I Was Wrong About Cowboy Bebop

This is the rare moment where I had a bad anime take, and managed to avoid publicizing it. In fact, up until this point, I’d forgive my readers for assuming I held Cowboy Bebop in high regard, and that’s for a simple reason; I hadn’t seen it yet.

Yeah, I’m not much of an anime critic if I haven’t seen all the classics, right? My only response to that line of thinking is that it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to watch every anime ‘classic’. Firstly, no one can quite agree on what anime are classics, and second, the sheer volume of such an undertaking would scare away literally everyone. “You want to get into anime, great! Now watch these thousands of episodes of anime that came out prior to 2010 before you even think about looking at Demon Slayer, you normie.”

While I have done my best to check off anime on my monumental backlog, it’s a slow process, what with keeping up to date on seasonal shows. When I watched Cowboy Bebop the first time, I will admit that I was bored. Having already seen and loved Samurai Champloo, I was disappointed that its more famous relative was so underwhelming.

I don’t quite know what brought me back to Cowboy Bebop after giving up on it about halfway through, but I decided to approach it differently. I generally use dubbed anime to pair with whatever needs doing: my dailies in Genshin, writing misinformed blog posts, etc. As Cowboy Bebop’s dub is famously well-regarded, especially for the time it came out, I didn’t pay as much attention to the stellar production values and writing as I should.

More than two years into this blog, I have gotten too comfortable with anime that let you tune out, and not having to work very hard to analyze a story. If you can tell from my recent pseudo-series dissecting ‘perfect’ anime and manga, I’m trying to step out of my comfort zone there, so let me explain why I was wrong about Cowboy Bebop.

As I began watching a dubbed anime with the level of attention as though I was watching a subbed anime, I began to notice just how many moving parts are on display in each episode of Cowboy Bebop. Every session is its own tutorial on episodic writing, where few have anything to do with the others, though when viewed as a whole comes together as a compelling and narratively satisfying arc.

The most difficult part of episodic storytelling is that the characters are not allowed to change, but it isn’t like you can bore your audience with static characters. As I mentioned recently while talking about Link Click, Cowboy Bebop and other strong serialized narratives accomplish this by putting our simple characters in complex situations, hence all the moving parts.

If you know how the crew of the Bebop will react in any given situation, then the only logical answer is to completely shake up that situation. Pit Spike against a headstrong idiotic bounty hunter who he could never work with, as an allegory for his own self-loathing. Demonstrate how Faye is always running from the past she doesn’t remember by having her get up to her usual irresponsible antics and putting Spike and Jet on an adventure to discover the contents of an old tape, which turns out to be a message to Faye from herself in the past.

That’s not to say that every episode is a masterpiece, far from it. For every Mushroom Samba, there’s a Boogie Woogie Feng Shui, which contains perhaps the worst performance I’ve ever heard in an anime and a half-baked bit on Jet having a midlife crisis.. In an episodic show, though, you will ultimately set aside the mediocre episodes, and evaluate it, oddly enough, as a complete work, and Cowboy Bebop is a thought provoking exploration of grappling with our past and place in the world.

With that out of the way, I can no longer ignore the elephant in the room. Obviously, what stands out the most about Cowboy Bebop is its presentation. It has long held a place of honor on everyone’s favorite anime soundtracks, and yeah, Yoko Kanno’s score deserves every bit of the praise it gets. It is a staggeringly tall order to create a soundtrack that employs so many musical styles as to give each new episode and locale their own feel, all while maintaining a cohesive musical identity.

But what became clear to me watching Bebop closely is that the music overshadows the series’ brilliant animation. The sakuga on display in the average episode manages to make most digitally produced anime today look shoddy, and that wouldn’t be possible without a creative team working in glorious concert. Every fight has clean, crisp choreography that works as an organic extension of the characters involved, aided by the iconic yet understated character designs by Toshihiro Kawamoto.

What came as the biggest shock was just how good the digital effects were. While CG is used sparingly, it is always wielded deftly and integrated into the hand-drawn backgrounds seamlessly. It is mind-boggling that an anime from 1997 manages to handle CG compositing better than many more technically refined series 25 years later.

So far, I admitted that I got bored by Cowboy Bebop and stuck to my guns that it was entirely my fault that I didn’t appreciate it on my first try. I will now tell you that actually, it wasn’t my fault, at least not entirely, because I value my hearing, and if you do too, you might watch Cowboy Bebop with earbuds.

On my first viewing, I used the now defunct FunimationNow, and on my second, I alternated between Crunchyroll and Netflix. Thus, I feel specially qualified to tell you that no matter where you try to watch Cowboy Bebop, the sound mixing is absolute garbage.

Before diving into that, let me say that I encountered significantly fewer issues using the respective mobile apps and my headphones, but as someone who prefers using a TV to enjoy his anime, it seriously tanked my enjoyment both times.

For reference, I had to adjust the volume on my TV an average of 6 times per episode:

  • Turned it up because the opening is deafening.
  • Turned it down because the dialogue was too quiet.
  • Turned it up because the first action scene made my ears bleed.
  • Turned it down because they all decided to start whispering.
  • Turned it up for the episode’s climax.
  • And turned it back down for the falling action.

For a series with such a sterling reputation for its sound design and music, you would think that the audio mixing was halfway competent, and you’d be wrong. It sounds like a serious first-world problem, and I’ll confess that it is, but it detracts heavily from the viewing experience by forcing me to adjust the volume every three or four minutes.

It’s only exacerbated by the abysmal subtitling options on both Crunchyroll and Netflix. The former doesn’t offer subtitles for English dubbed anime, which is just absurd, and the latter was designed by a psychopath.

Netflix’s subtitles on mobile use white text that’s impossible to read in any decently lit shot, and for dubbed anime, they use the English subs. Obviously, the scripts contain roughly the same content, but do you know how disconcerting it is to be hearing one thing and seeing a completely different wording?

Cowboy Bebop’s sound mixing doesn’t ruin the show, far from it, but the technical inconveniences quickly begin piling up, and it’s just a slew of rather easily fixed problems that just drag everything down.

I originally was going to write this as some kind of contest between Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, asking which one deserves to be a classic, but it’s not really fair to either of them. They’re both great shows with their own merits and shortcomings, and trying to hold them against each other as one being superior over the other doesn’t do either justice.

With that in mind, I would love to take a look at Samurai Champloo, especially as an excuse to rewatch a couple episodes. If you’d like to see that, let me know; I love being able to justify rewatching anime I like as being productive.

You can tell me what other classic anime I should look at, except Yu Yu Hakusho because I am trying and failing to get through that behemoth, down in the comments below. You could also stop by on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where I’m constantly giving my worst anime takes that I manage to avoid publishing here. Until next time, thanks for reading.


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