The original “Cowboy Bebop” from 1998, is often considered one of the best (not for kids) anime of the 80's and 90's, along with movies like “Akira” and “Ghost in the Shell”. The series follows a group of space-faring bounty hunters: Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, and Faye Valentine as a makeshift family trying to survive in an unforgiving solar system, while they each wrestle with the demons of their pasts. It became an overnight cult phenomenon the moment it premiered in the US on Adult Swim in late 2001, and may have even helped to inspire Joss Whedon's “Firefly” in 2005.
Unlike a lot of popular anime series that go on for hundreds of episodes with dozens of filler episodes a season with no end in sight, Bebop doesn't overstay its welcome. In fact, it gives us something that we rarely get these days from so many big-budget blockbusters: an actual ending. With only 26 episodes, a movie – set during the middle of the show, a couple of PlayStation video games (only released in Japan), and a few manga volumes, this is a series that really leaves you wanting more, and perhaps that's one of the factors that makes it so special.
Mixing sci-fi, film noir, jazz, Bruce Lee inspired Kung-Fu action, and a tragic tale of love, revenge and redemption worthy of an old samurai flick, “Cowboy Bebop” is basically what would happen if Quentin Tarantino made an anime series. A bizarre blend of humor, high-stakes drama, ship-to-ship space battles, gritty gun fights, and an incredible soundtrack by composer, Yoko Kanno, this is easily one of the most unique shows ever made.
With Netflix's long-awaited debut of the all-new live-action series, I figured what better time to revisit Shinichirō Watanabe's critically-acclaimed, trend-setting anime? Although every episode is worth watching, if you're low on time, these episodes are well worth a watch before you dive into the new series!
3, 2, 1… Let's Jam!
1. Session #3: “Honky Tonk Women”
One of the interesting things about the first few episodes is that we don't actually meet all our characters in the first episode. Episode 1 (Asteroid Blues) introduces both Spike and Jet, while Ein, the super-intelligent Corgi shows up in Episode 2 (Stray Dog Strut), and fans may forget that Ed doesn't make their first appearance until Episode 9! (Jamming with Edward) But it's this episode that gives us Faye Valentine – a down-on-her-luck bounty hunter trying to pay off a massive debt. Most of the episode is set in a casino in space, where a poker chip with a hidden top-secret crypt-breaking program accidentally goes missing during a trade gone wrong leading to an EVA shootout with a group of gangsters!
2. Session #5: “Ballad of Fallen Angels”
While we get some quick ominous flashbacks to Spike's past in the prelude to the first episode, this is the first time it comes back to haunt him, in the form of a ruthless Syndicate mercenary known as ‘Vicious'! I don't think I'm alone in saying that the fight between Spike and Vicious in the cathedral at the end is one of the most iconic scenes in the entire series! It's just so unique – full of badass action and just a dash of pathos (plus a pretty amazing track called “Tears in the Rain”).
Sure it's a little melodramatic and there's some pretty heavy handed symbolism going on, but that moment where Spike is plunged through the stained glass window still gives me chills. It also has to be said that this one wouldn't have quite the same impact if it wasn't for Yoko Kanno's serene melody that plays as a total juxtaposition against the violent imagery of a church blowing up!
3. Session #8: “Waltz for Venus”
The Bebop crew heads to Venus (after casually stopping a group of hijackers), where Spike runs into a guy named Rocco who's after a rare plant to cure his sister's condition. Rocco is impressed by Spike's martial arts skills, so he gives him a few lessons. While Spike is able to help his sister, Rocco's luck runs out as he's gunned down by a ruthless cartel.
Oddly enough, this is the first episode I ever saw and it hooked me right away. I distinctly remember staying up late one night in middle school, scrolling through the channels after getting stuck on a level in Star Fox 64 and being mesmerized by this weird anime with Kung-Fu and space ships. Like so many Bebop episodes, it balances humor and hijinks with a very down to Earth (err, Venus?) drama.
4. Session #10: “Ganymede Elegy”
In this noir-style Jet Black centric episode, we get a hint into Jet's backstory as a cop on Ganymede, before he lost his arm in the line of duty. We learn that he once loved a woman named Alisa, and never really moved on. When they cross paths again, he shows her a broken watch that he held onto all this time and she tells him, “The way you talk about it, you seem to think that time really has stopped here. That’s a story from long ago, and I…I’ve forgotten about it. Time never stands still.”
5. Session #11: “Toys in the Attic”
“Toys in the Attic” is one of the most insane stand alone episodes in any series. It's also a bottle episode that takes place entirely on the Bebop, giving each character a moment to shine. The whole plot is a love letter to sci-fi horror movies, like John Carpenter's “The Thing” and more specifically, Ridley Scott's “Alien” with Spike in the role of Sigourney Weaver, facing off against a mysterious alien organism that somehow mutated from some forgotten leftovers at the back of their fridge!
Seriously, what's not to love?
6. Session #12/13: “Jupiter Jazz”
“Jupiter Jazz” gives us a heartfelt two-parter centering around a trans sax player from a bar on Calisto named Gren. Faye learns that Gren was a veteran on Titan, who had fought alongside Vicious and was later betrayed by him. After Spike and Vicious have a rematch, Gren attempts to get revenge on Vicious by sabotaging a drug deal, leading to an aerial battle that ends with Gren mortally wounded. Spike helps Gren find peace, helping to launch his ship towards Titan. We then see Gren's ship become a shooting star as a native elder tells his son, “That it is not an ordinary star, but the tear of a warrior who has finished his battle on this planet and could not find his way to the lofty realm where the great spirit awaits everyone.” And the credits play over a haunting melody.
If the ending of this episode doesn't make you feel something, you're probably dead inside.
7. Session #15: “My Funny Valentine”
This episode finally gives us Faye Valentine's origin story… sorta. Faye wakes up after decades of cryo-sleep in a strange new future, with amnesia, no family, or friends, and a crushing amount of debt. What starts out as a borderline rom-com suddenly takes a somewhat tragic turn when it appears as though the man that had supposedly loved her, had in fact conned her before faking his own death. Although she doesn't uncover her forgotten past, she does get some much earned closure.
8. Session #17: “Mushroom Samba”
It's really hard to pick a favorite episode from a show this varied, but if I have to narrow it down to one, it would probably have to be “Mushroom Samba”! Not only do we get one of the most fun Ed solo adventures, we also get to see Spike, Faye, and Jet tripping out of their minds after accidentally eating psychedelic mushrooms! Ed ultimately saves the day while Spike is busy walking up an endless stairway to heaven, Jet is having a deep conversation with a bonsai tree, and Faye is lost at the bottom of the ocean. It's one of the funniest and absolutely bonkers episodes of any show and I absolutely love it.
9. Session #18: “Speak Like A Child”
In what might be the most 90's episodes of anything ever made, Spike and Jet are on a mission to find a VCR and TV in the ruins of an old city, so that they can play a mysterious VHS tape! In an emotional twist, the episode ends with the reveal that the tape was made by a young Faye as a message to her future self! It's a hilarious episode that aged like fine wine, and ends on a surprisingly bitter sweet note that sticks with you long after.
11. Session #22: “Cowboy Funk”
While chasing a terrorist known as ‘The Teddy Bomber', Spike and Jet cross paths with a literal cowboy calling himself ‘Cowboy Andy', leading to an epic rivalry to see which bounty hunter can capture the Teddy Bomber first! It's bonkers, but it totally works. This one serves as a nice comic relief before the more heavy entries to follow…
12. Session #24: “Hard Luck Woman”
The Bebop returns to Earth (a desolate, post-apocalyptic wasteland thanks to an Astral Gate explosion that destroyed the planet's moon) where Faye finds more clues to her past, including meeting an old friend from when she was a kid, now an elderly woman. Faye starts to remember that she was put in cryo-stasis after a shuttle accident some 70 years earlier, and finds what's left of the foundations of her childhood home. It's also revealed that Ed was raised in an orphanage on Earth and is reunited with their father, who's almost as quirky as Ed is.
The episode ends with Ed and Ein leaving the Bebop behind to stay on Earth. The montage of the crew heading off in their separate ways is all the more heart-wrenching thanks to Kanno's “Call me, Call me”. If you go into this one knowing that it's the prelude to the finale, it really hits hard, knowing that this is the last time we'll see the crew together…
13. Session #25/26: “The Real Folk Blues”
In this two-part series finale, Spike is reunited with Julia, but the Red Dragon Syndicate isn't far behind. After, Vicious and the men loyal to him overthrow the Syndicate elders, they track down Spike and Julia. During the ensuing firefight, Julia is shot and tragically dies in his arms.
We get one final heartfelt goodbye between Spike and Jet, before Spike leaves the Bebop behind for one last mission. Faye attempts to stop him, and he tells her, “I'm not going there to die. I'm going to find out if I'm really alive.” The series comes to a shocking conclusion with Spike taking on the entire Syndicate single-handedly, with an arsenal of weapons, ultimately defeating Vicious once and for all, before collapsing and succumbing to his mortal wounds…
I think ultimately what makes this show work so well is that even though it's episodic at time, this is an series that has a very clear beginning, middle, and end, which is rare in media today, with long-running franchises with dozens of spin-offs, sequels, and prequels. Cowboy Bebop is self-contained, it's special. Drawing on so many genres, influences, and tropes, but remixing it into something entirely unique, Bebop is a true work of art that works on pretty much every level. It even has one of the best American dubs in anime history, with a stellar voice cast!
Like all great sci-fi, it's timeless and even though it's set in a 90's version of the future, it still resonates today, in there here and now. Whether or not you're a fan of the new live-action show, it's exciting that if nothing else, it's breathing new life into this classic anime. It's a very character driven saga that makes us examine our own personal baggage, and it lingers well after those fateful last words.
See you, space cowboy…
Both the original anime and the new live-action series are now streaming on Netflix!