The Original Plan For Cowboy Bebop Was Nothing More Than A Cash Grab

"Cowboy Bebop" is essential anime, a carefully blended concoction of genres that add up to a fiercely original space adventure. The series has received acclaim far outside the confines of anime fandom particularly because it travels outside the confines of anime conventions and tropes for its influences. It's ironic, then, that this irreverent, existential show started off as a way to sell spaceship toys.

Anime was on an upswing when "Cowboy Bebop" debuted, crawling out of a creative slump in the early '90s and reaching new heights by the end of the decade. This was the same era that gave us series like "Neon Genesis Evangelion" and "Serial Experiments Lain" that contrasted advanced technology and human psychology to explore the inner workings of the mind. Despite this exciting shift towards more mature, philosophical storytelling, however, the studio behind "Cowboy Bebop" imagined it as a kid-friendly romp. It took series director Shinichiro Watanabe going rogue to create the weird, wonderful classic we all know and love.

From spaceships to Space Cowboys

The birth of "Cowboy Bebop" began with a request from Bandai, one of the world's largest toy companies and a merchandising partner (and now sister company) of the animation studio Sunrise (now called Bandai Namco FIlmworks). Producer Masahiko Minami had already formed a relationship with the company through his work at Sunrise because the studio was responsible for the popular "Gundam" franchise, which spawned wildly successful lines of plastic models featuring the titular mechas. Bandai, interested in expanding their product selection from giant robots to spaceships, asked Minami if the creatives at Sunrise could come up with an idea for a show to sell these new types of figurines. That's when Minami called up his contact Shinichiro Watanabe, who turned what was supposed to be a glorified toy commercial into an anime classic.

According to Watanabe himself in a panel at Japan Expo 2018 (transcribed by Sakuga Blog), he took the opportunity to let his imagination run wild:

"The directive we got from Bandai was for the series to have spaceships and no guidelines regarding the narrative... Which is to say, our actual goal was to create a great series the way we saw fit without much concern about Bandai's request. Once we got back to them with our project draft, they went 'what about our toys?!' and backed out."

Unsurprisingly, Bandai wasn't pleased with Watanabe's character-driven, existential vision. The director had been working on the fourth episode when the company stopped production "because they didn't think such a dark and subdued portrayal of spacecrafts would do any favors to their toy sales," explained Watanabe in an interview with Otaquest. Luckily for him and anime fans everywhere, Bandai's film production and distribution subsidiary Bandai Visual rescued the project, and "Cowboy Bebop" lived to become one of the most beloved anime series of all time.