The Ballad of Cowboy Bebop: How an oddball Japanese series became an anime landmark
Cowboy Bebop first arrived on American airwaves as the clock struck midnight on Sept. 2, 2001, closing out the premiere broadcast of Cartoon Network's late-night programming block Adult Swim. The vibrant title sequence and blaring opening bars of Yoko Kanno's jazzy theme song "Tank!" heralded the anime series' debut, likely confounding many viewers who had just finished that night's episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
It was that opening sequence that sold Cartoon Network executives on Cowboy Bebop in the first place. "The second we saw the open — we didn't even know what the show was about — we were like, 'We're in, we want to license it. We need it right now,'" recalls Jason DeMarco, the head of anime and action series at Adult Swim, who was part of the original team that helped develop the block. "That was before they even had more than one episode done, so then it was a matter of us waiting until they had enough episodes to officially start sending us."
Once full episodes began to roll in — more than a year later, in DeMarco's memory — "The more we watched it, the more we became obsessed with it," he says. "It immediately felt to all of us like something different than we'd ever seen."
Ask several people what they love about Cowboy Bebop, and you're likely to get a lot of different answers: The complex characters. The gorgeous animation. Kanno's score. (That one comes up a lot.) Often you hear a variant on DeMarco's sentiment: "It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before." Two decades after it first aired in the U.S., the 26-episode sci-fi series remains a beloved classic of the anime form — with an expensive live-action Netflix adaptation to prove it — and essential viewing for anyone looking to dive into the world of Japanese animation.
"In the anime community, if you haven't watched it, then you're not a true anime fan," says Azusa Matsuda, an executive at the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation, which organizes the annual Anime Expo convention in Los Angeles. "It's like a badge that you have to earn."
Ironically, Cowboy Bebop attained that status in no small part because it was like a lot of things American viewers had seen before, while also defying all expectations for a TV anime project. Set in 2071, the series follows the misadventures of a ragtag group of spacefaring bounty hunters — coolly detached "space cowboy" Spike Spiegel, tough but lovable ex-cop Jet Black, amnesiac drifter Faye Valentine, and eccentric teenage hacker Ed, plus a corgi named Ein — as they aimlessly wander a dystopian galaxy in search of criminals, money, and food. Along the way, they struggle to escape their past lives, grapple with ennui and existential crises, and narrowly escape death many times while dealing out plenty of carnage themselves. Most episodes serve as self-contained stories — director Shinichirō Watanabe and screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto treated each installment as its own mini-movie — while gradually building out the characters' backstories and drawing out sophisticated thematic undercurrents. Pokémon, it is not.
"This show combines the best elements that you can possibly put into a cartoon or in any media," says voice actor Steve Blum, who played Spike in the acclaimed English-language dub of the series. "It's great storytelling, it's cinematic, the performances are very real, very grounded. The writing is extraordinary. The music is unbelievable. The directorial sense and the love for American culture is palpable and infectious. And the fact all those elements came together was like a perfect storm of awesome. It was obviously something special compared to the shows that we had been recording at the time."
"Growing up in Japan, I was watching a lot of shows like Speed Racer and Dragon Ball," Matsuda recalls. "When I first saw Cowboy Bebop, it was an eye-opener to a whole new style of storytelling."
Indeed, the series was unusual even in Japan, where animation for an adult audience has historically been treated far more seriously than it has Stateside. Bebop was a major departure from the types (and stereotypes) of anime popular when it was made, in the late 1990s; for one thing, as DeMarco puts it, "It was science fiction, but it wasn't giant robots." It also eschewed a typical J-pop soundtrack in favor of Kanno's jazz-infused score, a decision that paid off handsomely.
"The 'no giant robots' directive was regarded by some at the time as industrial suicide, since that drastically reduced the likely merchandise tie-ins," says Jonathan Clements, author of Anime: A History. "Instead, Watanabe and [producer] Masahiko Minami promised the backers that they would recoup their investments on music spin-offs, hence the huge investment in Yoko Kanno… and the rest is history." (Kanno's music is considered so essential to the series that she was hired to score the Netflix adaptation.)
Even more unusually, Bebop is a veritable stew of international influences, including (but by no means limited to) sci-fi classics like Blade Runner, Sergio Leone Westerns, Dirty Harry, film noir, and Bruce Lee movies, as well as the classic anime series Lupin III. But like many other landmark works of film and TV, the series combined its influences into something entirely new, creating, as text seen in the show's opening sequence puts it, "a new genre itself."
"When creating Cowboy Bebop, I thought it would be more interesting if I added different types of elements together to create something that was completely new," Watanabe has said. (The director was unavailable to be interviewed for this story.)
"I think that Shinichirō Watanabe is the only artist of his generation who has been able to so skillfully play with East and West," says Roland Kelts, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and author of the book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. "He's able to play with them and do pastiches that feel original."
Adds DeMarco, "A lot of American archetypes are built into the show. It's noir, it's cowboys, it's Star Wars. It's a bunch of different things pushed together that are all separately pretty popular in the U.S. I think that was the key to its appeal, at least in this territory: It was an homage to all these different things that ended up feeling new. And as an American watching an anime, it felt more like you related to the setup. We had been involved in localizing several different anime series we thought would have U.S. appeal, but I had not seen one that felt that stylish and clearly indebted to American sensibilities, in a way."
Bebop's characters also defy and even subvert expectations of stock anime types, from the protagonist on down the line. "Spike was definitely not your anime everyboy," says Susan Napier, a professor at Tufts University and author of several books on anime. "You often have stories of cute or befuddled young guys, who are sort of doofuses. Spike was brooding, he was kind of sardonic. Faye Valentine is sort of amazing — she is such a typical anime babe; she's extremely buxom, and so you're tending to think of her as the love-interest-type character, but I don't think there's ever a time when she has anything romantic going on. She's a complicated, very intriguing figure who almost belies her voluptuous characteristics."
In short, Cowboy Bebop was familiar yet thrillingly fresh for Western audiences, a show that seems to have been uniquely poised to become a breakout success. Certainly, DeMarco and his Adult Swim colleagues felt that way when they saw it for the first time.
"I won't say it felt like a paradigm shift that early, but it felt like we were seeing something special," he says. "We were really excited to know that we were bringing it to the U.S., because we thought, 'This is going to be a massive hit. This is gonna be like Dragon Ball Z.' Which is funny in retrospect, because that isn't quite the journey Bebop took."
Cowboy Bebop first aired in Japan in April 1998, debuting in a scattershot, out-of-order fashion on the broadcast network TV Tokyo. The series emerged in a landscape that had been heavily colored, for better and for worse, by the acclaimed but controversial Neon Genesis Evangelion, which had helped revitalize TV anime in Japan a few years earlier.
"Evangelion had effectively broken the mold for prime-time TV, and there was a scramble to make some kind of follow-up that did something different," Clements explains. "Cowboy Bebop went for a sci-fi future without giant robots" — again, defying the conventions of science fiction anime at the time.
However, Evangelion also prompted a more "censorious" climate, according to Clements, in which "everybody was jumpy about racy content on television." Bebop's frequent violence (and 6 p.m. time slot) put it squarely on the chopping block.
"TV Tokyo was gingerly trying to deal with the fallout from a couple of prominent media-violence incidents," Clements says, "so broadcasting standards were substantially tighter than they might have been before, and the show was stuck in limbo for months."
While only 12 episodes of the series ultimately aired on TV Tokyo (ending with a cheeky message from the creators reading, "THIS IS NOT THE END. YOU WILL SEE THE REAL COWBOY BEBOP SOMEDAY!"), the satellite network WOWOW stepped in to air all 26 entries four months later, in order and uncut, finally bringing the show's full glory to Japanese audiences. Meanwhile, Bebop's distributor was in the process of trying to sell the series abroad, which necessitated the creation of an English-language dub.
Like Adult Swim's DeMarco, the creators of the dub were enraptured by Bebop immediately. "The more I saw, the more I thought, 'This is one of the most amazing shows I've ever seen,'" says Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, who was recruited to direct the English voice cast. "It was our job to not screw it up, because it was so, so beautiful. But I didn't feel that much pressure, because back in 1998 there really wasn't anywhere to see anime. I was like, wow, nobody's ever gonna see this. So you know what? Let's just make it for us. Let's take it in a different direction from standard anime [voice acting], which is very heightened and big. Let's make it much more cinematic and really dive into these characters."
As Blum, the voice actor who played Spike, recalls, "It was an intimate setting. It was just me, Mary, and our engineer for most of the sessions, and she created a safe space for all of us to experiment, to try new things, and to take our time. That was very surprising. Most shows, we'd have a minimum line count we'd have to get through just because of the budget, and on Bebop, we weren't restricted by that. [McGlynn] said, 'We're going to get done whatever we get done today. I want you to just relax and have fun, and we're going to create something that we love.' None of us were used to that. That was an absolute luxury, to have that kind of a relaxed atmosphere with a director who was that committed to making this as good as we possibly could."
Adds McGlynn, "There weren't a lot of [animated] shows that supported that style of acting, so to have one that was really for adults, it was just like, 'Yes, let's do this! Why not? Nobody's ever going to see it!'"
As McGlynn alludes to, anime was a niche market in the U.S. at that time, requiring substantial effort and investment from fans. "American anime audiences were the kind of people who often had to buy a show sight-unseen, put down 20 bucks on a VHS or one of the early DVDs, and hope it wouldn't suck," Clements says.
But slowly, that was beginning to change. Cartoon Network had become instrumental in bringing anime to a wider audience with Toonami, an afternoon programming block that launched in 1997 and featured Japanese imports like Dragon Ball, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, and Voltron. The adult-oriented Cowboy Bebop, however, was not exactly an easy fit for the channel.
"We were worried we would have to cut too much of it to be able to do it justice if we put it on regular Cartoon Network," recalls DeMarco, who also co-created the Toonami block. "[But] right around that time, we actually started developing Adult Swim, and we had a couple other shows which were a little too adult to really make it into Toonami. And we decided, 'Let's just hold them all [until] we launch Adult Swim, and that way we don't have to edit them down to worthlessness.'"
It was a decision that would end up changing the anime landscape forever. Adult Swim was "one of the most important building blocks of the anime fandom," says Napier, the Tufts professor. "It opened things up hugely. All of a sudden, anime was much more available, and [the audience] wasn't just art-house people and science fiction nerds. I started teaching anime in the late '90s, and as I continued to teach it, more and more people were coming in because they'd seen something on Adult Swim and got really into it."
"We just kept airing [Cowboy Bebop]," DeMarco says. "For 12 or 13 years straight, maybe more, we literally never had it off the air. And in terms of raw viewership numbers, it was never a hit. It just seemed to do as well as any other anime. We just aired the s--- out of it because we loved it, and we didn't particularly care if it got great ratings."
Nor was there any other indication, from the network's perspective, that the show was gaining much of an audience. Recalls DeMarco, "Back then, you might look at the message boards on the Adult Swim site to see if people were talking about it. You might anecdotally hear from the distributor, 'Hey, we're selling a lot of toys or a lot of merch,' and then you'd go, 'I guess it's catching on.' And Bebop did okay, but we never heard any of that stuff. We never heard anyone say, 'This is a classic, you should all watch this.'"
At least until the complaints began to roll in. "I started realizing a lot of people had seen Bebop when people started complaining on our message boards, saying, 'God, you guys have shown this for like a decade! Everyone has seen Bebop, we all know Bebop is great. Why are you still showing it so much?'" DeMarco says with a laugh. "The aggregate of all of those airings over that many years allowed it to be exposed to a lot of people in the end. And that is, I think, one of the reasons why it has its reputation for being a classic, because we just showed it so much that enough people saw it and thought, 'Wow, this thing is really good.'"
Indeed, Clements says, "I remember in 2002, I was at the first London Sci-Fi Film Festival, and an American attendee was wittering away about how the festival ought to be showing some 'cutting-edge TV shows like Cowboy Bebop.' Cowboy Bebop, I pointed out to him, was already four years old — there had already been more than a dozen TV seasons that had come and gone since it finished. But it wasn't old to him, it was brand-new. He saw it on Adult Swim the day before, like millions of other people would. It never got old, came off air, and ended up in the bargain bins at the video store. And that meant that for a whole generation of new anime fans, year upon year, it was one of the first shows that made them go, 'Wow.'"
As the SPJA's Matsuda recalls, "This was the first anime [in the U.S.] where it was okay for you to say, 'I love this.' You couldn't really tell your friends that you liked anime, because they might look at you weird. But with Cowboy Bebop, you were like, this is something that I can definitely come out in public claiming that I love it."
And DeMarco credits Bebop with helping pave the way for more shows that wowed viewers. "The success of it, in the way that it became such a defining show for Adult Swim, was a reason that we were allowed to get a little more adventurous with the choices of what anime we licensed," he explains. "It was one of those shows that helped prove to our corporate overlords that there was an audience for anime beyond what Toonami was doing with kids."
Adds McGlynn, "I've definitely noticed more mature, nuanced anime, everything from Death Note to Monster. It seems that the character depth [in anime] is getting deeper and deeper and deeper, and it's [become] about telling a really good story with deeper character development."
It also transformed the way the anime industry operated, at least from DeMarco's perspective: "It proved to a lot of anime distributors and creators that Japan isn't the only market where a show's success can happen. That's a lesson that a lot of anime distributors understand now, because the business now is so international and so globalized, but back then it wasn't. Shows were very much created with the idea of the local Japanese audience in mind, and whatever happened after that was gravy. Now shows are made with a global audience in mind. They want a show that could ideally appeal to many different countries."
But whatever changes it may have wrought, there's still a unique quality to Cowboy Bebop all these years later. "I think even within the industry in Japan it was widely understood that Cowboy Bebop was lightning in a bottle — that it was a fantastic synergy of creative talent that you couldn't explain with a spreadsheet and copy with a focus group," says Clements. "Cowboy Bebop wasn't something that you can cynically recreate, and that's part of its classic status."
It also helped that, as Clements puts it, Bebop "was already so retro that it was future-proof," and that its timeless themes of ennui, trauma, and loneliness continue to resonate.
"I interviewed people [about Cowboy Bebop] years ago for a book, and [they said] it was a way of dealing with and exploring some issues of darkness and loneliness," Napier says. "There is a sense of vulnerability in these characters — they're out there in this space station, and they have their own issues which come up and bite them sometimes. I think it's a really good series for people who want to see their own troubles reflected at arm's length, in this science fiction world with these somewhat exaggerated, quirky characters, yet who are very, very human. I think it's a really good way of processing a lot of one's own fears and insecurities."
And it's that personal side of the show's impact that has struck its creative team most deeply. "It really took a while before it dawned on me that the show had that much of an effect out there," says Blum. "It was really on the convention circuit, many years later, that I started to get direct feedback from people who would tell me how the show got them through difficult times, or they were able to connect with it in a way that lifted them up out of a dark moment in their life. Those are the moments that made me realize how powerful this show was. It was less about how popular it became and more about how it really helps people."
He recalls, "The whole cast was at Anime Expo several years ago, and this girl stood up in the audience and said that watching Cowboy Bebop stopped her from committing suicide. And we jumped off the stage, we came down to her, and as a cast, we hugged her, and you could feel the energy from the entire audience — it was like this gigantic hug for this girl who had survived something extraordinary, and attributed that moment of survival to her connection with the show."
Says McGlynn, "[Bebop is about] a group of misfits brought together by chance, and I just feel like it resonates in all of us, that there's a part of us that feels like we don't belong sometimes. They come together, and they work together, but they still all have their own stories and their own lives, and in the end, they go and pursue them. It's a human story, and it shows that in all of its glory, and all of its awfulness and vulnerability, and I think it just speaks to who we are as humans."