Cowboy Bebop is More Than a ‘Gateway Series’

by Ashley Capes

Obviously, I won’t be able to add much in the way of new ideas to discussion of a series that folks have been talking and writing about for twenty years but I still wanted to mark Cowboy Bebop’s anniversary in some way. [Editor’s Note: This was written in 2018.]

To dip but swiftly into the category of ‘things already said about the show’ I’m sure words and phrases like bounty hunters in space, gateway series and trailblazing or greatest anime of all time and genre defying would be on that list and for me, most of those things feel true but one of them is also reductive.

It probably is a pretty good introduction for Western (sceptical) audiences looking to trial the genre of anime; a genre which is just as varied, in terms of content and quality, as any other. The show largely works as that introduction because both the cultural references and aesthetic tend to be very recognisable to western audiences – creator Shinichirō Watanabe mentions Dirty Harry, Bruce Lee and John Woo among his influences, and of course the OST is a veritable library of US and UK-influences.

But I still fear the words ‘gateway series’ are too often used to suggest that Cowboy Bebop is a creation of a certain depth and value only, a stepping stone toward works that are either better or more ‘difficult’. It can feel as though the series is ‘merely’ an entry point into an unfamiliar art form, the way that maybe you start with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue before trying Bitches Brew or Agharta. Yet that accessibility common to both Kind of Blue and Cowboy Bebop belies a depth and complexity that – like all great art – is better revealed during subsequent encounters.

I believe part of what makes the show so rewarding is how heavily intertextual Cowboy Bebop remains but also the episodic structure, which invites repeated viewings. Obviously, I won’t present any sort of exhaustive list here but I still want to mention a few things at least. Sometimes that intertextuality is quite overt – like the similarities between Spike’s costume (and his frame for that matter) and Lupin the III or our hero’s Jeet Kune Do fighting style and the famous ‘water’ speech he gives in episode eight (Waltz for Venus) which Bruce Lee fans will certainly recognise. Another episode that many viewers often single out to demonstrate the intertextuality is the Star Trek/Alien tribute, Toys in the Attic – but which I won’t spoil here 😀

Sometimes the references, depending on any given viewer’s cultural literacy, become subtler like the Spike/Vicious weapon swaps a la John Woo, or the setting recreated from Desperado in episode one, Asteroid Blues, (which I didn’t pick up on during my first viewing but felt like I should have when I did finally put it together second time around). Later in the series, as the oppressiveness of the odds stacked against the Bebop crew really starts to build we’re given session twenty: Pierrot Le Fou. In this episode the colour palette becomes far more muted as greys and shadows really start to dominate in a way that evokes both film noir (without Jet this time however) and Gotham City. The Batman references won’t be surprising to folks who are aware that members from CB’s production team Sunrise also worked on Batman the Animated Series prior to Cowboy Bebop. In the episode, antagonist Tongpu himself clearly evokes (at least) both the Penguin and the Joker and much of the imagery throughout brings Batman to mind. (It’s also one of the more harrowing episodes in the series, one that refuses to paint heroes and villains as wholly good or evil).

There’s a lot more to love about Cowboy Bebop (it’s fun, it’s fast-paced and it’s not clumsily front-loaded with character back-story and there’s not too much fan-service either) but in closing, I want to quickly mention another aspect that I’ve always enjoyed about the series.

Blessedly, CB isn’t one of those shows that drags on until the character and story arcs are rehashed in an endlessly sad cycle of diminishing returns and contradictions. No, it actually presents a complete story – it has an ending! In part because of this, viewers are treated to some great character development, none perhaps more striking than that of Faye Valentine. Now, my personal favourite character remains Jet but Faye has the better character arc, I feel. Considering where she begins the series emotionally and where she ends up, it’s pretty grand. Again, I don’t want to offer spoilers in this post but Faye’s fear and her quest for belonging really plays out in a touching way – though there’s a certain montage involving other characters that’s probably just as moving, damn thing nearly gets me every time!

Now, I’m aware that I’ve only really offered three points to support my assertion that Cowboy Bebop is far more than a gateway series but I could far too easily get carried away so I won’t go on. However, if you’d like to see other folks exploring the depth of the show, there’s a series of posts available at Overthinking It which are pretty ace or if you wanted to offer any thoughts of your own below, I’d love to hear what you think!

Leave a Reply