Future Blues 2020 — Session 1: A Personal History With Bebop

It’s an understatement to say Cowboy Bebop is a “big show.” To a generation of anime fans, Bebop was instrumental in nurturing their love of the medium–myself included. While it was one of the first anime I watched that helped ignite my fandom, I find that there is still nothing else quite like it. And watching it again now, I can see so much more.

Bebop has been a part of my life for so long that I found it was time to finally collect my thoughts on the show. In my, uh, “storied” history of writing about anime as a hobby, the last time I wrote about Bebop was likely when I was 13-years-old on a tiny little site that doesn’t exist anymore.

As such, with Future Blues 2020, I want to go back through Cowboy Bebop. I want to try and get to the bottom of why it still pushes my buttons, and what it means to me today.

I hope you enjoy the ride.

Bebop as an Awkward Teen

I hail from what many phrase as the “Toonami Generation” of anime fans. While I had always loved animation from a young age, weirdly enough in the late 1990s–when anime hit US airwaves in a big way–I was quite down on Japanese cartoons. But given the maturing popularity of properties like Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon, it was almost natural that some friends of mine at the time insisted that I watch these strange foreign cartoons because they “own,” or something. As with many other fans at the time, this snowballed into becoming a devotee of the Toonami lineup, and eventually Adult Swim. However, my first encounter with Cowboy Bebop was stumbling across this trailer in the extras for the first Outlaw Star DVD.

The trailer is pretty cheesy in retrospect, but at the time I was immediately captivated by the visual design, music, and atmosphere. Upon watching it, I fired up my 56k modem with haste and scoured the Anime Web Turnpike and other sources for information on the show. Alongside having the ending spoiled for me–as was par for the course back in the day–I stumbled across news that the show would be running on TV, on the then-new Adult Swim programming block on Cartoon Network. After checking my local listings, I set my VCR to record the first episode of the show on Sunday September 2nd, 2001. I watched that first episode over 100 times.

If memory serves, the show hit a snag in its broadcast due to 9/11, and I was only able to watch the first four episodes on TV until it was cut, along with the “new” episodes of Dragon Ball Z and the original Mobile Suit Gundam. In lieu of the TV airing, I saved up my allowance to purchase the first 2 DVDs, which saw regular play in my parents’ basement for weeks on end. After a time, word around the campfire was that the show had come back on TV, and had started running daily on weeknights. I taped each episode religiously until the show reached its end.

From then, I became a devoted fan. I joined message boards. I drew fanart. I even helped run a fansite for the show that never quite got off the ground (but the blog you are reading now is hosted on the same server–eternal thanks to my server admin for his years of kind service).

In short, Cowboy Bebop is extremely personal to me, shaping my tastes and aesthetics for years to come. As such, diving back into it nearly 15 years later was extremely difficult. Over the years, I was worried if I would still like the show if I were to watch it again, or if it would simply remain a pleasant memory. Also, given that I had seen several episodes of it over and over again, I worried I would not find much new in a revisit to the series.

Well, it took a pandemic, but eventually I found the time to sit down and burn through the whole series and the film on Netflix. Yes, it took a global health crisis for me to finally break down and ask my dad for the password to the family Netflix account.

Bebop as a Salaryman & Jaded Millennial

So, is Cowboy Bebop Still Good?

Yes, I am happy to report that it indeed is Still Good. However, watching it as a “grizzled” adult in their 30s who has seen and experienced way more since my last viewing as a teen, I was able to pick up a lot more this time around.

One thing in particular that dawned on me is how dysfunctional and selfish all the adult members of the cast are. Watching Bebop as a kid, all the characters seemed pretty calm, cool, and collected to me. Now that I am older than a majority of the cast, it was refreshing to see how aggressively flawed they are. You know, like real adults.

As a teen going through puberty–and especially as an otaku who didn’t leave the house much–a lot of what happened in the anime I consumed seemed other-worldly, and acted as an escape from whatever mental stress I was going through at the moment. Same with Bebop–it was just a fantastic story to me, with top-notch production values and style that made it a cut above the rest. If anything, the one anime with characters I could relate to the most was Neon Genesis Evangelion–unsurprising, given the age of the primary cast. Watching it again, while Bebop remains a fantastic sci-fi show, I can connect with the characters on a deeper level now–beyond just that of “a bunch of ‘cool’ adults.”

As an adult, I can sympathize more with the cast and their struggles, as well as the world they live in. While Bebop is set in the far-flung future (well, one that is scarily gradually approaching…) where humanity has “conquered” the stars, the rampant inequality and systematic corruption have striking parallels to the real world, especially among the police and government. While touched upon more in the film, the manner in which the military is also portrayed as corrupt helps to paint a stark reality that grounds the series more so than outlandish contemporaries like Trigun and Outlaw Star. While Bebop doesn’t dive super deep into the politics of its world, the care it takes in actually depicting these details and weaving them into its various tales really struck me this time around.

And it’s pretty weird how the situation the characters are in mirrors the current situation a lot of millennials have been in for the past decade and change. Hell, looking at where we are now in 2020, I wouldn’t be in surprised if Bebop is actually an accurate picture of where humanity will be in about 50 years. Every crew member on the Bebop is making their living in a shoe-string gig economy, and since no-one can afford to stay in one place by themselves, they have no choice but run together. As a kid I simply thought, “okay yeah, they’re the main characters, so they all gotta live on the same space ship,” but now that I can comprehend each of the character’s motivations and agendas on a deeper level, the fact that they are all reluctant roommates really hits home.

Aside from the world and the characters, with more anime under my belt, I was also able to pick out how just anime-influenced Bebop is. Watching it as a kid, Bebop was the show you picked up because it was different from all that other “anime”… and by “anime” I mean the stuff that was on TV, like Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing, and Sailor Moon.

I became a Lupin fan after seeing Bebop, and after years of digging into the Lupin world (still not that deep though… I really need to see Part II to the end) the Lupin connection was immediately obvious. Yeah, Bebop is far more nuanced, but the roles are filled in quite well, with the wildcard character of Goemon being filled by Ed. Yeah, design-wise Vicious draws from Goemon, but you know what I mean. The episodic structure of the show also harkens back to the Sunrise classic Dirty Pair… as well as the show’s cavalier approach to collateral damage in select episodes.

The show definitely wears its non-anime influences from cinema and the world of music on its sleeve, but it is still definitely Japanese Animation. I think a lot of fans in the west like to hold Bebop up as something super different from typical Japanese animation, but looking at it now, I think something like Bebop could only be made because it’s Japanese Animation created by a bunch of otaku media junkies. While drawing heavily from a wide pool of global pop-culture ephemera, the structures and approaches it utilizes are strictly that of Japanese animation–and that’s what really makes it unique. Much like the music of Pizzicato Five, it’s a beautiful mishmash of influences run through the precise and finely-tuned filters developed by years of Japanese entertainment.

Cowboy Bebop: What was at first a mark of snootiness in my anime lexicon as a teen has now become a cathartic experience, helping me reflect on what is happening to myself and my friends in the world right now. At the same time, what was originally something that stood out to me as unique Japanese animation turned out to be one of the most otaku-driven pieces of animation I could ever imagine.

Yet, it still remains one of a kind.

In 50 years, when I’m 80-years-old and going senile at a retirement home on Mars, perhaps what is shown in Bebop will become reality… Time will tell.

To Be Continued

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