BANG! A Cruel Writer's Thesis on Cowboy Bebop

Another year gone by, another year ahead to reminisce on life. Sure is grand, huh? Seems like only yesterday that Hollywood was giving us hackneyed adaptations of beloved stories, the US was plagued with racial rioting and anime was being called superior to Western animation. My, how times have changed. Or have they?

On a more serious note, I’ve decided to kick the new year off by revisiting a classic, one that-to-date-I’ve seen three times and would’ve done a Beginner’s Guide on if I could actually do justice to my thoughts in such a piece. But I can’t, so I figured I might as well get this elephant in the room out of the way and face the consequences once and for all:

I don’t consider Cowboy Bebop to be the greatest anime show ever.

I can hear the riots and whining from a mile away, and, rest assured, what I’m about to say isn’t what you think. For the record, I love Cowboy Bebop. Adore it, even! It’s on Doug Walker’s, JesuOtaku’s, GRArkada’s, Chris Stuckmann’s, Bennett the Sage’s and SuedeBlade’s radars of great shows in general for a reason: it really is that good. I can even attest to that myself, as it’s one of the best shows ever made, East or West. It’s got so much going for it: great use of music (particularly jazz, which I’m normally not big on,) great animation (especially 17 years later,) great character writing, great episode writing, cinematic direction and one of the greatest openings ever. And after having seen it thrice, each time during a different time in my life, for it to hold up so well is a testament to how good it is!

But you’re not interested in that, so I might as well explain why I don’t consider it the best anime series ever. To that, I use one word: detachment.

Allow me to explain.

See, I’ve found, through an examination of some of her work, that Keiko Nobumoto has a…let’s say “disenfranchised” outlook on life. She’s a brilliant writer, don’t mistake me, but Nobumoto’s biggest strengths are of an observer, a cold watcher who thinks up a scenario, writes the natural response, gives said response to a group of outliers and then grabs a camera and lets them enact said response while she films them from a distance. She doesn’t yell “CUT!”, she doesn’t tell them they’re “doing it wrong,” she simply sits back and sees if everything carries out as planned. On one hand, this leaves a lot of room for interpretation and analysis of the human condition, two areas she, surprisingly, excels at without much effort. On the other hand, she leaves the interpretation and analysis strictly in the hands of her audience, as opposed to sometimes getting involved and leaving clues.

Basically, she’s a computer.

Before anyone jumps on me, I have no problems with this writing. Christopher Nolan, one of my favourite directors, does this all the time. In some ways, one can argue that the two are alike in that regard! But where as Nolan is populace-minded, meaning that he’ll interject his own voice in his characters so as to clue in his audience, sometimes to his own detriment, Nobumoto…doesn’t. She merely sits back and lets the viewer interpret it for him or herself.

How fitting, then, that her crown achievement, Cowboy Bebop, both lends itself brilliantly to that style and suffers a little because of it. On one hand, the show, like Nobumoto, is a brilliant deconstruction of the human psyche, hidden beneath an episodic layout. Her characters are layered, subtly-written and really fascinating to observe. They feel like real people, regardless of how bizarrely they behave. And this style matches well with series director Shinichiro Watanabe, whose collage-esque and cinematic directing style allows for the same, subtle distance and analysis that Nobumoto achieves. In that sense, the show is a masterpiece.

On the other hand, the disconnect leaves little room for an emotional attachment. Does that mean there’s none to be had? No. Episodes like “Mushroom Samba” and “Cowboy Funk” lend plenty of laughs, while “Toys in the Attic” and “Pierrot le Fou” are downright terrifying. Even “Ballad of Fallen Angels,” one of the show’s 5 story-centric episodes, ends on a really chilling note. So yes, there’s an emotional attachment.

But it’s light. The big problem with distance is you’re left wondering why you should get worked up over something, which is especially bad when you’ve never developed a bond. Cowboy Bebop has brilliantly-written characters that feel like real people, but that’s where it begins and ends. For the most part, I don’t really connect with Spike, Jet, Faye and Edward, meaning that even their back-stories, and let’s not pretend that they’re not tragic, never transcend beyond a “Well, that happened!” reaction. It hurts me to say that about such likeable characters, but it’s the truth.

To put it into perspective, I’ll use Shaun of the Dead as a reference. By technical standards, there’s nothing wrong with Edgar Wright’s film: it’s a brilliantly-written story about a clerk and his friends trying to survive a zombie outbreak. The movie is visually stunning, well-edited, has great performances and is incredibly-realistic for something so ludicrous. But here’s the problem: Shaun of the Dead is billed as a comedy, and yet it’s not really that funny. It has jokes here and there, like a scene where the survivors pelt a zombie with bats in-tune with a pop song, but for the most part it’s played really straight. I might be in the minority, but after the halfway point I began to doubt if it was really a comedy, a concern not helped by a third-act twist that I won’t ruin, but was really dark and depressing. In short, I was disappointed by Shaun of the Dead not because it wasn’t good, but because it was too good. A comedy needs to have enough bending of reality to be funny, regardless of whether or not it’s played straight, and the movie didn’t have that.

The same is true of Cowboy Bebop, except replace “funny” with “emotional connection.” The show is brilliant, but perhaps too brilliant for its own good. I never once actively felt an investment in a given episode’s dilemma because it was played too straight. The characters reacted to their situations beat-for-beat how I’d expect, and while that’s normally a positive, here it was jarring because it lacked surprise. And the show never let it sink in, it played out the outcome and moved on.

“Okay then,” you say, “but what about the story episodes?”

Surprisingly, the 5 story episodes are where the issue with the writing is most-prevalent. To be fair, they’re the best-written, most meaty episodes, cementing everything that happens before, in-between and after them. But, again, there’s that detachment element. “Ballad of the Fallen Angels,” “Jupiter Jazz Part 1,” “Jupiter Jazz Part 2,” “The Folk Blues Part 1” and “The Real Folk Blues Part 2” dig into the mind of Spike and his past, enough to validate his actions in the remaining 21 episodes, but that distance that Nobumoto uses pops up again and makes what should be tragic into a well-intentioned exercise in whether or not you can consider Cowboy Bebop a legit love story.

And I can’t do that, at least not to the same extent as the show wants. Besides, it isn’t all that gripping anyway: it’s a love triangle centring around a lazy, former assassin, a 2-Dimensional villain and a women looking for love in all the wrong places. It’s classic angst, and I don’t care for that. And yet, like Porco Rosso, the show keeps building the mystery behind this back-story to the point that I got tired of it really quickly and wondered how long the episodes really were. Also, as someone in my Twitter Feed put it, the ending had so many other ways of resolving the situation that I can’t buy into its resolution. In other words, not a fan.

If it sounds like I’m being too hard on the show, perhaps I am; after all, it has such high praise that it almost seems like I’m intentionally picking a fight to piss off fans. But I really do feel Cowboy Bebop is lacking because of its disconnect, and that bothers me. It especially bothers me because Nobumoto would later write Wolf’s Rain, a show that, while more cryptic and divisive, had the missing component this show lacked. In Wolf’s Rain, I genuinely felt for the characters, their journey and the consequences of their actions. I actually felt the weight of what was at stake, which is more than I can say here.

On more note before I close off, I don’t think Cowboy Bebop has the best dub, nor do I think it’s the only anime worth watching in English. I’ve already covered this in a previous article, but dubbing is an art form that deserves more respect than it gets. And Cowboy Bebop’s dub, while no doubt one of the best dubs ever (and one that set the bar high,) is dated and has a single, terrible performance in “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui”. I don’t mean to intentionally berate something that set the standard, but, like the CGI in Jurassic Park, it’s not “god-tier” or immune from criticism.

Overall, while I have my issues with Cowboy Bebop, this isn’t to say it’s not fantastic. If anything, it’s in my Top 5 anime series! But my reaction can be compared to Jaws, in that it’s a classic that must be watched by fans of anime, even if I prefer other shows. Then again, Steven Spielberg has made so many great movies that not even Jaws is even in my Top 5 of his works, so that might not be the best comparison…

Anyway, that about sums up my take on Cowboy Bebop. You may now pelt stones at me for heresy.


  1. Sean of the Dead is a black comedy

    1. I still didn't find it all that funny, bro. Sorry to disappoint you...

  2. What if Cowboy Bebop had been produced by studio ghibli?

    1. Are you honestly-fine, here's what'd happen:

      Nothing would change. I'd still consider it one of my top 5 favourite anime series, yet'd think it was emotionally-underwhelming...


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