Since being a critic means writing tons of words, people often think of us as pretentious assholes who can’t have fun. Some critics swallow that crap and then write meaningless bullcrap instead of admitting they enjoyed a stylish, flashy story. The easiest way to recognize it is when a series is said to be about ‘existentialism’. That’s so general, but so useful. After all, that stream of philosophy is huge and you can insert anything into it.
Since I don’t care about my image, I’m not going to claim Cowboy Bebop is about ‘existentialism’ when I can’t back it up. I have no shame in admitting I love a story that’s all about flash, action and amusing characters. That’s what Cowboy Bebop is and it’s proof that mere storytelling is an art too. There are a few touching moments and the last episodes push for something more profound, but until then there isn’t any depth. Why should it have any when “Mushroom Samba” is one of the best anime episodes ever?
Watanabe taglined the show as “a new genre unto itself” and later called it an exaggeration. That’s like the fastest runner in the world saying he’s slow. Cowboy Bebop never runs out of steam or ideas. It always has a wide-eyed sense of wonder and always excited what other stories it can tell. Many of the tropes are recognizable, but nothing is a missed chance.
The approach is akin to a band that tries a new genre with every song. People who complain about the episodic nature miss the point. The series has a wider reach than nearly every anime out there. Pretty much every episode is a whole different genre. The characters and art style are the same, but even the color schemes change. “Mushroom Samba” and “Cowboy Funk” are experiments with Comedy and have brighter colors. “Toys in the Attic” experiments with horror and is noticeably darker.
Even pacing and side-character design changes. The aforementioned “Mushroom Samba” has far wackier character design than “Speak Like a Child”, one of the more introspective episodes. The series doesn’t simply borrow a lot from Western fiction but distills it to one show. It had mass appeal because it had a wide reach – whoever you are, there’s something to like her.
Convincing the viewer that the world in your anime exists is difficult. Calling things ‘realistic’ or ‘unrealistic’ isn’t enough, since you first have to know what reality is (or, more correctly, how people perceive reality). The solid blocks don’t define reality. Spaceships and cities on the moon aren’t automatically ‘unrealistic’. If you told people from 1000 years ago that anime will exist they’ll think you’re possessed by a devil.
Reality and real life go deeper than this. Reality is, among things, confusing and has a lot of sides. If it didn’t we wouldn’t need to create art. The most realistic anime are the most far-reaching ones. An anime is more realistic the more it can contain different moods and different people. It doesn’t matter whether you live as a drifter or in a small community – life has all kinds of things going for it.
The show has bounty hunters in space, loud gunfights and a failed experiment that learned to fly. It’s still more realistic – and thus more alive than most anime out there. The variety in mood and texture of the events brings it to life. I couldn’t imagine a show having a fat balloon assassin feeling realistic.
The cast is also a prime example of how to have an ensemble. Spike isn’t the main character. They’re all are. Their personalities aren’t simply different but connected, there is chemistry here. Jet isn’t just a contrast to Spike’s apathy, but a more warm figure for the damaged Faye and the young Ed. Spike’s apathy and cockiness is what puts him at odds with Faye but their greed is what they share and what unites them. Ed herself is a sun in the group of depressed individuals. The characters don’t act out of convenience but on their inner drives, and each of their reactions is uniquely theirs.
Variety itself isn’t enough, of course. You need more than the basics of having different episodes with different styles and moods. The narratives are always tightly focused. The world is full of great anime, but few deserve the award of ‘no useless shots’. Except for the plot-heavy episodes (which don’t really work anyway), every shot equals progress.
It’s worth noting that Cowboy Bebop isn’t a dialogue-heavy show. It borrowed this from the film noire genre. Unlike noire’s bad side, Bebop doesn’t rely on dark shots to let you things are dark. Rather, it doesn’t use a lot of dialogue because it doesn’t need to. The shots are informative enough, and so are never boring.
The series’ only flaw is the grand story behind it focusing on Spike’s past. The series doesn’t exactly lose focus, but confidence. Up until then the defining trait was elegance. Everything was small, but it was enough that counted for a lot. Suddenly we have this huge backstory of broken hearts and smoking guns and overthrowing a criminal syndicate. The last two episodes, while having decent actions, end up mostly as a collection of serious dialogue and dark staring. It survives only on the show’s natural charm. This is one route that demanded a whole new way of storytelling. It’s nice of Watanabe to try but it didn’t work.
Cowboy Bebop is a great anime not because it’s philosophical, influential or borrows a lot from Western fiction. It’s brilliant because it’s a masterpiece of pure storytelling. There are no useless parts in these 23 or so episodes. Each story is different both in events, pacing and mood. People who are uncomfortable with this will make stuff up about ‘existentialism’ but it’s their loss. Regardless of who you are, there’s something to enjoy here.
4.5 trippy mushrooms out of 5