What do an ex-cop with an artificial arm, an ex-hitman with a mean martial-arts gift, an amnesiac con artist with a gambling problem, a slightly wacko hacker and an artificially-intelligence-enhanced dog have in common? These characters—Jet Black, Spike Spiegel, Faye Valentine, “Radical” Edward Wong and Einstein the Welsh Corgi—all fly together on a ship called the BeBop, traveling about the occupied areas of the Solar System chasing down bounties in order to pay for their next meal.
On the surface, Cowboy BeBop looks like most sci-fi anime, with stylized characters, futuristic tech, spaceships and settlements on other planets; but at the same time not, as those settlements tend to look like third world countries, the ships look very used and ugly, billboards hang in space and the heroes are as likely to fight their bounties with fists and feet as with guns. And for a program about futuristic bounty hunters, an awful lot of strange and funny things that have nothing to do with bounties tend to happen to them… they’re not the most successful at their trade, and they eat a lot of cheap noodles for sustenance. In other words, the crew of the BeBop seem a lot like normal people.
And maybe science fiction needs more people like them.
When you see this series, the first thing that might occur to you is that it seems to share a lot of its DNA with Firefly, the short-lived live-action series by Joss Whedon that mixed sci-fi and western idioms, somehow successfully. Cowboy Bebop has that same sensibility: Worlds created out of necessity, not financed by deep pockets. The science, too, is largely taken at face value: No one bothers to explain the spacefaring “highways” that bridge the distance between planets and compress a months-long journey into one of a few days. Nor the telecasts that seem to be available and immediately current, wherever they are in the Solar System. But there they are… just sit down and watch.
The world of Cowboy Bebop feels like ours, but more spread out. It feels natural. It looks lived-in and gritty. People don’t act like they are part-android, or ride Taun-Tauns from place to place. They act like you and your next-door neighbors, going to work, hanging out, drinking and playing cards, getting in trouble, trying to avoid trouble and occasionally doing pratfalls as they hustle to dodge trouble. You know. Real life.
It also has great action and drama (hey, they are bounty hunters, after all), sometimes tense, sometimes hilarious. The main characters all have somewhat damaged pasts, but are randomly brought together out of circumstance to eke out a living together on the BeBop. They are by no means paragons of virtue, but they feel authentic enough that you want them to succeed… even though you know they won’t always win, or even break even.
Fortunately, the writing and direction are as good as the animation on this series: Too many anime series fall short in one (or all) of these areas, leaving shows that (for me, anyway) are difficult-to-impossible to watch for more than a few episodes… or a few minutes. Cowboy BeBop is a pleasure to watch, every second, and all the main characters (and even the few semi-regulars, like the old men playing cards) are entertaining.
Unfortunately, the series only lasted for 26 episodes, plus a feature-length film (again, recalling the short run of Firefly and the subsequent movie, Serenity), making it one of the shorter-lived gems in anime. Other original stories were also printed, and they share a high quality of illustration, but not quite as high as the animated material.
I’d hate to suggest that we’re lucky we got what we did from Cowboy BeBop, that even a little perfection is better than none at all. But I can’t. I loved the series so much, I still yearn to see new episodes and find out what trouble the crew of the BeBop have gotten into next.
And I really do wish we had more series like this, especially to show people who wonder what’s the big deal about sci-fi. BeBop is a series that anyone can enjoy, and not feel like they’re watching weird kiddie-stuff and stupid aliens. This is real drama, comedy, tragedy, adventure and fun. This is good TV.
If you haven’t seen Cowboy BeBop, I cannot urge you enough to find it, on DVD, online, in TV reruns, anywhere you can. And enjoy yourself.