Gundam's Success Gave Cowboy Bebop The Room It Needed To Be Weird

Shinichirō Watanabe's "Cowboy Bebop" defies genre expectations. It is a sci-fi ballad and a space Western with noir elements, sporting themes that are hopelessly bleak and existentialist. The anime's protagonist, Spike Spiegel, is not your conventional hero: he's a green-haired space cowboy who puts his life on the line to put food on the table, with a "whatever happens, happens" attitude to help him stumble through life. The rest of the characters struggle to figure out their place in a dystopian, fragmented world, where everyone is out to achieve their goals, no matter the cost.

The sprawling, diverse world of "Cowboy Bebop" is perhaps the anime's greatest strength, as it functions as more than a mere backdrop to a compelling story with relatable characters. Most importantly, Watanabe was able to portray the complexities of human nature while merging it with futuristic aesthetics that are not solely ornamental. There's the thrill of bounty hunting, the glamorous pull of swanky space casinos, and of course, the endlessly cool Spike, who is the ultimate badass.

However, "Cowboy Bebop" had the space to exercise its creative ingenuity due to the success of another anime that redefined the mecha genre. 1979's "Mobile Suit Gundam," which launched the explosively popular "Gundam" series, allowed Watanabe and the folks at Studio Sunrise (the studio behind both "Gundam" and "Cowboy Bebop") to experiment with fresh concepts and storytelling formats in anime. Here's how they managed to do it.

How mechas paved the way for space cowboys

In an interview with Watanabe and Shin Sasaki, the managing director at Studio Sunrise, the latter explained that anime as a genre was gaining steady popularity by the time "Cowboy Bebop" was conceived. Sunrise experienced immense success with their flagship anime series, "Mobile Suit Gundam," which kickstarted an entire industry of plastic model kits known as Gunpla, which is still popular today. Although "Cowboy Bebop" was initially intended solely for Japanese audiences, Sasaki claims that the studio immediately recognized the anime's global appeal due to Watanabe's gripping world-building:

"The Japanese animation industry was at a high point at that time, and Sunrise even more so with the success of flagship IPs like 'Gundam.' That's why we were in a position that granted us some leeway to experiment with new concepts. 'Cowboy Bebop' was an attempt to create a new world and bring something fresh to the audience. When we saw the world crafted by the staff, we knew it'd have great success overseas."

The reason "Mobile Suit Gundam" resonated with audiences can be attributed to the series' realistic, yet cool-as-hell robot designs, whose technology was presented as scientifically-accurate and practically feasible. Apart from this, the series paints a gritty, nuanced picture of war while featuring characters who are humanized through and through, instead of being put on a pedestal and lauded as heroes.

"Cowboy Bebop" adopts a similar approach when it comes to its world building and characters. Although set in a dystopian world, the problems that ail the protagonists are innately human and do not partake in the traditional characteristics associated with heroism. Apart from this, the aesthetics of the world, rife with beat-up spaceships, futuristic planets, and realistic socio-cultural tropes, made "Cowboy Bebop" beloved and special.

Watanabe does not play around

Although Sasaki's praise for Watanabe and his team sounds great, the truth about the production process of "Cowboy Bebop" is immensely problematic, as Studio Sunrise was far more interested in the anime's ability to boost merchandise sales than its artistic integrity. In the same interview, Watanabe calls Sasaki's claim that the studio banked on the anime's success a "lie," and goes on to applaud his team's commitment to creative freedom:

"He [Sasaki] claimed that they knew the series would be successful. That's a lie [laughs]... I think the creative freedom we battled for bore its fruits, right? We created 'Cowboy Bebop' as a series of its own, not as a promotional tool for something else. In today's industry, creative freedom is a thing of the past, and that saddens me."

Watanabe's words might seem uncomfortably straightforward, but they're true. Sunrise was indeed interested in selling toy spaceships after "Cowboy Bebop's" release, but the creative team crafted a character-focused story where the aesthetic elements were complementary in nature. Yes, "Gundam" might've allowed "Cowboy Bebop" to pull off a story that was fresh and unconventional, but the true credit must be given to Watanabe and his team, who refused to give into a corporate cash grab that would have compromised their creative efforts. 

Although "Cowboy Bebop" did not sell merchandise like "Gundam," it managed to create its own space in the sci-fi anime genre and garnered a global fanbase dedicated to Watanabe's eclectic vision. Moreover, the legacy of Spike Spiegel still shines bright, as he is remembered as a man full of broken dreams who fought 'til the bitter end.