So, does Cowboy Bebop still hold up twenty years later? In some ways, it does and in other ways, it doesn’t.
The cool factor for Cowboy Bebop is still high. The music and animation style do a lot to contribute to this, particularly the effortless manner in which Spike fights. Interestingly, the music was produced before the rest of the show, but it fits the action really well.
Part of what makes Cowboy Bebop work is the way it plays with different genres. Some episodes being inspired by Westerns, others by kung-fu movies, still others by horror, noir, cyberpunk, blaxplotation, or surrealism. Cowboy Bebop does tragedy, comedy, and action equally well, which is hard to pull off.
Cowboy Bebop was based somewhat on Lupin III, another anime that preceded it. Each episode is packed with pop culture references, so if you were being uncharitable, you could say the show is derivative, just a mishmash of other movies and TV series. However, I think in this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Cowboy Bebop manages to be something entirely new even if it is built out of tropes. Each episode was designed to be a miniature movie in itself, and they sure manage to pack a lot into each short episode.
It also does a good job of differentiating each location. There’s an asteroid patterned after Tijuana, a moon patterned after Marseilles, Venus is based on Istanbul, Calisto is based on Russia, and Faye’s memories are of Singapore. We get a mix of different cultures interacting effortlessly with each other, which is a future we can all aspire to. Also, each planet, moon, and asteroid have their own environmental quirks like helium in the atmosphere of Venus, and meteors constantly raining down on Earth.
My personal favorite episodes are the funny ones: Mushroom Samba, Toys in the Attic, and Cowboy Funk. It’s kind of funny that for a show about bounty hunters, the crew rarely ever catches their bounty and seem to be perpetually starving. At the end of the day, I think the central theme of this show is the empty refrigerator.
Some things that don’t quite hold up include the fact that Faye is perpetuallly getting handcuffed or tied up and in constant need of rescue. Judy’s character exists mainly to show cleavage. To be fair, there are strong female characters such as V.T. and having their hacker be a girl named Edward helps offset some of the sexism in the series.
The show does use stereotypes at times, such as the Native American shaman. While the depiction of the shaman is in keeping with the overall Western theme of the show, it’s still a problematic stereotype. It’s also strange that fortune telling and feng shui not only work, but are integral parts of the plot in several episodes. If fortune telling actually works as well as the show depicts, every government agency and corporation would have an official fortune teller telling them what to expect. In fact, bounty hunters would be unnecessary since you can always ask a fortune teller where the bad guys are hiding. It’s a bit too convenient of a plot devise, being brought in when needed and forgotten about when needed for the plot.
Spike’s visceral disgust at the cross dresser in Jupiter Jazz is another thing that doesn’t hold up, however we also have the non-binary character Gren portrayed in a positive manner to balance this out somewhat. The implication that Jet is into underage girls in session 21 is the worst thing about this series, especially since the rest of the crew acts like it’s completely ok. Unfortunately, grown men being into underage girls is a reoccurring theme in anime, which is pretty disturbing.
Of course, equating smoking with being cool is another thing which doesn’t hold up. I remember being surprised at this back when the show originally aired as I had thought the whole smoking-equals-cool thing had gone out of style long before the late 90s.
All these problems aside, however, I do think Cowboy Bebop is the best anime of all time. (Neon Genesis Evangelion is sometimes called the best anime as well, but having recently watched it, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. It’s just yet another show about giant robots battling giant monsters. Yawn.)
It’s amusing to note that the show was originally conceived by a toy company as a vehicle to sell spacecraft toys, but it ended up being so much more.