There is an endless number of reasons to love Cowboy Bebop. This kung-fu, detective, sci-fi, crime, honky-tonk tinged mashed-upped masterpiece is cooler than any of us. Not because it wears the clothing of those genres, but because it is all those genres. That alone is a great feat, but what really makes Cowboy Bebop stand out is that it didn’t ask if we wanted it. That is to say, the creator Watanabe and his crew don’t care if it’s too weird to be fashionable, it was gonna be made either way.
It is easy to find weird anime. This isn’t a particularly terribly challenge when works like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Paprika, and Serial Experiments: Lain all existing out in the world with countless others. And compared to the titles I just listed, Cowboy Bebop can seem more of a mainstream work, and don’t get me wrong, it is mainstream, but how? After all, it involves a kung fu detective, an old and morally centered cop, a hyper intelligent Welsh Corgie, a young vigilant hacker, and a beautiful, amnesiac card shark named Faye Valentine. This should not work. It just shouldn’t, not on paper especially. It works because Cowboy Bebop finds it style and story at a nexus of all these genres. This is not to say that Watanabe and others did this intentionally – meaning, they were not making it for someone in particular. No, there is a purity to the work that only comes from not giving a damn what others may think. I am sure I can find many people that would hate Cowboy Bebop, but I bet the ones that love it will be from quite a swatch of society.
But, how can something have so many influences and not just come out like an unwatchable pastiche? Because Watanabe is like a mad scientist. With Spike he is putting in bits of Bruce Lee, Butch Cassaday, and Chow Yun Fat. But, you don’t recognize Spike as those things because Watanabe has blended them so well together. Each aspect has meaning to Spike. There are plenty of works that wear their influences, often to a distracting degree, but Cowboy Bebop becomes those influences. After all, isn’t Jet Black more than a little John Wayne in just about any John Wayne movie. But, there it is again. If you are going to borrow trappings of a famous star, most would use the thing people know most. For John Wayne it would be his slow, accent-tinged voice. Instead Jet speaks much faster than Wayne, but the morally centered speech and personality is the same.
One of the biggest influences is obviously the Western. From the old West feel of the cities (just watch the first episode which felt like an 1800s old West town) to the expansion of humanity into the galaxy — reminiscent of America’s growth towards the West. In this universe the cops are mostly on the payroll of crime syndicates thus bounty hunters started popping up. Bounty hunters being one of the only ways criminals were caught and justice enforced. Also, humanity expanded out into the rest of the galaxy, this isn’t just one continent we are talking. People live on Mars. I imagine it is hard to issue a bench warrant to anyone in this universe. But, this is also that Western angle of it.
Then again, reducing it to being a Western is to ignore everything else about it. Examine the relationship between Vicious (Spike Spiegal’s arch-nemesis from his crime syndicate days) and Spike. It is Star Wars (Luke vs Darth) but it is more Spike playing the role of Ah Jong in John Woo’s The Killer. Hell, the cold open to the first episode looks like a John Woo produced cartoon: heavy gun play, a delicate song playing against the action, a few beautiful items be it doves or flowers, and betrayal. This is all very John Woo, but not a pastiche or even a homage. Watanabe and his creators use the genre and symbols of films like The Killer as a sort of I-beam that structures the entire show. After all, Vicious and his gang are one of the only recurring villains in the series. This isn’t to say that the creators are simply inputting cool things they like. The always service the story. The fact is the falling out/betrayal by Vicious and his gang toward Spike is a realistic action. It makes sense. If it were thrown in for the sake of being cool, the whole cold opening would have been bland and hollow, as would have what follows through out the series and movie.
It’s difficult to make a relevant work in this day and age. Thanks to the internet it can often feel like it’s all be said and done before, there is nothing new under the sun. Cowboy Bebop stands aside from most other works because it doesn’t want to be relevant. It doesn’t want to teach you about morality or show you how cool Westerns are. It wants to tell you a story. One that will have some familiar landmarks, but is ultimately it’s own thing. The creators don’t want it to be cool, they know it is.