Once upon a time, in New York City in 1941… at this club open to all comers to play, night after night, at a club named “Minston’s Play House” in Harlem, they play jazz sessions competing with each other. Young jazz men with a new sense are gathering. At last they created a new genre itself. They are sick and tired of the conventional fixed style jazz. They’re eager to play jazz more freely as they wish then… in 2071 in the universe… The bounty hunters, who are gathering in the spaceship “BEBOP”, will play freely without fear of risky things. They must create new dreams and films by breaking traditional styles. The work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called… COWBOY BEBOP
On October 24, 1998, the world was introduced to Cowboy Bebop. That was the first time Jet served up bell peppers and beef (with no beef in it), the first time Spike let loose on a bounty-head, the first time any of us heard “Tank!“* It would take another three years for the show to premiere in America, but 1998, that was the magical year it all began.
It has now been twenty years since we first met Spike and Jet (and, in their turn, Ein, Faye, Vicious, Julia, and Ed). In the intervening twenty years, episodes have been banned, cut, and reinstated, the world crashed into a Great Recession and limped to a Jobless Recovery, and America fell from its hegemonic throne into a multipolar world that’s still sorting itself out. So how does a cartoon from twenty years ago still hold up?
Actually pretty damn well, as it turns out. Cowboy Bebop does not have the kind of plot or character development we expect of television in the post-Buffy, post-Sopranos era. Instead, Bebop‘s strength has always been in its development of theme, noodling variations on the basic melody of “starving bounty hunters in space.” Just so, Cowboy Bebop never predicted the destruction of the Shuttle Columbia, the rise of religiofascism, or the Euro. But those kind of don’t matter, because the themes are as relevant as ever, sometimes more.
The heady blend of blood opera, space opera, and, in one case, straight-up opera mirrors the myriad musical stylings under Yoko Kanno’s brilliant baton and the mélange of cultures where Mars hosts space-borne New York, Prague, and Hong Kong, where every sign is in eight languages, and Tijuana sails overhead. Music, in all its forms, infuses every millimeter of Cowboy Bebop, from overt dialogue and the way Kanno’s motifs are used and reused to draw disparate connections to the tempo of individual episodes and the overarching arc of the show. The point-counterpoint of Spike’s steady, unchanging tragic fugue and Faye’s slowly-evolving Bolero is, if anything, a more important musical theme than the direct contrasts between Spike and Vicious or Spike and Cowboy Andy. We see the formation of a chosen family, in Japanese nakama, which would become a core concern in the next two decades after Buffy, gay rights, and the continuing disintegration and reinterpretation of “family” in the developed world. More intriguingly, we see it this chosen family fly apart, following the same melodies and themes that brought it together. Like a perfect jazz session, the players came together, played as the music led them, and then left as the music left them.
Let’s go back and listen to those tunes again. Like Thoreau said of the Greek gods, time has not diminished them, only given them “a golden, autumnal tint.”
Over the next 26 weeks, join me as we dive into Cowboy Bebop together, twenty years after.
*It’s like getting smacked in the head with a sock-full of Johnny Quest!