Cowboy Bebop first aired from April 3 to June 26 in 1998, and two decades later, it’s still one of the greats. Compete staffer Eric Van Allen started up a rewatch of the show and inspired all of the Cowboy Bebop fans on Kotaku and Compete’s staff to reminisce about this foundational and groundbreaking anime.
Maddy Myers: GREATEST SHOW OF ALL TIME. Suck it, Firefly. First of all, shout-out to Faye for making suspenders sexy. Other people have tried before and since, but she’s the original.
Ethan Gach: I’ll credit The Fifth Element with bringing them back, but Faye for making them look not silly.
Maddy: Second of all, every song rocks. Cowboy Bebop is the perfect example of going back to revisit something that you were obsessed with as a kid, except instead of the sad ending where you realize that it sucked, you get to have the best possible experience, which is realizing that it was always just as good as you remembered, if not even better.
Eric Van Allen: It seriously improves with age. The more jaded you are, the better it gets. As a kid: this action anime sure has a lot of sad moments. As an adult: this anime about sad people sure has a lot of action.
Maddy: What ages did we all get really into Cowboy Bebop? My friends and I were all obsessed with it in high school, but I know all of you are younger than I am, so maybe it started earlier for you. Were you all edgy middle schoolers?
Eric: I got a TV in my room around 5th grade, and I would secretly watch Adult Swim at almost zero volume, so that was probably around the time I first saw it. I think I had a vague nostalgia for the intro and style most of my life, but didn’t really get into it until college, when I rewatched it for the first time.
Gita Jackson: I was a CHILD. My brother was teaching me to pirate anime from IRC, so he showed me Bebop. I was like…. 10. When I finished the show, I laid in my parents’ bed and cried.
Ethan: I watched in middle school, found out I wasn’t the only one who liked it during high school, and then went around with a picture I drew of Spike tapped onto my agenda (was my school the only one with agendas?). I actually saw screenshots from the last couple episodes first by accident when using AOL dot com to search for anime to draw. That was a mind fuck.
Maddy: Heh, I remember very slowly downloading a sexy wallpaper of Faye from some fan website back then... it used to be so hard to crush on anime hotties. The kids today, they don’t even know! Anyway, when I first watched it, the unanswered questions of the show bothered me more. I wanted more information about everyone. But as an adult, I’m like... no. It’s perfect. Leave it mysterious. The length is just right.
Eric: It was like, the first “adult” anime I ever saw. Up until that point, it was all DBZ and Gundam. Outlaw Star was maybe the closest. But Bebop had this air of too cool, mature stuff. Again, this is really telling on the age I watched it at first.
Gita: I would always wait until no one was home to watch it, because it felt like I was doing such an adult thing. It’s remarkable that the storytelling is so strong and nuanced, but it still appeals to like, literal actual children.
Maddy: Bebop was definitely the show that you would cite to your friends who thought anime was just “kids’ cartoons.” I don’t know if it worked, but i was constantly using it to try to convince people anime was actually cool.
Gita: Revisiting certain episodes as an adult, especially “Pierrot Le Fou,” which is just a masterpiece, you see the references to other mediums they were making, but it’s amazing how they take all the disparate parts and make them into a whole new thing.
Eric: Yes! “Pierrot” is so good. “Mushroom Samba, “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Jupiter Jazz.” It’s incredible how good each episode is on its own.
Ethan: Every time I watch Archer, I’m always disappointed the opening credits aren’t actually Cowboy Bebop’s.
Maddy: Do you guys ever wave goodbye to someone without turning around? Because... I do... sometimes.
Eric: Waving like Spike? The ultimate walking away like a badass move. All of Spike’s mannerisms are so cool. If you watch the fight scenes even nowadays, the animations are so fluid and detailed. Spike is probably the most likable protagonist in anime – just putting that out there.
Gita: Did anyone else desperately want to fuck Spike, or was that just me?
Maddy: The whole structure of the show feels like something that has been copied a billion times since, and never as well. Firefly is the obvious parallel but there’s so much else about the show that just feels like it’s been watered down by other media and video games since.
Gita: Firefly is bad. We can just say it. It’s a bad show.
Eric: Here we go.
Maddy: It is! And rewatching Cowboy Bebop makes Firefly worse, somehow. Or, at least, more disappointing.
Eric: These are the spicy takes I came for.
Eric: But yeah, Bebop makes any space western pale in comparison.
Maddy: I have so many spicy Firefly takes, y’all don’t even know, but that’s not what this conversation is about.
Gita: Firefly is Joss Whedon’s worst and most obvious instance of jerking off over a female trauma victim. In Cowboy Bebop, that shit doesn’t happen.
Eric: We talked about Faye, but also, Julia is incredible. You only get to see her for a fraction of the show and every scene with her is great, especially the car chase she gets into with Faye.
Maddy: She is an incredible femme fatale. Also Ed is delightful. Not a single character is wasted. They each tilt the show slightly in a different tonal direction and keep it balanced.
Ethan: Here’s looking at you, Ein.
Maddy: It’s wild to me that the show manages to blend so many different genres without feeling overstuffed, either. It’s noir, it’s sci-fi, it’s space opera, it’s a tragicomedy, it’s a thriller... list goes on.
Eric: I mean, to be a music nerd, Bebop is all about rapid chord changes and improv. You have a set melody and then start rapidly evolving and messing with it.
Maddy: Cecilia, did you grow up watching Bebop as a kid or check it out as an adult?
Cecilia D’Anastasio: Both, honestly? I’d catch episodes every now and then as a kid and they’d blow my mind, but I never saw a full run until I was a teen and bought the box set.
Maddy: Also which characters did everyone have crushes on? Gita and Ihave already answered Spike and Faye, respectively.
Gita: I mean, I ALSO had a crush on Faye. I wanted to be Ed.
Cecilia: Yeah, I wanted to be Faye, but I crushed on Jet.
Eric: I mean unsurprisingly for me it was Julia, but Lin/Shin and the sax guy from “Jupiter Jazz” were also great.
Maddy: I think I more wanted to be Spike. As evidenced by my confession that I keep trying to wave at people like him. If only I could pull off that suit... maybe I could now.
Cecilia: Ever tried throwing a cigarette over your shoulder? Not very nice to whomever is behind you. Very cool though.
Maddy: The preponderance of popped collars in the aughts is another example of something from Cowboy Bebop getting ruined later. “Maddy, none of those frat boys were trying to imitate Spike!” Shhhh.
Ethan: So I’ll be that dude who says they totally always wanted to be Spike – cool and careless – but now, in my old age, appreciates Jet more.
Eric: Jet is great. I think he gets overlooked on the Bebop cast.
Cecilia: Spike was not clutch. Jet was clutch. I admire that in a man.
Gita: Did anyone else try to get into Kung Fu movies after Cowboy Bebop?
Maddy: I mostly just tried to get into more anime and had a lot of trouble finding stuff that I liked as much. It’s hard to compare anything to Cowboy Bebop.
Eric: Yeah, it took me a while to find more serious anime until a video clerk pointed me towards Neon Genesis Evangelion. I often think about what life would be like if he had never done that.
Cecilia: Maddy, did you watch all the stuff people tell you to watch after Bebop? Like Samurai Champloo?
Maddy: Yeah, also Wolf’s Rain was on Adult Swim when I was in high school, and people were trying to convince each other that it was good. It may have been, I just wasn’t into it.
Gita: I was completely divorced from the idea of an anime community when I watched Bebop, so I just kept trying to find more cool science fiction shows, which did lead me to Evangelion and other Gainax stuff. When you’re just grabbing what you can off IRC, you take what you can get.
Eric: Bebop, the gateway to Evangelion.
Gita: I think the show I watched after Bebop was Utena, though, and I think it’s most similar in tone to Bebop than a lot of the other shows people tell you to watch. It’s also a pastiche of a lot of genre tropes from a lot of different mediums that tries to create its own classic story.
Maddy: I do remember seeing Last Exile at my college anime club, which is at least a space opera, and getting some joy out of that. It might be bad though. I haven’t gone back.
Ethan: As someone who’s admittedly watched way less anime than everyone else here, I’ll go ahead and ask what you think makes Cowboy Bebop feel so approachable and obviously recognizable as “cinematically serious” or whatever you want to call it. I tried watching the first dozen episodes of Neon, and it is SOOOO much more anime than something like Bebop. Bebop feels like nihilistic Oscar bait at points.
Cecilia: I really don’t find Bebop super approachable honestly. It’s approachable as an anime in that it doesn’t rely on anime tropes to get across its personalities and themes, but it’s not approachable to people who have simply never seen anime. I tried to show it to my parents one night, made a big thing of it, made popcorn, popped in the DVD and we all hung out on their bed. They hated it – said it was campy and nonsensical. I think it can definitely alienate people who don’t like sci-fi.
Eric: Cowboy Bebop works because it paces itself so damn well, and also tells very human stories. A lot of anime stories try to get larger than life and miss the point amid all the power creep and spectacle. But every story in Bebop felt incredibly grounded, even if it was about deep space trucking or a kid who is actually immortal.
Maddy: Cowboy Bebop does eschew a lot of other genre and animation tropes that other anime shows rely on. it’s both a show for people who hate anime and also a show for people who love anime. There’s no huge sweat drops or prat falls, if you hate that sort of thing, which many people do.
Eric: I mean, it also borrows heavily from a lot of mediums, so anyone who likes one of those things, whether its western, noir, supernatural, mystery, etc., can find one episode they’ll get into and then the show takes it from there. And i know how this sounds but, the dub being good helps, a lot, for anime newcomers.
Cecilia: Yeah, the dub is actually good.
Ethan: Confession: I can only watch the dub.
Eric: Confession: I have never watched the sub.
Ethan: It’s the only anime I refuse to watch in the original.
Eric: It’s funny how I can hear those same voice actors everywhere, and yet they sound the most at home in Bebop.
Ethan: Spike will always be that robot from the cartoon TV station.
Gita: One thing that always surprises me about revisiting Bebop is that every time I do, the show still looks fucking amazing. The animation work on this show is phenomenal. Hasn’t aged a day.
Eric: God yes, the style of it is something else.
Maddy: Is it possible that Cowboy Bebop is too good? Is it too powerful?
Eric: Please stop praying for Cowboy Bebop, it’s getting too strong!
Cecilia: I don’t think so? It’s got flaws for sure. I actually.... hate Julia?
Cecilia: Julia feels more like a plot device than a real woman I SAID IT.
Gita: Julia is not a character. She’s a MacGuffin. Like, tell me one thing about Julia as a human being.
Cecilia: THANK YOU GITA.
Gita: Love her catsuit though.
Maddy: I mean, she’s barely in the show.
Cecilia: Yeah, but her presence looms.
Eric: She’s caring, she regrets what she’s doing, she’s a fucking badass.
Gita: Yeah, but like... what’s her last name?
Eric: I mean, what’s Ed’s last name?
Gita: Okay, you can’t do that. Ed 1) does have a last name, 2) is not a person grounded in the noir fiction of the world like Julia is. 3) Spike is like, in love with Julia and she does not have a last name. Can you imagine Julia putting on socks? Does she call her family for the holidays? There’s nothing there.
Cecilia: She’s just a foil for Spike’s character development.
Maddy: Julia exists to be Spike’s drama, yeah.
Cecilia: Remember the woman in Cowboy Bebop’s first episode on the Tijuana asteroid? The woman who hides red eye under her dress to appear pregnant? That is a CHARACTER.
Gita: Oh yes, LOVED her.
Cecilia: Honestly the show got me more attached to her in its first episode than Julia throughout the whole series.
Gita: So much more going on beneath the surface of that character than Julia, who is around.
Eric: I get what y’all are saying. Julia is basically the person that ties together the overarching narrative. There’s a scene at the end of the series where Faye and Julia take out some bad dudes together and Faye is like, “let’s team up” and honestly I would pay good money to see that show. So yeah, it’s iffy, but I love very blatant noir tropes, so I like what I like.
Maddy: I think the portrayal of Julia that we see is fractured through Spike’s own biased memories of her though. It’s part of the storytelling device. She isn’t a person and she can’t ever be, now. The whole show is about the idea of memory, too.
Cecilia: Whoa. Maddy... that is an excellent point.
Maddy: And you don’t find out a lot of answers to what really happened to most of the characters.
Cecilia: The noir tropes are so good. “Sympathy for the Devil” might be my favorite episode, and it is tropey as hell. That’s the one with the harmonica kid.
Eric: Yes, that and “Ballad of the Fallen Angels” are probably my favs.
Ethan: That’s part of why I dig the show so much. It doesn’t rely on me parsing throw-away scenes for secrets to unravel the mystery. It exists more on mood. Nothing I like more than falling asleep to some Cowboy Bebop.
Cecilia: What about Vicious?
Eric: I love Vicious as the anti-Spike, though I never got a feel for why he does what he does other than that he has a major crush on Spike that he cannot deal with.
Maddy: Vicious is another example of a character that is used very lightly but effectively. It’s more about how the characters feel about him than what he actually does when he’s physically there. It’s really just a show about the emotions and trauma of its cast of leads. There’s a dash of plot in there, but it doesn’t really matter a ton, because what drives the show forward is you caring about these characters figuring out their personal shit. At least, for me, that’s my jam with it.
Gita: Also wanted to fuck Vicious don’t @ me
Cecilia: My only feelings on Vicious are that his hair is sexy. Oh, and the ending... an afterthought.
Eric: I mean, it’s probably one of the most iconic endings in anime, right? I don’t think that’s a stretch.
Cecilia: It took me 10 years to watch Cowboy Bebop’s ending. I watched the whole show twice before I could do it. IT IS SO GOOD.
Maddy: Are we overselling the importance of the show? Is this just us, or are we 100% accurate and the show is as good as we think? I can’t tell anymore.
Eric: I’m willing to go out on a limb and say it’s one of the most important anime series ever made, but that’s just me.
Cecilia: I think it should be completely uncontroversial that Cowboy Bebop is one of the best pieces of animated media ever to have been made.
Eric: There’s just nothing else like it, and it was at a time when a lot of the anime coming to Western shores was in shonen style, very Saturday morning cartoon stuff.
Maddy: Yeah, I don’t see any of that as overstating the case. It was wildly influential and yet nothing else has ever been quite like it.
Eric: Also it had the incredible Yoko Kanno and The Seatbelts producing the soundtrack, so even audio-wise, it was leagues apart from other shows.
Cecilia: Just think about the big pan across shitty future space while the harmonica plays.
Eric: Every time I hear that first horn blast of “Tank!,” I just switch into a different gear.
Maddy: Usually if you circle back to influential media, at least for me, you find that it’s really simplistic and you realize that a lot of the iterations upon the original concept have taken it to another level or made it somehow better. But in this case... I don’t think so, and that is sad to me.
Cecilia: What iterations are you talking about?
Maddy: Well, Firefly I guess, but also basically any other show or movie with some pals in space. What if Rogue One had been more like Cowboy Bebop in literally any way? Sigh.
Gita: I think the visual aesthetics from Bebop have been disseminated into other works, but not the storytelling. Which is really a shame, because the writing in Bebop has a deft touch. It leaves just enough unsaid.
Maddy: Yeah, I agree. That gentle washes-over-you storytelling is part of what’s so wonderful about the show.
Cecilia: Like, Space Dandy is a parody of Cowboy Bebop and also a perfect show in its own right. Well, mostly perfect. Storytelling-wise it’s more like Johnny Bravo.
Eric: I love how little Bebop overtly tells you about Spike leaving the syndicate. Just flashes of memories and you have to piece together how they fit and when, where.
Maddy: If I taught TV writing, I would just show every episode of Cowboy Bebop and then dismiss the class, which I guess is why I don’t teach TV writing. Well, that, and also not having any qualifications whatsoever.
Ethan: I love shows about fuck ups
Gita: lovable* is debatable
Maddy: I’d like to thank this chat for convincing me to rewatch the show, yet again, tonight.