show evolved from episode to episode. The first half of the series is very aggressive in heaping on its signature hard-boiled atmosphere, while the second half cuts it a bit more loose, playing around with more comedic and conceptual episodes. It’s also during this second half where the otaku interests of the staff come fully into play with episodes like Wild Horses, which features an anachronistic appearance of the Space Shuttle Colombia; Speak Like a Child, which takes the heroes on a search for an elusive Beta tape; Toys in the Attic, which is a play on Alien; and Pierrot le Fou, which is a straight-up homage to Batman–fitting, since Sunrise worked on the animated series back in the day.
When I was younger I thought the show was a bit more balanced in how it dished out the content, but now I can clearly see that this impression came about due to the staggered nature in which I watched the series. Watching it now, I feel some of the more hard-boiled episodes could have been mixed in near the end, but at the same time watching the creators evolve and delve into more experimental territory as the series progresses is satisfying in its own right.
Needless to say, there is a lot going on the 26 episodes of Cowboy Bebop. Like any good album, each Session hits me in a different way depending on when I watch them and what mood I’m in. This time around, the following selections stood out.
Honky Tonk Women
Before embarking on this viewing of Cowboy Bebop, Honky Tonk Women was not an episode that immediately sprung to mind as one of the stand-outs. And while it isn’t, I can appreciate how it basically cemented the main tone of the show following the tragic first episode and light-hearted second episode, offering up what would become Bebop’s signature mix of action, comedy and tight storytelling. Setting-wise as well, it jumps from Chinese backstreets, an orbital casino, and into space, perfectly exemplifying what a mish-mash the show is. And hey, it’s the first appearance of self-proclaimed “Romani” Faye Valentine. The scene where she’s howling on the toilet is a classic.
In past viewings, I really liked Black Dog Serenade among all the Jet episodes–mainly because it was ferociously violent and gory. While that episode is still great, as an up-and-coming grizzled older guy, Ganymede Elegy hits differently now. Yeah, it’s sappy–but it’s a distinct oyaji brand of sappy that goes down smooth like vintage Suntory whiskey. Both Ganymede Elegy and Black Dog Serenade are different sides of the same oyaji coin, with Elegy tapping into the more emotional side of things. The desperately human nature of Rhint and Alisa’s relationship hits the right sentimental notes, and the circumstances around Jet and Alisa’s separation are sure to strike the nerves of any family-neglecting salaryman on his way back home on the last train. It’s also the kind of story that would make for a good Omokage Lucky Hole song.
Pierrot le Fou
When I was younger Pierrot le Fou enchanted me with its insane violence and unique sense of style. This time around, the style caught me more. With its unique approach, Pierrot le Fou is probably one of the only episodes that feels like it could sit comfortably with some Space☆Dandy episodes (minus the gore, I suppose) with its stark color palette and uneasy minimal background music. Content-wise, it also almost feels like a warm-up for the finale–with Spike rushing to throw away his life and all–but since it’s in the middle of the series, they’re allowed to be playful. And hey, it’s one of the few times you get to see Spike enjoying himself outside of the Bebop. He’s playing billiards in this one!
Jupiter Jazz (Part 1)
The Jupiter Jazz two-parter is good because it demonstrates how fragile the relationships are between the broken adults residing on the Bebop. It takes time and really explores the loneliness and weakness of the characters, and how these anxieties get them into trouble. While Part 2 is very story-heavy and the animation is quite workmanlike, Part 1 is oozing with atmosphere and amazing production. The warm tones of Gren’s apartment, the bitter-cold blues of Callisto, and the cramped, smokey coziness of the dimly-lit Rester House makes this one of the most palpable episodes of anime ever. Let’s not forget the action animation, either–the brawl in the alleyway between Spike and all those thugs is pure sakuga magic.
The first episode of Bebop is what sold me on the series. It’s the perfect pilot. Its 24 minutes encompass the key qualities of the series that I love–a grungy atmosphere, cavalier violence, a low-key sense of humor, and, of course, tragedy. Asteroid Blues is the complete package, and excellently kicks off the series. Parts that stick out to me specifically are the fact that it’s the only episode with an overt South American-inspired setting, and that it’s the only episode that features Spike and Jet before they meet the rest of the cast. I could honestly go for a few bonus episodes with just the two of them. This is also why I love Jigen Daisuke no Bohyou.
Speak Like a Child
There was never a time when Speak Like a Child didn’t hit me. However, as an adult, it hits with more nuance–right from the opening scene of Faye losing at the horse races. Everything about the episode shines a light on how mundane and roundabout adult life can be, with the main story of the episode focusing on Spike and Jet’s extensive search for the elusive Beta player. For a Faye episode it doesn’t have much Faye in it, but it’s a good one that really explores her weaknesses and pokes holes in her cold exterior–something anyone can relate to after entering full-on adulthood. The end strikes like a lightning bolt, bringing to mind times when you find yourself recalling the few fleeting moments of your youth–when your whole life was ahead of you. It also brings to mind those times when you find yourself wondering how you got to where you are now.
Except Faye can’t remember. She can’t remember anything.
I tear up every goddamn time. I’m tearing up writing this.
When you get to Cowboy Funk, you realize that Bebop has more or less let go of any pretentions of being hard-boiled, and just wants to whip its dick out. Cowboy Funk is one of the few episodes that deeply explores the goofy and childish side of Spike, really bringing his stupidity to the forefront by putting him against an adversary who is 10 times more stupid than he is. Cowboy Andy is an amazing character, defined by his weird broken English and out-dated sense of style that he is ardently devoted to. The Teddy Bomber is also a great foil for both Spike and Andy. He wants to make a bold statement to society, which ultimately falls on the deaf ears of the absent-minded public–the absent-minded public being Spike and Andy, who feel it is more important to settle the score between themselves, rather than catch the bounty right in front of their eyes. The Dirty Pair-level of property damage just seals the deal.
Ballad of Fallen Angels
The precision to which Ballad of Fallen Angels is put together is astounding. As a kid, this episode felt like a whole movie to me. While as an adult I can tell that it is indeed a 20-some-minute episode of anime, the manner in which the story develops and coveys complex plot beats with very little explanation is astounding, even today. And man, that artistry–this is one of the best looking episodes of the series. The final battle in the church is still one of the most exciting and visceral moments I’ve ever seen put to celluloid. The tension as Spike aims at the mobster holding Faye hostage. The showdown in front of the stained glass. The montage as Spike falls. It’s stuff you rarely see done well in anime, or anywhere else. Of course, the episode ends with a joke about Faye being a lousy singer, bringing it all back.
Hard Luck Woman
The Faye episodes always hit with their perfect mix of humor and sorrow. But Hard Luck Woman is also an Ed episode–and the only episode about her that really dives into who she is as person. Hard Luck Woman confronts the weird parts of being human. With Faye, it looks at how those memories you may have forgotten may not actually be what you are looking for. In Faye’s case, nothing is there at all. On the flipside, by reconnecting with her roots, Ed finds the courage to proceed on her own path. While the episode is known for its big musical number at the end featuring Steve Conte, on the whole it’s a very subtle episode that touches upon the complexities of trying to find yourself and move forward in life. But hey, hearing Conte belt out “EASE MY MIND, REASONS FOR ME TO FIND YOUUU” while Spike and Jet chow down on hard boiled eggs also hits hard, too.
Honorable Mention: Toys in the Attic
This one and Cowboy Funk were both in the running for the Dumbest Episode of the Series Award. But I think Toys in the Attic–or Yamiyo no Heavy Rock as it is known in Japanese–beats it. I mean, all the characters get owned because Spike left some food in the fridge. That’s fucking genius. Also, this is the episode that really exemplifies how everyone on the Bebop is just a self-centered asshole. I love it.
I’m sure if I sit down with Bebop again in a few years, a different arrangement of episodes will hit me in different ways. But the selections I have here are what really stuck with me this time around.
The ending of Cowboy Bebop is also without a doubt fantastic, and I will dive into that in the next installment of this series.
To Be Continued