Old Friends

25 Years Later, One Anime Classic Is More Relevant Than Ever

Now is a great time to get into Cowboy Bebop.

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If you are an adult who thinks you don’t like anime, you will love Cowboy Bebop. For twenty-five years now, this classic anime TV series has been converting non-anime people into massive anime fans. Cowboy Bebop is definitely not for younger viewers, but if you have a tween, and you’re okay with some space bounty hunter action and some adult themes, the humor, heart, and brilliance of this show are still unmatched. At San Diego Comic-Con in 2023, Cowboy Bebop will celebrate its 25th anniversary, and there’s never been a better time to get into it.

On paper, Shinichiro Watanabe’s classic from 1998 is an undefinable mess of parts that shouldn’t fit, yet come together to form perfection. Cowboy Bebop is a cross-cultural neo-noir experience that spits in the face of norms, proudly defying its predecessors while storming anime forward to a place it had never been before. But, how has this series with a singular season remained one of the best anime series ever? Let’s take a look, space cowboy.

The road to Cowboy Bebop’s status as a cult classic, was a turbulent one, running into massive hurdles from inception. Studio Bandai Namco originally dropped the series after a few episodes were produced, realizing the chances of making money from merchandising were nil. Resuscitated through a subsidiary of Bandai, the show went back into production and landed a distribution deal, one also mired in problems.

Rising issues with censorship forced the TV Tokyo network to air less than half of the season when it initially ran — twenty years ago, starting on April 3, 998. Several episodes were cut, that the network deemed inappropriate. The first episode shown in Japan was chronologically the second, as the pilot was filled with smoking, shooting, and all sorts of heavy stuff. Again! Not for the little kids!

Months later, WOWOW presented the entire series on their network from start to finish, uncut and uncensored. Eventually finding success in their homeland, the creators sought greener pastures overseas. Enter Cartoon Network, who paved the way in this country for anime on TV.

All it took to convince the network execs to scoop Cowboy Bebop up was the signature opening credits, a sequence that remains unskippable to even the most fastidious binge-watcher. Cowboy Bebop debuted on American shores at midnight on September 2, 2001, a novel concept for cable television. Anime was still a new frontier in the US by the late 90s, only beginning to gain momentum in the average home thanks primarily to this channel. Their late-night block spotlighted less accessible and sometimes more mature anime, which helped broaden the audience's taste for this genre. It was a high-risk move, but it paid off for decades to come.

After September 11, 2001, The Cartoon Network froze the show for a few weeks. After returning to the air, several episodes were skipped due to some violent content, although subsequent re-airings placed them back into rotation. The fact that Cowboy Bebop survived all this censorship, and overcame obstacles that spanned two continents is nothing short of a miracle.

The resiliency of Cowboy Bebop can be attributed to a number of factors, but the self-contained stories make viewers feel like they can jump aboard from any episode. There are no bad episodes of Cowboy Bebop, period. If you want action, try “Ballad of Fallen Angels.” Kick that up a notch with “Pierrot le Fou!” Need a laugh? Try “Toys in the Attic” or “Mushroom Samba.” For something somber, there’s “Speak Like A Child,” Then there’s “The Real Folk Blues,” a stunning finale that feels like John Woo directed a John Wick movie, with everything crashing down in the showdown to end all showdowns.

The sci-fi landscape of Cowboy Bebop envelopes itself in noir storytelling and characters, influenced by a myriad of things Watanabe loved. What other anime could be this excellent while combining the sets of Blade Runner with fight scenes from Enter the Dragon, backed by a story reminiscent of a noir detective film with the attitude of a spaghetti Western?

Voice director Mary Elizabeth McGlynn (who also voiced Julia) brought together an iconic cast for the English dub, including her future husband Steve Blum as Spike, Beau Billingslea as Jet, Wendee Lee as Faye, and Melissa Fahn as Ed.

McGlynn had the cast take a more grounded approach instead of the overly-excited voices anime typically offered. This is crucial. Cowboy Bebop strayed far from some archetypal anime tropes, and that started with complicated characters. The VO performers understood the assignment and delivered nuanced performances that thrill and haunt viewers to this day, cementing it among the best English dubs ever.

But, one thing can’t be understated - Cowboy Bebop would be nothing without its music. The opening theme hooks viewers immediately, but every song thereafter is vital to the feel and flow of the series. Yoko Kanno is the genius composer of this soundtrack, whose diverse music broke melodic expectations, giving us a soulful jazz and blues sound that instantly set the mood in any scene. This was not the typical sound of anime in the 90s! In a truly unique and somewhat improvisational method, Kanno worked not by scoring the finished episodes but by starting earlier in the production process to create a mood through her music. The director then chose pieces that worked and adjusted the episodes based on Kanno’s compositions.

Watanabe always intended for Cowboy Bebop to be a single season; just twenty-six episodes with a definitive conclusion. As opposed to an open-ended anime like One Piece, this show never overstayed its welcome and always managed to stick around in our brains.

Cowboy Bebop shook the foundations of anime and transformed what it could be for audiences around the world. One influential season married the best of the East to the best of the West to offer a captivating pastiche that thrills viewers to this day. There are plenty of spectacular anime series out there, but few will reach the heights of this timeless classic that opens the door for new fans and sets the standard for every franchise that followed.

Cowboy Bebop is streaming on Netflix, Hulu, Funimation, Tubi, and Crunchyroll, among others, and is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon. A special 25th-anniversary edition Blu-Ray set is available exclusively from Crunchyroll.

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