Borrowing heavily from gangster and Noir film for characterization, from the detective films of the 50’s and 60’s for some of its plot elements and from westerns, sci-fi and jazz and blues for its style, not to mention a bit of Hong Kong heroic bloodshed and kung-fu thrown in for good measure, and Cowboy Bebop is quite obviously anything but your conventional space ace anime! In the tradition of the best works in Science Fiction, technology is an expansive yet unintrusive backdrop framing the more personal issues at stake. Hyperspatial afterimaging might be a fact of life, but it’s far less important than the decided absence of beef in tonight’s Beef and Bell-peppers Stew…
Predominantly, this is a light-hearted and comical adventure series, shaping up in the first volume to be a fairly formulaic series of start-to-finish plot-lines. Yet its episodic construction, rather than being detrimental to enjoyment of it (half hour episodes of my favourite anime never seem long enough), actually helps emphasize the slightly cynical quirkiness of the characters and the hair-raising, sometimes ‘carnivalesque’ situations they find themselves in. One liners, smooth moves and amusing ironies abound, keeping pace with a street savvy soundtrack and a fast paced, die-hard sense of fun.
However the teaser preceding the main action of Episode One (Asteroid Blues) almost immediately undermines that light-heartedness, positioning the main character Spike Spiegel quite firmly in the realm of the anti-hero complete with a dark and probably dangerous past. Violent snatches of brooding action, abstracted in composition, Noir in colour and construction, make an impact not likely to be forgotten even in the midst of the comedies-of-error that follow. In many ways these Noir elements are the only thing preventing the series from becoming frozen by its own cool, adding a constant undertow of emotional complexity that manages to balance out the often casually frenetic action.
The support characters (those introduced thus far) are potentially three-dimensional, not yet as filled out as they could be but give them time, especially in the case of the resident bombshell Faye Valentine. Her appearance in the third episode (Honky Tonk Women) isn’t just legs and caliber weapons (although it’s mostly legs and caliber weapons), but the first volume sees her on average mostly underused and slightly stereo-typed for comic effect (the fate of many a supporting anime babe). Jet Black, as Spike’s best friend and partner, is similarly peripheral in this collection of episodes, but rather than having a comic presence he is a more stabilizing element, a voice of reason and fore-thought to contrast Spike’s ‘Act Now Think Later’ approach.
The series’ consistent, jazzy aesthetic is a perfect articulation of both the characters and climate. Jazz music at the time of its invention was a result of a clash of cultures and musical influences, not simply a borrowing. The heavy use of such a genre of music in Cowboy Bebop similarly makes something coherent and exciting out of what might have been utter mayhem. It at once gives a sort of psychological context to the film’s reality of uncontrolled human progress. There is an almost sunny, Blade Runner-esque look to the series’ urban landscape, a grab-bag of culture without geographical border that the character of Spike seems to embody. The music acts as the glue that enables a Bruce Lee loving, ex-hitman, bounty-hunting space jockey in a decidedly 80’s style suit to seem not just believable, but unbelievably cool.
And maybe that’s what appeals most about this series. Watching a few episodes is like playing a game of ‘Spot the Pop Culture Reference’, for example the Robert Rodriguez styled bar scene in the first episode and the rather amusing appearance of a Kareem-Abdul Jabbar look-alike in the second, and I have by no means spoiled the entire range of referencing going on. There’s a deliberate sense of fun and irony, a purposefully spectacular sense of spectacle, a constructed combination of a hundred cultural influences and quotations that makes Cowboy Bebop entirely irresistible. With the weight of its more serious moments to keep it from spinning off into space, this is a series that will delight from opening riff to closing credits and every damn hep beat between!