How do you follow up a classic? Better question, how do you follow up a classic that concluded so perfectly as to deter any attempt at a continuation? You can try to advance the narrative beyond the conclusion but the result may be so different as to not attract the same audience or so similar it gets called derivative. For instance, Studio Sunrise’s Cowboy Bebop has received no shortage of praise, but what about the film from 2001?
Cowboy Bebop: Knocking on Heaven’s Door, was not a continuation of Bebop. It featured the same characters doing what they do best for two hours, but never feeling like a cheap cash in, but rather just… Bebop. A lesser studio may not have pulled it off, but this was no ordinary studio. As it turns out, it wasn’t even Studio Sunrise, but Studio Bones. Only fitting as its three founders were former members of Sunrise. So, how was the follow up to one of the most legendary anime when given the Bones treatment?
Pretty phenomenally, as it turns out. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, takes place between episodes 22 and 23 of the series and is completely standalone. The story follows the Bebop Crew as they try following different leads to catch a terrorist named Vincent, who plans to unleash a dangerous bioweapon. Along the way, the crew learns about his past and an organization trying to cover its dirty deeds.
This movie feels like any other episode of Bebop and that is great. Granted it is prettier, louder and more bombastic, taking full advantage of a film budget and Bones’ incredible talent, but at its heart, it is pure Bebop. It is by and large a representation of everything I love about the series put into a film. No prior knowledge of these characters is necessary to have a great time, making this is the perfect introduction to the series for those who have not seen it.
Bebop is not just a series about cool and sexy characters, but about the troubled pasts that brought them to the where they are now. As stated, this film is standalone and even without the same dramatic introspection, the characters’ instant likability and the spotlight emphasizing their characters leaves a strong impression alone. Similar to how the first Avenger’s film could stand alone without any prior viewing of its heroes’ standalone films, the Bebop movie does a great job with characterization.
Beyond the surface-level qualities of the characters, there are some great scenes that seek to deepen the characters and speak to the qualities of the series as a whole. Spike’s instinctive nature is brought up early on and serves as the basis for his arc, in which we come to learn why he acts the way does and how he’s come to think and act that way. Like much of his development in the series, this is tied to his criminal past, which is hinted at here without outright repeating information already offered in the series.
I used to think that Jet got the short end of the stick in the movie, but recently I’ve begun to think that, despite his scarcer screen time, his role is actually pretty critical. See, the Bebop crew have a very different chemistry compared to other ensemble sci-fi crews. Given the humor among the group, it is easy to compare them to a contemporary example like the Guardians of the Galaxy, but the chemistry of the Bebop crew is very different.
Sure they are a family in a sense, but in the sense that they just barely tolerate each other. They each work alone and pursue their own leads, often cracking jokes at each other and can get pretty competitive. Jet’s observation of this dynamic lines up with that assessment, yet the conclusion of the film shows how close they are. Bebop is a show about peeling back the curtain and showing how these characters are broken. The reason they stay together is that they find comfort in being around people as broken as they are.
At their core, these characters are good people, so when they realize they’ve gotten into something bigger than they thought, they come together. Jet immediately being brought into the loop for the third act despite having complained about the aforementioned dynamic just further emphasizes how much Jet actually cares. Faye and Ed don’t have much in the way of character arcs, but they get so much screen time and are so likable that it is hard to complain. However, Bebop is not the same without its supporting cast.
Essential to the story of Bebop are those who the crew meets along the series. Typically they are minor characters who only appear in a single episode, but that does not stop them from leaving a big impact. This film is no different, featuring both a new ally, Elektra Ovirowa, and the main villain, Vincent Volaju.
The former’s partnership with Spike, later on, helps shed some light on Vincent’s personality, as well as Spike’s own philosophies and motives. That Spike feels a sort of similarity with one as broken as him and feels an obligation to face them, is another testament to this film’s standalone setup. Vincent alone is perhaps the coolest antagonist in the series, mostly because his physicality matching Spike’s lends to some truly spectacular action, befitting a blockbuster such as this.
This is to say nothing of the other supporting characters like the other minor antagonists or the fun black market arms dealer who becomes a big part of the story later on. Then there are recurring characters from the series like the hosts of the bounty hunter tv program or the three old men who are always playing poker. They are all hilarious and magnetic in their own right.
My complaints regarding the Bebop movie are the slowdown towards the end of the second act. There isn’t a whole lot to intrigue those who were not enthralled in the fairly unimpressive subplot surrounding a big corporation’s cover-up. The real draw of the story is its characters and the motives and backstory of its main villain. Another issue, however far more minor, is that while I enjoy Faye’s scenes, I would have liked it if she had more of an arc to her character.
Director Shinichiro Watanabe has been crafting musically charged character dramas his entire career and this is truly the best sendoff he could make for the series. Despite not quite caught lighting in a bottle the same way he did with Bebop, his talent cannot be understated. Neither can the work of the rest of the staff, however. The production behind the Bebop movie is a practical pantheon of industry gods. Putting aside my love for Bones for a moment, the staff working on this film are some of the best in the business.
The first of these gods in Animation Director Masahiro Ando, known for his directorial talents as well as the quality action that accompany shows he is involved in. Equally responsible for the quality of these fights, our old friend Yutaka Nakamura, the god of battle animation.
His talents certainly did not go to waste, especially the two major fights between Spike and Vincent in this film. The first being a claustrophobic fight on a train and the other a climactic fistfight atop a tower. Side note: The latter fight is now the basis by which I grade all towers. Eifell, Empire State, Sears, Freedom- if it’s a tower, it better be a good place for a fist fight. In all seriousness, those are just two of the fights in this film and there is plenty of great sakuga from all of the animators.
The final and perhaps the most heralded element of Cowboy Bebop is the soundtrack, which combines folksy blues, jazz, and rock together in one unforgettable mix. The goddess Yoko Kanno returns and this may be a controversial statement, but I think the tracks she and the Seatbelts created for this movie are the best in the series.
From the opening theme, “Ask DNA,” and onward, the killer tracks don’t stop. “Is It Real” may not leave much of an impression in the film, but listening to it on its own leaves quite the impact. My favorite though, by far, has to be the ending theme, “Gotta Knock a Little Harder.” Its somber beginning and its build towards its inspiring and relentless conclusion is the type of composition I dream of for any movie.
I’m not sure that I will ever get around to reviewing the series of Bebop. I’ve watched it and I love it but I sense that I would only be preaching to the choir, whereas the Bebop movie doesn’t get talked about that much. I figured it was only right to cover it but I feel like I’ve said everything I can say about the series itself in the process.
Cowboy Bebop the Movie is a celebration of everything great about the series, without sacrificing a cohesive story to dispense fan service like other anime follow-up films. To me, the Bebop movie is the ultimate entry in the series. It does not delve into the psyches of its complex cast as much as the series, nor will every character get a meaningful arc in the story. However, there is a reason these characters are classics, and that lies in their inherent likability. From there, the movie treats you to a fun, tightly paced narrative that you’ll want to watch till the very end of the credits.
The Bebop movie is one of my favorite films by virtue of its heart and its rewatchability, and I hope you all can get as much out of it as I do. It is still available pretty cheap on Amazon and Funimation is releasing a steelbook collector’s edition this fall that I guarantee will be worth the price.
I’ve got some really good stuff planned for the future of this blog and I’m hoping that even with my new term of school starting that I’ll be able to update it just as frequently. In addition to more reviews, I’m hoping to start writing more analyses and cover hot topics in the anime community, so stay tuned. Leave a comment below telling me what you think of Cowboy Bebop, what other shows and films should I watch, and let me know what topics you’d like me to talk about on this blog. Thanks for reading and as always, see you next time!