On paper, Cowboy Bebop, the legendary cult anime series from Shinichirō Watanabe, reads like something John Wayne, Elmore Leonard, and Philip K. Dick came up with during a wild, all-night whiskey bender. (As Wayne famously said, “Talk low, talk slow, and … I’m not drunk you’re drunk Elmore why’s the room spinning?”)
Set in 2071, Bebop imagines a dystopian future where earth has been irrevocably damaged due to the creation of a “stargate,” forcing humans to evacuate the planet and create colonies across the solar system. The result is a galaxy of lawlessness, where crime lords rule and cops pay bounty hunters (often referred to as cowboys) to handle some of the grunt work. People drink in dive bars. Income inequality is terrible. Everyone speaks like they’re background extras in Chinatown. The show ultimately features so many cross-ranging influences and nods to other famous works it’s almost impossible to keep track. It’s Sergio Leone in a spacesuit. It’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with automatic weapons.
This confluence of cultures is what’s helped the show sustain influence over the last decade-plus. Countless filmmakers, animators, musicians—they’ve all been drawn into the orbit of Watanabe’s space-age cowboy western. Take Quentin Tarantino. The animated sequence from his 2003 film Kill Bill Vol. 1 is straight Bebop, with blood gushing out of each wound like an infinite geyser. There’s also filmmaker and future Star Wars spin-off director Rian Johnson, whose cult 2005 thriller Brick takes a good chunk of inspiration from the Japanese series, with its snappy, noir-friendly dialogue and overall sense of dread. Other famous fans of the series include the late Robin Williams, as well as science-fiction author Orson Scott Card, who wrote an essay in 2011 praising Bebop, comparing to another critically acclaimed space Western, Joss Whedon’s Firefly. (Indeed, both series have strong female characters, a melting pot of cultures, and killer soundtracks.)
This month, viewers will get to revisit—and some, with luck, discover—Watanabe’s brutal, innovative landscape when a remastered edition of Cowboy Bebop gets a much-awaited Blu-ray release. Since its first airing, the show has had an impressive trajectory, particularly for one with such humble beginnings. When it premiered in Japan in 1998, Bebop was just another unassuming anime, one that was cancelled midway through its first run. It wouldn't catch on until months later, when the first and only season was finally shown in full on Japan’s WOWOW network. The response from critics and fans may have sounded hyperbolic—the word “masterpiece” was thrown around a great deal—but the praise was justified. First-time solo director Watanabe had created a gorgeous tale of morality, romance, and violence–a dark look at the lives of outlaws that’s shot like an independent film. It was unlike anything the genre had seen before. It even approached its music differently. The show kicked off with a wormhole of a theme song, and the soundtrack moves so seamlessly through genres, from rock to country to pop to jazz to funk, it’s shocking to learn that one set of musicians is behind it all.
Like a lot of Americans, I only became aware of the series until 2001, when it began airing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. I initially (and ignorantly) brushed it aside like I had previous anime programs, thinking it all to be kids stuff a la Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon. Bebop changed my perception of the genre, as it would for other American anime newbs. The show tailored itself toward a more mature viewership, taking despair and violence head on, with a dramatic touch rarely seen in animation or even live-action TV. The show was even forward-thinking enough to include a gay couple mid-coitus, something American animated shows wouldn’t dare attempt. As Cartoon Network producer Sean Akins explains in a special features interview on the remastered edition of Bebop, Watanabe’s show “created a whole new world.” “It’s hard for me to quantify the impact that I think it has had,” he said. “It changed anime. I think people began to think about what shows would be cool. I think it redefined cool within animation, not only in Japan but in the States.”
Cool may be subjective, but it is the most apt word to describe Bebop’s lead character, Spike Spiegel. He is dashing, funny, quiet, a habitual smoker, a world-class fighter—a mix of Bruce Lee, Clint Eastwood’s “Stranger,” and an L.A. noir detective all rolled into one; a space-age samurai-cum-Marlboro Man. Cowboy Bebop is built around Spike’s backstory, which is told through flashbacks and encounters with figures from his past. In short, Spike left a noted crime syndicate under … difficult circumstances, and has been looking to settle the score ever since. Watanabe doesn’t skimp on rich backstories for Spike’s supporting characters either, including a brawny though surprisingly friendly ex-cop with a prosthetic arm; a scantily clad, amnesiac con artist; and a preteen hacker with rosy cheeks and orange hair. There’s also a dog and a beat-up Millennium Falcon-esque spaceship.
Bebop may take place in fantastical locations, but every character is grounded in human emotion. That’s one of the driving forces behind its legend, and why that legend has grown exponentially in the last 15 years. American showrunners and film directors would do well to follow Tarantino and Johnson’s lead and use Bebop as inspiration for future works. Some of the lessons are obvious: Create a compelling and emotional backstory for your stars, don’t feel pressured to do more than the story allows, and don’t let your more amusing side characters (see: Bebop’s Edward) degenerate into a Jar Jar Binks-level of buffoonery. Cowboy Bebop may not have invented these rules, but it did reaffirm them, reminding audiences that there was a place for both adult subject matter and real human stories in animation.
Today, Cowboy Bebop is still considered a watermark for crossover anime, and with a currently stalled live-action film—which was set to star Keanu Reeves as Spike—audiences will continue to return to the source material. That’s great. There’s a reason people keep rediscovering and re-watching it over and over again. The show has aged well. Its warmth and romanticism doesn’t feel cheesy or clichéd, its violence is still mildly shocking for a cartoon, its 26 episodes are perfectly paced, and, most notably, its sense of adventure still feels new and exhilarating.