Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)

Unless we’re discussing titans of the medium like Hayao Miyazaki or Satoshi Kon, I’m shamefully unfamiliar with most anime.  As the last thriving refuge for traditional hand drawn animation, I respect the artistry of anime greatly.  I’m just more of an admirer than I am a “fan,” since claiming that latter designation implies you’re extremely well versed and deeply opinionated about the medium in a way I’ll never be able to match.  Saying you’re an Anime Fan is like saying you’re a fan of superhero comics or Star Trek or any other extremely nerdy artform with a decades-spanning history; you better know your obscure, inconsequential trivia down to the last detail, or you’re in for a gatekeeping headache.  Case in point: I finally watched the landmark anime series Cowboy Bebop for the first time since it popped up on Hulu last year, over two decades after its initial run.  If I were an anime fan, that kind of blindspot would be a source of shame I’d have to hide from my cannibalistic anime nerd friends.  Since I’m a casual admirer, though, I get to walk away unscathed — the same as I did when Netflix started streaming Neon Genesis Evangelion a couple years back.

Unsurprisingly, the Cowboy Bebop series is pretty good.  A mash-up of neo-noir, neo-Western, and space travel sci-fi tropes, it’s fairly accessible to casual anime admirers with an appreciation for old-fashioned genre filmmaking.  I found it to be hit-or-miss by episode, but mostly as a matter of personal taste.  The standalone villain-of-the-week episodes were mostly fantastic—especially the ones that veered into my beloved subgenre of spaceship horror—but I was largely indifferent to the show’s overarching Spike vs. Vicious storyline: a prolonged, vague neo-noir plot with no sense of propulsion or purpose.  If I were recommending the show to a similarly anime-ignorant friend, I’d try my best to save their time with a Best Of list of standalone episodes to burn through: the ones with the killer fridge mold, the virtual reality cult, the mushroom trip, the annoying cowboy, and the deranged clown.  If you haven’t seen Cowboy Bebop by now you likely don’t need to watch all 11 hours of the series; you just need a taste, if not only for general pop culture familiarity.  I likely would’ve said the same thing about the monster-of-the-week episodes of The X-Files, though, and I watched that show religiously as it aired, so your mileage may vary.

Luckily, you don’t even have to watch those five Best Of episodes (“Toys in the Attic”, “Brain Scratch”, “Mushroom Samba”, “Cowboy Funk,” “Pierrot le Fou”) to get a proper taste of Cowboy Bebop.  The series conveniently concluded with a standalone villain-of-the-week movie that also sidesteps the energy-draining Spike vs. Vicious storyline entirely, allowing for one final ride with your new favorite spacetraveling bounty hunters.  Cowboy Bebop: The Movie dials the clock back a few episodes into the series before the bounty hunter crew is disbanded (and partially killed) to offer a taste of the show at its prime.  In this extended, posthumous episode, the crew is attempting to capture bio-terrorists on Mars (styled to look suspiciously similar to 1990s NYC) before they release a deadly virus in a densely populated crowd.  The viral outbreak is planned to be staged at a jack-o-lantern-themed variation of the Macy’s Day Parade, making the film a low-key Halloween movie of sorts.  The crew selfishly bickers among themselves, tries to score the bounty on their own, falters, then reforms at the last minute to save the day.  It’s quintessential Cowboy Bebop in that way.

The problem with recommending Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (subtitled Knocking on Heaven’s Door) as a crash course overview of the show is that it’s way too goddamn long.  You could watch all five of the Best Of episodes I mentioned in less time than it would take you to watch this one feature film, and it never hits the same highs as the series proper at its best.  You’d have to trim 30-40 minutes off this thing to make it an enticing alternative for newcomers, and I imagine even long-time fans of the show had their own patience tested with this two-hour standalone.  Cowboy Bebop: The Movie isn’t Cowboy Bebop at its most creative or most exciting.  However, it is Cowboy Bebop at its most functional.  The main draw of the film is seeing a somewhat scrappy, experimental series funded with proper time & budget to get its details in order.  The personal & professional dynamics among the space crew are never as clearly defined on the show as they are in the movie, where even lesser side characters like Ein & Edward are fully integrated into the daily business of intergalactic bountyhunting in a way that finally makes sense.  More importantly, the animation itself is afforded way more resources to flourish.  On the show, the intrusion of CG animation felt like a budget-cutting measure; here it looks purposefully surreal in a more thoughtfully mapped-out hand drawn backdrop.  Whereas most “The Movie” versions of TV shows go big with their plots, locations, and scope to justify the jump from the small screen, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie only goes big on its look.

If I had only watched Cowboy Bebop: The Movie for an overview taste of the show, I might’ve assumed the series was a lot more creatively limited than what the best bounty-of-the-week episodes had to offer.  It’s a good episode of the series, but it’s too long and too tame to be a great one.  However, I did find it to be a great “What If” illustration of how much more visually spectacular the TV show might’ve been if it had the time & money to luxuriate in production the way the movie did.  It’s fun to look back on the production limitations of the five Best Of episodes I mentioned and imagine them even more visually extravagant in their animation, since I now know what that might look like.  Regardless of that hypothetical, I very much love them as-is.  You might even call me a fan.

-Brandon Ledet