Back in the Saddle: Rewatching Cowboy Bebop

I know that I’m not the only one who got introduced to Japanese anime by Cartoon Network’s Toonami block. It was an important shared cultural moment for people from my generation, assuming you were interested in Japanese anime. I watched it everyday after school during most of my high school years. I even stayed up late to watch the Midnight Run and it’s spiritual successor Adult Swim. I was introduced to nearly every one of my favorite anime series by Cartoon Network.

Cowboy Bebop is one such anime, planted firmly in the nostalgia of my adolescence. For many years, I referred to the series as my “favorite anime of all time” perhaps by default. I have such fond memories of it, but I haven’t watched it in probably 15 years.

Much to my surprise, it appeared on Netflix in October, about a month before the arrival of the live action reboot. I was so hyped for the new series that I had to watch the original again. But I’ll admit I was a bit nervous. Would it hold up?

I decided to write a short tweet after each episode as I made my way through the series for the first time in a decade and a half. What follows is that series of tweets, presented in a much more legible format and expanded where necessary.

Session #1: Asteroid Blues

After a cryptic opening, Spike Spiegel is chasing down a thug who’s running from one of the syndicates after stealing a whole bunch of a drug called red eye. Spike takes us on a wild ride that sets the tone for the series. It’s equal parts silly and serious. Asimov Solensan and his wife Katerina dip into (and then out of) this story in a way that feels substantial in spite of how concise it is.

The music in this show is outstanding!

Session #2: Stray Dog Strut

This episode pumps the breaks pretty hard. It feels like a repeat of the first episode… minus the gravitas. I think it’s one of the low points in the series, but we do get a good dog, though, and that has to count for something.

In spite of that, the music remains outstanding!

Session #3: Honky Tonk Women

This episode introduces us to the the series’ best gal, Faye Valentine, who is on the run from some debt collectors. She’s paradoxically both gifted and hapless, which is a perfect match for Spike. The casino makes for a nice change of setting after the first two episodes.

And of course, the music is excellent!

Session #4: Gateway Shuffle

In this episode, Jet and Spike end up chasing after a big bounty that’s been placed on the leader of an eco-terrorist group. Meanwhile, Faye makes a repeat appearance by stumbling upon a mysterious package that needs to be delivered to Inter-Solar System Police [or ISSP].

This episode raises the stakes, builds the tension, and still manages to resolve two seemingly unrelated plots in less than 25 minutes. The secret seems to be that the two plots are related all along. When it works, it’s magic… and this episode has one of the first (of many) magic trick endings in Cowboy Bebop.

And by the end of the episode Faye joins the crew of the Bebop?

That being said, some of the animation in this episode really shows it’s age. The production quality seems to vary a bit from episode to episode. It’s easy to forgive when the high points in the series are so high.

Session #5: Ballad of Fallen Angels

This is the first of 5 episode (along with 12, 13, 25, 26) that form a series-length plot involving Spike and his old syndicate colleague, Vicious. At this point, all we know about their past is conveyed without context in some vague flashbacks. Whatever their history is… it’s contentious enough that Vicious lives up to his name.

The tension builds and builds, leaving almost no room for the signature Cowboy Bebop silliness. Excellent episode.

Session #6: Sympathy for the Devil

And now we’re back to the bounty-of-the-week for the Bebop crew. This one has some major Twilight Zone vibes, complete with ultra-sparse dialogue and an ending that attempts to be evocative. I think it works for the most part, but it’s not my favorite.

Session #7: Heavy Metal Queen

This episode is like one of those dangerous truck driving shows… except in SPAAAAAACE! It had a nice little narrative resolution in the end.

But I have a question. Where are they they getting money? By the end of this episode they will have failed to cash in a bounty in literally every episode.

The likely answer (according to one person that I communicated with on twitter) is that the crew of the Bebop cashing in smaller, less eventful bounties in between each episode. I hadn’t ever really thought about that, but it makes sense.

Not seeing the day-to-day operations on the Bebop adds a subtle richness to the tone of the series. It means that the crew members have relationships that are more than just arguing over missions on a bad day. It means that that they aren’t just a bunch of screw ups bumbling their way from paycheck to paycheck. Perhaps they are competent bounty hunters, who have no problem doing they job under normal circumstances. But we don’t get to see “normal circumstances.” We see the missions the missions that go sideways. The stories that end up as episodes are wilder in relation to mundanity in between.

This also suggests that this story takes place over a longer period of time, perhaps months or years. I think it gives the series an almost folkloric quality. These are the stories worth telling. In telling these stories, the memories have become larger than life, exaggerated to the point of absurdity.

Session #8: Waltz For Venus

As if Watanabe himself heard my question echoing backward in time, this episode begins with the crew successfully catching a bounty in the opening scene. We actually see a bit of teamwork. This is a good start to a really nice episode.

The rest of the episode ends up being an emotionally complicated bounty for Spike and his new pal Roco. In my opinion, this episode marks the point where the series is hitting it’s stride.

Session #9: Jamming With Edward

This episode centers around an AI space laser and a hacker named Ed. It plays with the idea of a sentient machine without getting too heady, highlighting the series ability to strike a tone that occupies the space between serious and silly. Some cool space action here too!

When I first watched Cowboy Bebop, I found Ed to be utterly irritating. I actually don’t mind them this time around. They offer a much needed levity to the crew.

Session #10: Ganymede Elegy

Great bounty-of-the-week episode with some gravitas. We learn about Jet’s past, and he manages to find some closure.

Also… they score another a couple more bounties in the span of this episode. It feels like things are starting to look up for the crew of the Bebop.

Session #11: Toys in the Attic

The crew is back to scraping by when they get attacked by a “horrible space creature.” This episode has incredible atmosphere and pacing while paying homage to Alien and Star Trek.

Is this the true ending of the series? Is everyone actually dead? Tune in and find out!

Session #12: Jupiter Jazz (Part 1)

This is the first of a 2-episode arc that marks the midpoint of the series. The crew has broken up, but unbeknownst to each other gotten themselves mixed up in a drug deal (red-eye again!) between Vicious and one of his old war buddies, Gren.

You can tell the production budget for these 2 episodes is on a whole different level. So much stunningly animated action in this winter wasteland that happens to be completely devoid of women. The vaguely apocalyptic aesthetic reminds me a bit of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, especially the protective gear that the thugs are wearing.

The cliffhangers at the end of this episode are wiiiiild!

Session #13: Jupiter Jazz (Part 2)

This is a heavy episode! Each of the separate plot arcs are depicting different answers to the question of what it means to be loyal to ones “comrades.” The episode culminates with Jet, Spike, and Faye reconvening on the Bebop. The immediate plot arcs certainly conclude, but we’re left with more questions than answers about what happened between Spike and Vicious in the past.

And of course the music in this mid-season arc is superlative!

Session #14: Bohemian Rhapsody

While this is not a top-tier Cowboy Bebop episode, it’s perfectly placed in the series. It’s a fun bounty-of-the-week episode, and we need a step down in intensity after the “Jupiter Jazz” episodes.

Also the crew manages to score some cheap bounties in a tasty opening montage.

Session #15: My Funny Valentine

When I think about this series, there is one particular image that I see in my mind, and apparently it’s from this episode. Faye Valentine running through the dark, bathed in the chasing glow of car headlights.

The pace shifts oddly half way through the episode, but it’s a memorable glimpse into Faye’s history.

Session #16: Black Dog Serenade

Jet teams up with his old police partner to catch the criminal who shot Jet’s arm off and Udai Taxim is an incredibly tough opponent. This episode is paced so well and pays off nicely.

At this point in the series, even a “decent” episode of the Cowboy Bebop anime is operating on a medium-defining level.

Session #17: Mushroom Samba

After rewatching “Jamming With Edward,” I mentioned that used to find Ed pretty annoying as a character. Actually, this is the episode I see in my mind when I think about Ed being annoying. I still think that this probably one of the low points in the series and the payoff is not great… but I didn’t hate it. This mushroom hunt episode is actually kind of fun. Once again, we get a pleasant dose of silliness right after one of the more serious stories. The placement of this episode really elevates it.

Recently, I’ve been recommending the series to basically everyone, including my high school students. However, the further I get into this rewatch, the more certain I am that this series is a slow burn. It really is a masterwork, but it isn’t for anyone needs constant excitement.

Session #18: Speak Like A Child

Speaking of slow burn, in this episode the boys are searching for a way to play a beta video cassette from Faye’s past. It’s antique technology in 2071, extra rare after the astral gate accident of 2022. The payoff is satisfying enough, but like “Jupiter Jazz” this episode raises more questions than it answers.

Session #19: Wild Horses

This episode mostly works for me, which is to say it’s not the best. The episode features 2 intertwining plotlines. Spike visits his old pal Doohan to get the Swordfish repaired, while Jet and Faye wait in ambush for some space pirates. The problem is the space pirates are using some sort of computer virus that disables navigation and communication systems in the ships that they steal from. It’s a weird premise that doesn’t really resolve.

Doohan flying in at the end is excellent.

Cowboy Bebop often reminds me of my favorite short stories. It builds slowly to a climax, but that moment rarely goes the way you expect it to—much to the surprise of everyone involved… characters and reader alike. Rather than offering a resolution, it simply hints at one.

Session #20: Pierrot Le Fou

What a strange episode. Spike just happens to draw the attention of an assassin with magical powers. Umm… what? It’s brutal, unsettling, and just a bit spooky.

But something is different with the crew of the Bebop. I get the sense that by this point in the series, this plucky band of misfits actually care about each other.

Session #21: Boogie Woogie Feng Shui

In this episode, Jet get’s a mysterious communique from his old friend Pao Pu-Zi. Next thing he’s searching for some ancient feng shei artifact called the sunstone with Pao’s daughter Meifa.

I’m no expert in film noir, but the Jet episodes all seem to have that vibe. They tend to be a bit nostalgic in tone, drawing him back to close friendships that are a source of pain for him. Also, he narrates over the events like an old noir film (though I’ve never seen one).

I think it’s poignant to offer a potential content warning. This episode has some minor awkward romantic vibes between Jet and Meifa, who he’s known since she was a little girl. You could skip this episode.

Aside from that, her character still seems weird anyway. She’s written like a very stereotypical anime character, but Cowboy Bebop‘s characters are otherwise relatively grounded. It does feel a bit dissonant.

Session #22: Cowboy Funk

It only took 22 episodes to introduce an actual cowboy in Cowboy Bebop. Like that’s literally the name of the show! This episode is about as goofy as the series gets, but it uses the cowboy character trope to poke fun at Spike—and probably the viewer by extension. It’s actually quite fun.

Session #23: Brain Scratch

This transhumanism story is an ambitious one. I like how a bunch of context is given quickly through diegetic storytelling, but that serves as proof that there just isn’t enough time to tackle the philosophical questions that this episode speeds past.

The high concept here just can’t be squished down to fit the magic Cowboy Bebop formula. It would need a bigger arc, but to what end? This episode doesn’t really even resolve, and it barely Faye’s weird cult experience. Maybe why there’s no “see you space cowboy” at the end?

If you like the premise, and want to see it given a bit more narrative breathing room, I highly recommend the series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. It’s another top 5 anime for me.

I did want to take a moment to acknowledge how much fun the Big Shot bounty hunter show has been. Sadly, their show is cancelled for low ratings. (Did you notice the characters were named after the traditional puppet show Punch and Judy?)

Session #24: Hard Luck Woman

It’s pretty rare for an episode of Cowboy Bebop to call back to a previous one, but this one is a follow up to “Speak Like A Child” (18). Faye is trying to figure out where she’s from, and along the way Ed learns the identity of her father.

The fight between Spike and this week’s surprisingly unsurprising bounty just punctuates everything so nicely. It seems like things are going to break bad for Spike… until the show’s characteristic use of dramatic irony plays out.

The song “Call Me Call Me” plays over the final scenes. It’s a perfect choice to intensify the melancholy of this moment. The crew is going their separate ways, leaving only Jet and Spike. It gives the series a sort of symmetry with it’s beginning… right before the final story.

Session #25 & 26: The Real Folk Blues (Part 1 & 2)

I don’t want to say much about what happens in these episodes. Suffice up say that Spike and Vicious have unfinished business. It simply must be seen.

I had a vague recollection from about 15 years ago about how this would end, but I didn’t realize it would hit so hard.

I know I’ve said it before, but the music in Cowboy Bebop is just superlative. The version of “Real Folk Blues” that plays during this episode just hits so hard played over the top of what is likely the most violent episodes of the series.

I’m sitting here at the end of this journey, and it all feels like a dream… a funny, sad, violent, beautiful dream.

All these years later, rewatching the series in 2021 has reaffirmed Cowboy Bebop’s place as one of my best favorite anime of all time. It’s just so good.

On the eve of Netflix’s live action adaptation of this series, I really really really hope that these characters and stories are treated with the care that they deserve. They mean so much to us!

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