The life-changing series Cowboy Bebop celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, and after two decades it remains as the most influential anime of all time.
Anime has been around as a medium since the 1960’s, offering us glimpses at the wonders of visual art in conjunction with storytelling. Whether comedy, action, or even something extremely dark and dramatic, anime continues to provide us with a unique form of art that can influence people and other’s artistry for years to come. The anime series Cowboy Bebop originally aired on April 3, 1998 in Japan (and came to the US that October) as a thrilling space adventure with heart that viewers had never experienced from movies, television or other anime as a whole.
Cowboy Bebop is a 26 episode series following a stoic bounty hunter named Spike Spiegel who radiates strength and skill, yet exudes a softer side that has the makings of a perfect protagonist. Spike’s back story surfaces throughout the run of the anime, but the bounty hunter has a complex past that involves a tainted relationship and complicated ‘work’ dynamics through a crime syndicate with an overarching story. Spike’s friend-turned-rival Vicious offers a look at the direction Spike’s character could have taken, instantly providing the series with two opposite forces doomed to collide.
In addition to Spike is a group that brings together several unlikely allies including the former police officer Jet, an amnesiac stricken hustler named Faye and a genius young hacker named Ed – along with the adorably brilliant canine companion Ein. Together the group makes a complete team but more importantly, a solid family unit. One of the traits that resonates to this day is the importance of those budding relationships. As a family theme appears from time to time (Faye’s story line is both beautiful and heartbreaking) you’ll begin to see that even though their connections with others are strained or lost, the bond they’ve formed with each other through shared experiences is a reminder that family isn’t always defined by blood.
Bebop is supposed to take place in the far off future of 2071, but despite us being over 50 years from then and 20 years since it first aired, there is a crystal clear timeless factor that it achieves. Even after manufacturing a strong group plot, each character goes through trials and tribulations that really puts them to the test. It presents a heavy reminder that even though you have the love and support of others, there are certain moments in life that you must face head on by yourself. Sometimes it comes in the form of decisions that need to be made like Ed finding her father, or perhaps it can be confronting the realization that the life you had before is gone and it’s solely up to you to build anew like Faye, Jet and Spike experience.
The series includes mass acts of terrorism, warring populations, and space exploration which draws parallels to issues like ISIS stemming from the war with Iraq or the constant developments from NASA and SpaceX that aim to land people on Mars in the future. Other enduring inclusions showcase the fearful reach of the internet or even the significance of natural disasters. Aside from the setting that eerily relates to our world and the climate of society, the true timeless lessons from Cowboy Bebop are derived from that deep level of humanity that sticks with you for years after witnessing it.
Going back to my first memories of the series, I was a child discovering my first anime series and so clearly remember how I felt watching these four characters that embraced every range of emotion we can go through. The pain of loss, the uncertainty of life, or even the bittersweet joy of growth that can relate to people of any age. Now, watching from an adult’s perspective, (along with most of the fans of the series) it only flourishes with age when you notice these narrative nuances introducing subjects that come with maturity and acknowledgement of mortality.
Each episode offers unique stories that play a massive role in the character’s lives and development, ending with “see you space cowboy…” providing its viewers with a reminder that there will be more to come. In the series final and emotionally draining chapter, it ends with a different quote, “you’re gonna carry that weight” which couldn’t be a more appropriate phrase to end on. After 26 episodes, you feel like you know these characters lives so well and their importance is undeniable, but like the quote suggests, these experiences will leave an impact. While some may view the conclusion as grimly sensible, series creator Shinichiro Watanabe has repeatedly suggested that Spike’s story isn’t actually complete and is merely closing that chapter of his life – a beautiful concept that brings more meaning to the final quote and the Bebop’s unwritten future.
Everything from the jazz music selection by renowned composer Yoko Kanno, to the animation quality, or more importantly the incomparable writing by Shinichiro Watanabe proves that Bebop is more than just an anime. To refer to it as cult classic or as one of the best examples of anime just doesn’t do the series justice, because Cowboy Bebop is not only the best anime of all time, but will remain heavily influential for years to come. In fact, by the time 2071 rolls around, I have no doubt in my mind that we will still be talking about its excellence.