The Daily Stream: Cowboy Bebop Is Neo-Noir Anime Perfection

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Series: "Cowboy Bebop"

Where You Can Watch It: Netflix, Hulu, and Funimation

The Pitch: The year is 2071. The solar system has been colonized, though the colonies are something like the old west, and Earth is a nearly uninhabitable wasteland. The Inter Solar System Police (ISSP) developed a contract system legalizing bounty hunting across the planets. Registered bounty hunters, referred to as "cowboys," go after criminals whose information is distributed via a television show and the internet. When they catch them, they can bring them in alive for a reward. Basically, law enforcement in the future decides to outsource chasing down crooks, and it becomes a (somewhat) valid profession. 

"Cowboy Bebop" follows Spike Spiegel (Kōichi Yamadera/Steve Blum), a former Red Dragon Syndicate hitman on the run after faking his death, and his partner, a former ISSP officer named Jet Black (Unshō Ishizuka/Beau Billingslea). They fly the ship the Bebop, taking bounties in an attempt to put food on the table. They are eventually joined by Faye Valentine (Megumi Hayashibara/Wendee Lee), a con-artist with amnesia; Edward (Aoi Tada/Melissa Fahn), an eccentric teenaged girl who happens to be one of the galaxy's best hackers; and Ein, a genetically-engineered Welsh Corgi who is as smart as any human. (Ein is short for Einstein, after all.)

The 26-episode series follows the crew of the Bebop as they try to survive in the untamed wilds of outer space. The aesthetic is a jazzy, neo-noir with wild West overtones, and it's hard to explain just how effortlessly cool the series is. The soundtrack, by composer Yoko Kanno, is out-of-this-world jazz-pop that absolutely ... well, bops, and the animation is gorgeous. It's one of the most popular anime series of all time, and for good reason. 

Why It's Essential Viewing

The live-action adaptation of "Cowboy Bebop" drops on November 19, 2021, which makes it as good a time as ever to check out this hugely influential anime series. From the opening credits, set to the acid-jazz song "Tank!" by the band Seatbelts, to the closing cards with song lyrics and cool quotes, "Cowboy Bebop" just oozes cool. 

The series originally debuted and was subsequently canceled in Japan in 1998 after running only a handful of episodes, since the adult content was just too much for the network it was on. It had a full run on a different network later that same year and was picked up for an English-language localization by Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. The series introduced a whole generation of westerners to anime for adults. "Bebop" addresses plenty of adult themes including addiction, terrorism, loneliness, lust, grief, and more. It's a surprisingly mature story littered with its fair share of silliness, which was something audiences latched onto immediately on both sides of the Pacific. 

"Cowboy Bebop" is full of excellent worldbuilding, and creator Shinichirō Watanabe developed a rich world with plenty of interesting concepts to go with its visual flair. But where the series shines is its characters, who are all outcasts of one kind or another, forced together by fate and circumstance. Together, they build a found family, one that almost heals the many wounds they each feel. While many anime purists avoid dubbed versions entirely, the English localization is considered one of the best in anime history, and both the English and Japanese voice casts bring their characters to life in dynamic ways. 

The Ballad of the Space Cowboy

The ongoing story that weaves through "Cowboy Bebop" is that of Spike who faked his own death after a rather nasty falling out with the Red Dragon Syndicate. They're basically the biggest, nastiest mafia in the whole solar system, and Spike used to be one of their top killers. As the series progresses, the audience learns more and more about the enigmatic gunslinger's mysterious past. It turns out that the whole falling out was over a woman named Julia, and Spike's story is a tragic one. Spike's arc sees him learning how to trust in his crewmates and stop being so selfish, though, in the end, his laissez-faire attitude towards the more serious things in life will always come back to bite him. 

Spike and Jet's friendship is often a strained one because both men have trust issues, but they manage to care for each other nonetheless. Faye, Ed, and Ein are all additional emotional burdens on Spike, who seems to do better as a lone wolf. Even though all of the crew impact one another, the greatest change is in Spike, who manages to get past his grief and anger to have some truly beautiful friendships. He's ultimately a deeply flawed man whose sins will always haunt him, but seeing him get a chance at happiness is one of the series' greatest joys. The potential for him to throw that all away in the name of revenge, however, is that much more heartbreaking.

A Unique and Diverse Crew

While "Cowboy Bebop" is very much Spike's story, the rest of the crew get plenty of time to shine. Jet's history with the ISSP is explored, we get to learn more about Faye's background, and Edward ... Edward feeds everyone psychedelic mushrooms just to see what happens. It's better to leave her a mystery, I think. Then again, all 13-year-olds are mysteries. 

The crew of the Bebop becomes a kind of family, and each character's individual arc impacts the others. Much like real-life relationships, the crew often bicker in times of stress. Spike and Faye act like siblings, with Jet as their beleaguered father and Ed as their wild cousin. 

Ein is simply a Good Boy, who has never done anything wrong, ever. 

Sure, the big events in the series are fun, but the best moments are the small ones. Some of the "filler" episodes that don't progress the overall plot are the best parts of the series because we're able to explore the relationships more closely. 

The episode "Toys in the Attic," for example, is "Cowboy Bebop" does "Alien," with an extraterrestrial creature that's snuck aboard the Bebop. Watching the crew try to figure out such a strange situation is a lot of fun, and occasionally genuinely frightening. The aforementioned episode where Ed gives everyone psychedelics, "Mushroom Samba," is similarly delightful, because we get to see what it looks like when each of the adults goes tripping. Spike finds a "stairway to heaven" with a talking frog, to give you a taste.

A Beautiful, Violent Meditation on the Meaning of it All

You can have all of the fun in the world with the crew, but it doesn't leave a lasting impression without some deeper feelings. Thankfully, "Bebop" has those in spades, because each character is traumatized and trying to reconcile their pain with survival. Spike wonders if he can ever feel peace after the horrors he's inflicted on others, while Jet longs for any kind of serenity beyond his bonsai trees, Faye's looking to belong somewhere, and Ed just wants some company. They'd all be terminally lonely, doomed to drift around the cosmos in constant existential angst if it weren't for each other and the occasional hot bowl of noodles.

"Cowboy Bebop" has a depth that few other series — anime or live-action — could hope for. The characters are so well-developed and their arcs are so intentional that the series is infinitely re-watchable. Each subsequent viewing gives a new perspective, either on an individual character or the series as a whole. It's brilliantly written, acted, and animated, and if I haven't convinced you to check it out by now, I'm not going to. With "Cowboy Bebop" streaming on Hulu, Netflix, and Funimation, you have plenty of options, and this ground-breaking series is worth every minute of your time.