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.)