UK TV review: Cowboy Bebop
Ned Newberry | On 01, Nov 2016
Praise the sun! Cowboy Bebop is streaming in the UK. For those who’ve been living under a rock, Cowboy Bebop is a cult anime set in the distant future, where interstellar travel is common place. The series follows a group of bounty hunters in their often-wacky adventures – think Firefly by way of film noir. Yeah it’s an anime and that may be enough to put people off, but despite its sci-fi setting, Cowboy Bebop is one of the most grounded anime around. The people depicted in this story don’t wear space suits, except when they’re out in space. The show’s aesthetic is the same used future that made the original Star Wars trilogy so credible. Space ships creak and groan, due to years of use, and Earth has been long abandoned, surrounded by a plethora of broken satellites.
The character design is incredible: director Shinichirô Watanabe’s leading man, Spike Spiegel, is cooler than a Nicolas Winding Refn film set in Shoreditch. He’s the epitome of the 80s style that proliferates the galaxy: Spike wears a blue suit, Wham! style, he smokes copious amounts of cigarettes and carries himself with an air of complete indifference. Yet, from the get-go, there’s a mystery to Spike’s past, which, if you stick around long enough, is worth finding out. Spike’s partner Jet has a metal arm and he used to be a cop. Why isn’t he anymore and what happened to his arm? Faye Valentine is the femme fatale, infamous throughout the galaxy and not because of her card-playing skills. Finally, there’s Edward; she (yes, she) is a child prodigy in hacking and is completely insane. Oh, and don’t forget their super intelligent dog, Ein.
These characters come together and travel around the solar system in the Bebop – a hunk-of-junk space cruiser that gives the Millennium Falcon and Serenity a run for their money. They chase down bounties and it usually ends in failure, but their dysfunctional escapades are as funny as they are thrilling. This is aided by the dubbed English vocals, which are actually the best way for English speakers to watch Cowboy Bebop – a rare thing for an anime. While the entire cast is competent, the highlight has to be Steve Blum. Now a legend in the voice acting community, some may know him as the voice of Cartoon Network’s Toonami, but he’s been in nearly every voice role there is. It’s not hard to see why: he sounds like an auto-tuned James Earl-Jones.
But the show isn’t all hijinks and space nonsense: there’s a deep, central story arc that’s slowly drip fed to the audience over the course of 26 episodes. At its core, Cowboy Bebop is a mob drama about love and betrayal. No mob story would be complete without a killer soundtrack and this is Cowboy Bebop’s ace in the hole. Living up to its name, the soundtrack bounces between both new and old styles of jazz and whether it’s the opening theme, Tank! by Seatbelts, or Shītoberutsu, a Japanese ‘space jazz’ band, or The Real Folk Blues beautifully sung by band leader Yoko Kanno over the credits, you could put the show on in the background just to listen to the score.
Of course it goes without saying that the quality of the animation is absolutely breathtaking, especially given it was released in 1998. The distinct aesthetic style of Bebop is so good it could have been rendered in monochrome and still look a treat, but that would rob viewers of the gorgeous colour palette. The slick animation is put to excellent use, depicting visceral gun fights worthy of Michael Mann, kung-fu brawls and aerial dog fights.
Cowboy Bebop is a far more accessible place to start watching anime than other offerings. Watanabe released another series called Samurai Champloo, which exchanges Bebop’s mix of space Western and jazz for samurai and hip-hop. But Cowboy Bebop remains the superior story and anyone who’s watched it will sing its praises until mankind leaves the planet en-masse, because then they’d live it for real. Cowboy Bebop’s world is so credible and its characters are so intriguing that it merits several viewings to take it all in and those viewings are now possible.
So do yourself a favour: pour yourself a scotch and enjoy one of the biggest cult sci-fi classics of the 90s, worthy of a place in the pantheon of Firefly and Star Trek. By episode five, you’ll be absolutely hooked.
Cowboy Bebop: Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on All 4.