It's hard to believe Cowboy Bebop turned 20 this year. Originally airing in 1998 in Japan, I first saw it in 2003, when I was a freshman in High School. I'd only been introduced to anime the previous year at a friend's house through dubbed, edited, VHS copies of Gundam Wing and Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away had recently won an Academy Award). The trailer for Cowboy Bebop came at the tail end of every Gundam VHS my friend had, and it immediately grabbed my attention. Lucky for me, it had begun airing on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block, allowing me to catch it. It simply blew me away, as I suspect was the case for most who saw it. I'd never seen anything like it in animation. The music, the story, the blood and violence, I didn't know you could do that in a "cartoon" before. Fifteen years after I first watched it, it's still my favorite anime series, and its consistently listed as one of the best anime ever made. It's popularity still endures today, so much so that Netflix recently announced a live-action series, which is of course a terrible idea, and we'll go into why later, but first I simply want to talk about why it's so good.
At first glance, Cowboy Bebop shouldn't work, because it doesn't fit into any real categorization. Most people (myself included) would most likely label it as Science Fiction, but that's only part of the story. In truth, it's a "Neo-Noir Science Fiction Space Western Space Opera Cyberpunk" mash-up of tragicomedy. It has silly episodes, serious episodes, and a few that are heartbreaking. The vast majority of media that try to be too many things tend to fail, Cowboy Bebop manages to blend it all together to make something better than the sum of its parts, and still be able to change moods episode to episode.
The premise seems simple enough: with the Solar System colonized, and not enough police to keep up with the rise in crime, the old American West bounty hunter system is brought back. Spike Spiegel and Jet Black are two bounty hunting partners, who through accident, end up sharing their ship, the Bebop with femme fatale Faye Valentine, super-hacker Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV, or Ed, and the data dog (a Welsh Corgi) Ein. Hijinks ensue.
The show breaks the mold in terms of both characters and framing device. In most anime, the main characters are usually teenagers. If they're not teenagers, they're kids. Of the five main characters in Cowboy Bebop, only one is a teenager, and she's hardly a typical one. Spike, Jet and Faye are all adults who have experienced adult things. Love, heartbreak, betrayal, and loss. This makes them more mature than the usual anime protagonist. And finally, Ein is a dog. But rather than the cute mascot (and he is cute, he's a corgi after all), Ein is probably the smartest character on the show. We never learn what a data dog actually is, but the implication is Ein was experimented on or something, since in the course of the show he manages to fly a ship and hack a computer.
Furthermore, Cowboy Bebop uses the "less is more," style of storytelling, giving us enough information about the characters and the universe, without revealing everything. Jet, Spike and Faye all have a tragic backstory (albeit very different ones), and while we learn enough to understand their motivations, we never learn the entire story. In the setting, the Solar System is connected by a series of jump-gates that make faster-than-light travel possible. Seventy years prior to the show, there was an accident that destroyed Earth's gate and made the planet a much harsher place to live. As a result, a terraformed Mars is now the main hub of civilization in the solar system. We never learn what happened to the gate, we only see its aftermath and the ongoing way it's shaped human society.
In terms of episodes, most anime series have one long continuing story, which is how most American TV is now, but that wasn't the case 20 years ago. Cowboy Bebop does have a myth arc, and episodes that tie everything together. But most of the episodes are self-contained stories that you can watch out of order. The strength of this is that it lets the tone vary from episode to episode. You can have deadly serious episodes like "Ballad of Fallen Angels," which features tragedy and drama. And you can also have episodes like "Toys in the Attic," a hilarious Alien homage with ends with the lesson "don't leave things in the fridge." This format even helps Cowboy Bebop to avoid a typical anime pitfall, the feature film. It's typical for a popular anime series to get a movie, or even several. These often have no bearing on the show's ongoing story, and in my experience, tend to be more forgettable than not. However, with Cowboy Bebop, the movie is simply treated as an extended episode, and it ends up having the same quality as the show. It even fits into the show's timeline, taking place between episodes 22 and 23.
The show makes the music central in a way no other show does. Music is obviously important in any TV show or movie: it can heighten tension, and it can make things more lighthearted, somber, or even epic. Cowboy Bebop goes one-step further. Every episode has a musical theme, and every episode is either named after a song, or incorporates the name of a music style in the title. The music was composed by Yoko Kanno, and her band The Seatbelts recorded it. It's one of the best soundtracks ever, from the swinging jazz opening number "Tank," to the melancholic "Blue," which closes out the final episode, the music always perfectly fits the scene, and manages to enhance it.
Finally, Cowboy Bebop even managed to overcome one of the biggest challenges in bringing anime to an English speaking audience: dubbing. In fandom, there's long been a war between people who prefer to watch in the original Japanese with English subtitles, versus those who prefer to watch it dubbed in English. Granted, now that most releases have both options, it's no