“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time. And don’t be fooled into thinking that genre matters to the Ten Percent – slapstick comedy is in here, along with science fiction, animation, bloody horror, toe-tapping musicals, and more. The Ten Percent last for two reasons: (1) they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception and (2) they somehow manage to capture something fleeting and rare and preserve it for the lucky viewing public.
This brings me to one of the most magnificent, and most enduring, anime series ever produced: Cowboy Bebop. A high-flying, hard-boiled, space-western, science-fiction, jazz-noir tour de force, Cowboy Bebop has earned international critical and popular acclaim, and has won awards for character design, voice acting, music, and consistently places in the top five on “best anime ever” lists year after year. The show is something like lightening in a bottle; bringing together director Watanabe Shinichiro, writer Nobumto Keiko, character designer Kawamoto Toshihiro, mechanical designer Yamane Kimitoshi, and composer Yoko Kanno for an incredible, genre-bending collaboration that managed to hit almost every note perfectly.
Put simply, Cowboy Bebop is about a group of ne’er-do-well bounty hunters in the year 2071 who travel around the solar system in the good ship Bebop. At first, there are only two, ex-organized crime hitman Spike Spiegal, and former Inter Solar System Police (ISSP) detective Jet Black, who owns the Bebop, and serves as a kind of father/older brother figure throughout the series. Spike and Jet are soon joined by the scantily clad and thoroughly dangerous con-artist Faye Valentine, the pre-pubescent ball of energy and hack and crack expertise Edward Wong, and a genetically engineered Welsh Corgi datadog named Ein. Each of them has a past that they are running from or towards, usually to an incredible jazz-blues-funk beat.
The series is perhaps most notable for its almost seamless blending of a host of genres, which manages to create an intense feeling of emotional realism as the characters slide from one adventure to the next in a solar system as wide and diverse as the human experience itself. The worlds of Cowboy Bebop are fantastic yet familiar and part of that is because Watanabe and Company refused to constrain their characters within a single generic space, making their fictional lives echo actual human life. After all, in a world where smart phones have more computing power than the Apollo spacecraft did, and a day can begin with a trans-oceanic flight and end with a burro ride down the side of the Grand Canyon while catching up on the day’s news of serial killers, wars, and love affairs, what meaning does genre really have? The world is too big for single genres, and Cowboy Bebop takes this fact and runs with it, while giving us characters we really care about whose endings are never neat or really final.
From Spike who once was soft and now is becoming progressively hard, to Faye who is incredibly fragile beneath her quick-draw and sultry woman-of-the-world façade, we are with these people, rooting for them, rejoicing in their comings and grieving with their goings. The twenty-six episode anime series structure works incredibly well here, because the stories told in Cowboy Bebop are really just a short season in the lives of these characters. We know there is more to them than we ever see revealed, and that their tales were unfolding before our view of them opened, and will continue to do so after the series comes to an end. In Cowboy Bebop everything is always in medias res, in the middle of things. Thus twenty-six episodes is simply not enough time, but Watanabe and Company uses that as part and parcel of their characters appeal as people we want to know, but can really only know in part, and only for a little while.
As to the story and characters, so to the art/animation and music which are as genre-bending and breathtaking as the rest of the ensemble. Take the opening credits as a brief example:
Performed by Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts, “Tank” is hard bop with a Mingus bass and Blakey beat, while the series opening animation is part James Bond silhouette, part technical manual, and part shadowplay. (The sequence also proves to be influential in the most surprising places; compare the opening to Cowboy Bebop to that for Archer and you’ll see what I mean.) The series soundtrack is heavily blues and jazz based, but uses those ever-mutable forms to spiral off into everything from heavy metal to prepared instruments to atonality, and becomes a vital character in and of itself, sometimes astonishingly so. And the visuals! Instead of trying to describe what this show manages to do here, let me just show you with a little bit called “The Ballad of Angels,” that brings everything I’ve talked about so far together into something transcendent:
That’s Cowboy Bebop: beauty, violence, memory, and music all in an instant of heartbreak. If that doesn’t qualify for a place in the Ten Percent, then I don’t know what does.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.