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Cowboy Bebop: Space Opera Meets Noir, Meets Comedy, Meets Cyberpunk

The Cowboy Bebop spaceship

Cowboy Bebop is one of the most recognized anime titles of all time, renowned for its witty writing, iconic characters, gorgeous art, and philosophical bent.

At first glance, Cowboy Bebop seems easy to identify as science fiction, but there’s far more than meets the eye. Easily able to traverse multiple genres and sub-genres, Cowboy Bebop may be one of the most genre-flexible titles out there.

The Effortless Blending of Genres

The premise of Cowboy Bebop doesn’t seem to allow so much flexibility at first. Cowboy Bebop takes place in the mid-term future, where humanity is a multi-planet yet not multi-star species. As crime in the solar system grows beyond governmental resources to police, a program of bounty hunters (called “cowboys”) is implemented. Crews of these cowboys roam the solar system, hunting down their bounties, often employing violent or unscrupulous methods. Of course, the anime is focused on the crew of the cowboy vessel called the Bebop. From this brief description, we could see how Cowboy Bebop might be classified as “space opera“, but that doesn’t quite capture everything; you’ll find nobody comparable to Captain Picard in Cowboy Bebop.

Cowboy Bebop isn’t exactly about space travel or conflict between various spacefaring groups per se–the scale is a bit too small to reach the epic range we’ve come to expect from a space opera. Additionally, though there are some exceptions, Cowboy Bebop is a bit too dark to be a traditional space opera, in which frank exposition tends to be more emphasized than gritty shades of grey. Each character has a complex background which leaves noticeable emotional scars to be gradually revealed as the series progresses. Furthermore, the crew of the Bebop are far from paragons of good law enforcement, instead being replete with criminal pasts.

The crew of the Bebop in the genre blending sci-fi series Cowboy Bebop

As tarnished as they may be, the crew of the Bebop do approximate law enforcement, and much of the series is devoted to their antics as they chase down bounties. So, is Cowboy Bebop a pulpy noir hard-boiled detective piece set in a cyberpunk dystopia? Nope, Cowboy Bebop is too funny to perfectly fit the definition of noir, and too focused on character development to really be considered a hard-boiled detective story. Though Cowboy Bebop fits the mold of cyberpunk pretty well, that’s no surprise considering that it’s already most of the way there by virtue of being somewhat noir with compromised characters and taking place in the future. With that being said, cyberpunk is never known for its humor.

In a particularly funny bit, a criminal is attempting to rob a transport in which the protagonist, Spike, is napping. The criminal is offended that Spike remains asleep despite his loud bravado and flashing of his submachine gun. As such, the criminal attempts to wake Spike up, only to have Spike seemingly effortlessly beat him up during his sleepy and sluggish rousing. Spike’s exaggerated arms-wide-and-over-the-head yawning and head craning make short work of the criminal.

What About a Western?

The Western genre, antiquated as it may be, has a pretty good shot at describing Cowboy Bebop. In many ways, the solar system that the Bebop traverses is like the frontier, complete with scant law and order and the promise of wealth on the cusp of civilization. Many of the scenes depicted in Cowboy Bebop even approximate the rocky and sandy undeveloped frontier a la The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Many dusty towns populated by one or two-story simple structures along a main road lend the Western aesthetic even more credence, as do frequent episodes of gunplay between the protagonists and their targets.

One point where Cowboy Bebop definitively bucks the Western trend is with its self-awareness. Though the series refrains from breaking the fourth wall, it does selectively use lighthearted moments to ease the tension of the more serious story arcs. Indeed, the use of comedy in the series is one of the aspects that makes it the hardest to classify definitively.

Hong-Kong Kung Fu and Gunplay

Aside from the sheer uniqueness caused by mixing a bunch of different genres together, genre-blending opens up a lot of plot options. Despite being in the future, the mix of blended genres makes it not so surprising when the characters have gunfights with 20th-century firearms. Taking notes directly from the John Woo style of flamboyant and heavily embellished gunplay, a typical episode of Cowboy Bebop features at least a few dozen gunshots, frequently when it’s least expected. Several gunfights are direct storyboarding of scenes from John Woo’s epic Hong Kong detective caper, Hard Boiled.

Not to be upstaged by a more lethal fighting method, beautiful kung-fu sequences are also quite common. Often mixed with a comedic bent reminiscent of a Jackie Chan film, Cowboy Bebop also frequently features more intense martial arts sequences modeled specifically after Bruce Lee. Somehow, it seems correct that the protagonist Spike would be able to gracefully dodge and kick in addition to being a crack shot.

Transmetropolitan is well known as the seminal cyberpunk comic book series by writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson, published by DC comics (through their Vertigo imprint). Though Transmet concluded its run in 2002 and takes place in the 2300s, the themes of technological alteration of humanity and the rise of totalitarian democracy are extremely relevant to our current political and cultural climate today.

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An Emotional Journey

The various genres and homages incorporated into Cowboy Bebop add a lot to the environment and aesthetic that the series attempts to create. At the core of the series is its strong emotional content, however. Independent of all the sci-fi fixings is a deeply developed set of characters, complete with troubled pasts and stuck in a turbulent present. It is this deep character development amidst the problem-of-the-week that makes Cowboy Bebop an iconic work of art.

In this sense, Cowboy Bebop can also be described as a drama or even a tragedy. The issues of the main characters are somewhat fleshed out but are mostly left intentionally incomplete. The viewer is left to interpret many aspects of the characters as well as the ending of the series. There is no real closure, nor are the characters necessarily improved by their time together. The adventures of the Bebop are merely a backdrop for the intense self-searching and identity re-structuring that each of the characters (well, maybe not the dog…) undergo in their attempts to find a new place for themselves in the solar system.

Featured Images: Sunrise / Funimation

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