Cowboy Bebop's Inspirations Were As Eclectic As The Show Itself

"They are sick and tired of conventional fixed style jazz," read the opening credits of "Cowboy Bebop." "The work, which becomes a new genre itself...will be called 'COWBOY BEBOP.'" 

"Cowboy Bebop" is very different from other anime of its time, just as its creators intended. Its central characters are adults rather than teenagers, and they inhabit a multiracial and multilingual world. They pilot small and nimble spaceships instead of giant robots. The episodes swing from horror to comedy to tragedy, but are unified by the cast, the worn environments, and most of all, the soundtrack. "Cowboy Bebop" confused broadcasters and required the intervention of the satellite network WOWOW to be aired uncensored and in its entirety. Yet to its many fans inside and outside of Japan, "Cowboy Bebop" is one of the best anime ever. No other series captures its precise mixture of cool, comedy, and melancholy — not even spiritual successors like "Samurai Champloo."

Rather than the "new genre" promised by the opening credits, though, "Cowboy Bebop" is really a mix of old favorites. The influence of noir, cyberpunk, and Hong Kong action films can be felt throughout. Individual episodes riff on films like "Alien," "Shaft" and "The Crow," while their titles reference songs by The Rolling Stones and Queen. Frankly, diagramming the influences of "Cowboy Bebop" has become a cottage industry. The "Cowboy Bebop" fansite Real Folk Blues presents a long list of films and artists referenced by episode. Fanbyte tackles the "Cowboy" angle of "Cowboy Bebop," discussing the show's take on the Western. Speaking personally, I enjoyed this article on Crunchyroll News, which does an excellent job drawing parallels between "Bebop" and film movements like the French New Wave.

The past is the past

To be fair to the creators of "Bebop," they've always been honest about their personal inspirations. In an interview with IGN, "Bebop" director Shinichiro Watanabe praises the famous science fiction film "Blade Runner," going as far as to say, "I assume everyone in the anime industry has seen 'Blade Runner' at some point." Years later he would direct the animated short "Blade Runner Black Out 2022," an excellent short tying into the release of "Blade Runner 2049." Meanwhile, "Bebop" scriptwriter Dai Sato said to Otaquest that the show's first episode was like a "Sam Peckinpah film," and reaffirmed the importance of The Rolling Stones and Queen.

"Cowboy Bebop" isn't the only anime series to borrow from Hollywood, either. Hiroyuki Imiashi, an animator and director whose friends at Studio Trigger brought us explosive action blockbusters like "Promare" and "Kill la Kill," is a big fan of enfant terrible auteur director Michael Bay. Director Ei Aoki, whose work includes "Fate/Zero ” and "Re:Creators," confirmed in an interview with Anime News Network that he was heavily inspired by directorial heavyweights J.J. Abrams and Zack Snyder. Don't forget the countless anime and video games inspired by 80s cheese classic "Streets of Fire," which despite bombing on its release in the United States, continues to influence Japanese pop culture to this day.

A dream I could never wake up from

What distinguishes "Cowboy Bebop" is its specificity. According to Sabukaru Online, Shinichiro Watanabe entered the anime industry not as an animator but as a producer. His greatest strength has always been his ability to pick and choose bits from film, music, and television to create the right atmosphere. Dai Sato compares his experience collaborating with Watanabe on "Bebop" to submitting a demo record. He said, "If Watanabe likes it, it'll be chosen. If it doesn't catch his interest, I just accept that it's not right..." It's an approach to creating art that demands excellent collaborators, but Watanabe has always had a good eye and ear. Recently he served as music producer for shows like "Michiko and Hatchin" and "Sonny Boy," creating distinctive soundscapes for each. "Cowboy Bebop" saw him "jamming" together with the show's composer Yoko Kanno, inspiring one of the most varied and impressive soundtracks of all time.

Another key aspect that sets "Cowboy Bebop” apart is what it chooses to take from its set of influences. For instance, Watanabe mentions "Lupin the Third” as a key reference point for "Bebop." The long-running comedy heist thriller follows a gentleman thief, who wanders the globe in search of risque adventure, helped and hindered along the way by a recurring cast of oddballs. The parallels between the two series are easy to spot. Lupin's womanizing ways and disregard for the law are a dead ringer for "Bebop" hero Spike Spiegel. Lupin's classic femme fatale Fujiko Miine, who can always be counted on to play both sides for her own benefit, has a lot in common with Spike's crewmate Faye Valentine. Even the episodic structure of "Bebop" is reflected in the sheer variety of "Lupin” material, ranging from the classic adventure of "Castle of Cagliostro" to the seediness of "Mystery of Mamo."

Whatever happens, happens

But "Cowboy Bebop" takes a lesson from "Lupin" that is even deeper and more fundamental, despite not being as obvious on the surface. In an episode of the podcast Asinine Lupin, cultural critic Shannon Strucci peels apart the show's happy-go-lucky exterior. In her opinion, "The core elements of 'Lupin' are the ... characters and the dynamics between them, and how they each want something they can never get." That sense of longing and desperation is essential to "Bebop." Spike, Faye and Jet all carry past baggage. The question of whether they will survive together or be crushed individually is the dramatic engine that makes "Bebop" go. Other anime borrow from "Lupin," but only the staff of "Bebop" thought to borrow its pathetic undercurrent.

Other choices are more experiential, but they are just as important. Dai Sato references Yellow Magic Orchestra as a "Cowboy Bebop ” touchstone. Founded by the trio Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi, it's a band that contains multitudes. The blend of pastiche and futurism in Yellow Magic Orchestra was surely an influence on "Bebop," but Sato lands on something else entirely in his interview with Otaquest. "They were truly a group that never explained anything," he said. "It was hard enough to understand the titles of their songs..." Sato didn't fully understand their work as a child, although he enjoyed listening to it. It took years for him to wrap his head around what the band had accomplished.

You've gotta carry that weight

There's a similar ambiguity present in "Bebop," an ambiguity that has led fans to revisit the series over the years. The future history the characters inhabit is suggested but never fully sketched out. The characters wrestle with strong emotions but struggle to make sense of them.  According to Sato, while planning the series he would sit in a room with Watanabe and a record player. "When we would sit down and listen to one another's records, we'd just say 'This sounds good.'" It's clear from anecdotes like this that the staff of "Bebop" wanted to achieve something more than simply tell a good story. They wanted to capture a vibe. Every name, homage and line of dialogue was a tool to that end.

I saw "Cowboy Bebop" before I watched "Blade Runner" or listened to The Rolling Stones. I listened to the "Cowboy Bebop" soundtrack before I actively sought out jazz. I reckon that there were other kids just like me. As they grew up, I would hope that "Bebop" led them to some unexpected places. I can't say what it must have been like to watch the original airing of "Bebop" as an adult. I can only trust that its fans understood "Bebop" as an act of love. This line from the aforementioned Crunchyroll News piece on "Bebop" says it all:

"Greatness comes not from true 'originality,' but from cribbing widely and gracefully enough that the distinction between invention and pastiche feels meaningless."

Who is the real Spike Spiegel? The real Faye Valentine? Like them, "Cowboy Bebop" hangs in the liminal space between truth and memory, life and death. A festival of cool commemorating the death of a friend. There are other anime of the 90s that I prefer, but I reckon that there has never been a better mixtape.