Cowboy Bebop & Space Jazz

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

Much like Neon Genesis: Evangelion (1995) and Serial Experiments Lain (1998), Shinichirō Watanabe’s neo-noir science space Western Cowboy Bebop (1997) is one of those cult classic animated series that both capitalized on and defined the social trends and cultural milieu of the ’90s. Cowboy Bebop is nothing if not eclectic.

The show is set in 2070, after an explosion dubbed “Astral Gate” destroys the moon and most of the Earth’s surface, leaving the planet uninhabitable. Humans then colonized the rocky planets and moons of the greater galaxy. This mass migration to space resulted in a society of disorder, individualism, and lawlessness. The Inter-Solar System Police (ISSP) responded to this growth of delinquency and criminality with a system in which bounty hunters, colloquially referred to as Cowboys, chase down criminals and bring them in alive for a monetary reward. The series follows Spike Spiegel and his crew of Cowboys as they navigate love, life, and money in this dystopian society.

Even before the show begins, it comes with a preface during the title sequence. The Cowboy Bebop Manifesto delineates the series’ intent. “Once upon a time, in New York City in 1941… at this club in Harlem open to all comers to play, young jazz men with new sense were gathering night after night,” it reads. “At last, they created a new genre itself. They are sick and tired of conventional fixed-style jazz. They are eager to play jazz more freely as they wish,” (Opening of Cowboy Bebop).

As the text goes on, the series’ lively signature theme, “Tank!” by SEATBELTS, plays. “The bounty hunters, who are gathering in the spaceship ‘BEBOP’, will play freely without fear of risky things,” the Manifesto continues. “They must create new dreams and films by breaking traditional styles. The work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called: COWBOY BEBOP” (Opening of Cowboy Bebop).

Watanabe promised a genre-bending and unconventional series with Cowboy Bebop. He wanted to distinguish anime from the fixed styles of programming and blend different areas of media and pop culture together and––like jazz––allow them to flow freely. Our main characters are a diverse group themselves. We have Spike, a former hitman, and Jet, a former ISSP officer. Throughout the first half of the series, they’re joined by Faye Valentine, amnesiac swindler; Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV, kid coding genius; and Ein, an extremely intelligent Welsh Corgi.

The show is episodic in nature, focusing more on telling particular stories in 20 minutes, which allows plotlines to have much more creative freedom. That’s one of my favorite things about it, as episodes will make unexpected detours or act as tributes to classic movies. The episode “Stray Dog Strut”, for example, starts with Spike chasing down a bounty and ends with the bounty’s hyperintelligent dog Ein joining the crew after helping Spike track him down. It’s great. At the same time, the show is entirely a reference to Western films. The first episode, “Asteroid Blues”, is a direct tribute to Robert Rodriguez’s 1995 film Desperado. It features a shootout scene in a bar in the futuristic Tijuana, with a damsel in distress that resembles Salma Hayek’s femme fatale character in the film.

In fact, tributes, references, and callbacks are part of what makes Cowboy Bebop so multifaceted, and to me, so great. “Mushroom Samba” pays homage to some of the hallmarks of the Blaxploitation Era of American film, which showcased black people in more significant roles in the ’70s. Most notably, the character Coffy largely resembles the protagonist of the film Coffy (1937) and an unnamed bounty hunter refers to himself as one of the Shaft brothers, protagonists of Shaft (1971).

Littered throughout Cowboy Bebop, there are references to Star Trek, Bruce Lee films, Beverly Hills 90210 (1990), Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, and other artists of the past. It’s the little things like this that draws me to this show. The entire anime just feels like an amalgamation of pop culture and crossovers that just make sense. The referential nature of the show is part of the space jazz genre the creators envisioned when creating the series. It ties into the series’ general theme of trying to escape your past but continually being haunted by it.

In this way, jazz and Cowboy Bebop fit together perfectly. From the explosive opening jazz track “Tank!” to referenced tracks such as “Want It All Back” and “Speak Like a Child” to bebop, a jazz genre developed in the ’40s, it’s already a significant part of the anime. A transitional splash screen that comes up throughout the show reads “This is not a space opera. It is space jazz,” (Watanabe). I alway understood it as a way to interpret the series as a whole. While operas are epic and expansive, jazz and Cowboy Bebop are both more personal and introspective. Watanabe and his team succeeded in setting Cowboy Bebop apart from other animated shows coming out at the time and creating their own genre: space jazz.

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