Released in 1998 under the direction of Shinichirō Watanabe, Cowboy Bebop is a hot genre mess. The title of the show already points towards two of the main stylistic pillars of the show: the American western and (the also American) jazz music; but those are hardly the only two ingredients in this brew! the delightful intro to the show lays out that in addition we are dealing with a science fiction anime which also pays homage to film noir.
What was especially interesting about Bebop when it came out was how modern the show felt. And although this might seem far-fetched, since we can also use the term modern to describe the type of painting that Picasso used to do, it is actually quite fitting to use this word to describe a show that would come a hundred years after “the first moderns”. Charles Baudelaire in his book “The Painter of Modern Life” described modernity as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent. The half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.” (Baudelaire 1964:12) And these feelings of a fleeting present can be accentuated by two factors: the turn of a century, and rapid technological escalation. These conditions were met in Western Europe during the turn of the 20th Century, and then again, on a larger scale and across the globalized world, a hundred years later when we entered this new millennium.
In the years leading up to his directorial debut with Cowboy Bebop Shinichirō Watanabe worked his way up as an employee in the anime production company Sunrise Studio (Kim 2014). During this time, other anime producers were taking bold steps in animation science fiction like the cases of Akira (1988), Ghost in Shell (1995), and Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995). It was in this context that Cowboy Bebop came to be.
The anime show takes place in the year 2071 and follows the story of a crew of bounty hunters (Spike Spiegel the main Cowboy, Jet Black with the cyborg arm, Faye Valentine the babe, Ed the computer genius, and Ein the dog) aboard the spaceship “Bebop” as they track down fugitives across the solar system (sorry, no aliens). The 26 episodes explore themes of existentialism, boredom, and loneliness, each with a different score dedicated to a different music style (Kim 2014).
It is in the extremely stylized art of the show, in combination with the masterful mixing of the genres that the show comes across as modern. Also the attention to detail, like the fact that every spaceship or space-station on the show have rotating chambers to generate gravity, or how in the story humanity has only managed to explore our own solar system, but no further, all help create an illusion of authenticity and affinity with the real world.
As for Shinichirō Watanabe, Cowboy Bebop wasn’t his last genre medley. He brought his unique mixing style to the Animatrix (2003) and in 2005 he directed another show Samurai Champloo which mixed Japan’s Edo period with hip-hop aesthetic elements, and then in 2014 Shinichirō came back to science fiction anime with the boundary-pushing “Space Dandy”. A show distributed worldwide by Adult Swim which mixes crazy science fiction with an eighties type character who calls himself “Dandy”.
Kim, Monica. Can Cowboy Bebop’s Creator Make More People Take Anime Seriously? The Atlantic. 2013