How ‘Cowboy Bebop’ became an anime landmark

Cowboy Bebop first arrived on American airwaves as the clock struck midnight on Sept. 2, 2001, closing out the premiere broadcast of Cartoon Network’s late-night programming block Adult Swim. The vibrant title sequence and blaring opening bars of Yoko Kanno’s jazzy theme song “Tank!” heralded the anime series’ debut, likely confounding many viewers who had just finished that night’s episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast.

It was that opening sequence that sold Cartoon Network executives on Cowboy Bebop in the first place. “The second we saw the open — we didn’t even know what the show was about — we were like, ‘We’re in, we want to license it. We need it right now,'” recalls Jason DeMarco, the head of anime and action series at Adult Swim, who was part of the original team that helped develop the block. “T​​hat was before they even had more than one episode done, so then it was a matter of us waiting until they had enough episodes to officially start sending us.”

Ask several people what they love about Cowboy Bebop, and you’re likely to get a lot of different answers: The complex characters. The gorgeous animation. Kanno’s score. (That one comes up a lot.) Often you hear a variant on DeMarco’s sentiment: “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.” Two decades after it first aired in the U.S., the 26-episode sci-fi series remains a beloved classic of the anime form — with an expensive live-action Netflix adaptation to prove it — and essential viewing for anyone looking to dive into the world of Japanese animation.

“In the anime community, if you haven’t watched it, then you’re not a true anime fan,” says Azusa Matsuda, an executive at the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation, which organizes the annual Anime Expo convention in Los Angeles. “It’s like a badge that you have to earn.”

Ironically, Cowboy Bebop attained that status in no small part because it was like a lot of things American viewers had seen before, while also defying all expectations for a TV anime project. Set in 2071, the series follows the misadventures of a ragtag group of spacefaring bounty hunters — coolly detached “space cowboy” Spike Spiegel, tough but lovable ex-cop Jet Black, amnesiac drifter Faye Valentine, and eccentric teenage hacker Ed, plus a corgi named Ein — as they aimlessly wander a dystopian galaxy in search of criminals, money, and food. Along the way, they struggle to escape their past lives, grapple with ennui and existential crises, and narrowly escape death many times while dealing out plenty of carnage themselves. Most episodes serve as self-contained stories — director Shinichirō Watanabe and screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto treated each installment as its own mini-movie — while gradually building out the characters’ backstories and drawing out sophisticated thematic undercurrents. Pokémon, it is not.

“This show combines the best elements that you can possibly put into a cartoon or in any media,” says voice actor Steve Blum, who played Spike in the acclaimed English-language dub of the series. “It’s great storytelling, it’s cinematic, the performances are very real, very grounded. The writing is extraordinary. The music is unbelievable. The directorial sense and the love for American culture is palpable and infectious. And the fact all those elements came together was like a perfect storm of awesome. It was obviously something special compared to the shows that we had been recording at the time.”

“Growing up in Japan, I was watching a lot of shows like Speed Racer and Dragon Ball,” Matsuda recalls. “When I first saw Cowboy Bebop, it was an eye-opener to a whole new style of storytelling.”

Indeed, the series was unusual even in Japan, where animation for an adult audience has historically been treated far more seriously than it has Stateside. Bebop was a major departure from the types (and stereotypes) of anime popular when it was made, in the late 1990s; for one thing, as DeMarco puts it, “It was science fiction, but it wasn’t giant robots.” It also eschewed a typical J-pop soundtrack in favor of Kanno’s jazz-infused score, a decision that paid off handsomely.

“The ‘no giant robots’ directive was regarded by some at the time as industrial suicide, since that drastically reduced the likely merchandise tie-ins,” says Jonathan Clements, author of Anime: A History. “Instead, Watanabe and [producer] Masahiko Minami promised the backers that they would recoup their investments on music spin-offs, hence the huge investment in Yoko Kanno… and the rest is history.” (Kanno’s music is considered so essential to the series that she was hired to score the Netflix adaptation.)

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Cowboy Bebop first arrived on American airwaves as the clock struck midnight on Sept. 2, 2001, closing out the premiere broadcast of Cartoon Network’s late-night programming block Adult Swim. The vibrant title sequence and blaring opening bars of Yoko Kanno’s jazzy theme song “Tank!” heralded the anime series’ debut, likely confounding many viewers who had…

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