Cowboy Bebop‘s cultural influences trace heavily to classic action cinema, be it Hollywood or Hong Kong, western or noir. And though most will remember Bebop for its martial arts and the Bruce Lee stylings that define the leading man, the gunplay in Bebop scratches quite the itch.
It’s not like there haven’t been tons of good gunfights in anime, even in recent years, but they often lose out to melee combat, be it realistic or stylized. There’s something about the gunplay in anime of the 90s and the early 2000s that feels distinct.
The relationship with weaponry in the media changes with the times as technology evolves. The application of weapons changes and so too do the stories that we tell that involve them. Sure, there are still plenty of stories that double as gun-porn, but the texture is different.
John Wick, apart from being a modern fable, is one of the defining action films of the generation and has tons of gun porn. However, it’s followed the trend of highly detail-oriented, tacti-cool gun-porn that wants to be as true to the methods of special forces as possible.
Before this trend of gun fandom, defined by military otaku, the portrayal of weaponry in action cinema wasn’t so concerned with realism. Some were more true to real life than others, but the emphasis was on the power of these firearms no matter how embellished.
Cowboy Bebop‘s gunfights embody the indulgent and masculine appeal of action cinema, whether chaotic shootouts or methodical and pointed duels. The commitment to these ideals is evident in the artwork, the storyboarding, and especially the chosen weapons to put on screen.
The Signature Weapons
Each character has a signature weapon. These could be argued to be iconic because they wielded them, but the guns also fit each of them very well. For instance, I couldn’t imagine Spike carrying any other pistol than the Jericho 941, despite it being far from the first pistol that comes to mind when I think of a protagonist’s weapon of choice.
More typically, a protagonist of a story like Bebop might carry a Beretta, a signature of stylish gunslingers like in the films of John Woo. A revolver might fit the cowboy theme more, but Bebop is just as much about the future, and the sidearm of the space western has to be a bit more modern.
Rather than a far too pedestrian Glock or even a classic 1911, Spike’s Jericho is sleek, bulky, angular, and decidedly unique-looking side-arm for a cowboy. It’s the obtuse-angled barrel and pointed edges that give it a look similar to a Desert Eagle, but with a more reserved shape that is compact but powerful.
The Jericho is one of those guns you see all the time in movies but never notice because they’re usually just the guns that the characters pick up along the way. Either that or they’re wielded by expendable thugs. In stark contrast to this, Spike’s Jericho manages to take what some would call a boring pistol and makes it mysterious, striking, and unique, just like the man wielding it.
Jet’s pistol, a Walther P99, is most recognizable as a James Bond pistol, and that identity is hard to shake, but given the gun’s existing identity, it gels with Jet’s identity. Jet isn’t the kind of guy that will resort to shooting as often as Spike or Faye, but the choice of the gun feels too deliberate to have been random.
Whether the past or the present, Jet’s Walther stays with him, marking it as a weapon that Jet sees as his “tool of the trade,” much in the same way a cop’s sidearm holds significance. But it’s no magnum from Dirty Harry, it’s more professional and by the book.
Coincidentally, the Netflix version opted for a magnum in the form of the Chiappa Rhino 60DS, which fits more with the stereotypical action movie cop. It’s an ultimately inconsequential choice, but it nonetheless speaks to the different attitudes towards the characters through the weapons.
Faye Valentine may not have participated in too many shootouts, but her pistol of choice couldn’t be more perfect for a femme fatale. Her Glock 30 is small, conceals nicely in an admittedly revealing outfit, and packs .45 caliber rather than 9mm. She’s the only one on the Bebop crew to fire .45 as the standard.
Funnily enough, on the occasions when Faye did let loose with some gunfire, she opted for something a little more… bombastic. Her debut scene showed her blowing out the front of a shop with an MP5K, a compact 9mm version of the MP5. A short, recoil-heavy, fast-firing portable gun for a woman on the go.
It was such an iconic look for her that when the Bebop movie came around, she busted out the MP5K to help out during the third act. Her weapons are characterized by their size and how despite that size, she always makes a bold statement somehow louder and more cantankerous than Spike or Jet.
In anime production, there are often “Mechanical Designers” responsible for designing machinery, mecha, and other assorted devices to be animated. However, it’s hard to say whether their responsibilities included gun designs or if those were the responsibility of individual animators using references.
Either way, the choice of weaponry in each scene and the details that went into their designs are too meticulous for the weaponry to have not been a significant component of the art design. To say nothing of the sound design and how it lingers on every gunshot and reload.
Every bullet fired, slide cocked, or mag ejected sounds like a breath exhaled from a beast. Perhaps the style of sound editing at the time, but the metallic screeching and the gunfire are all appropriately pronounced. It’s the kind of action series where every gunshot feels somehow important like the emphasis was placed on the individual trigger pulls and the power the characters hold.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the Cowboy Bebop movie, the aesthetic peak of the series, and in my opinion, the best part of the franchise. The opening scene is practically an aesthetic portrait of the series’ soul and its crescendo is the standoff between Spike and the burglar holding a woman at gunpoint.
Everything about the scene is practically flawless, but pay particular attention to how the gun is presented; the power that it holds in the scene. Spike almost mockingly draws his gun on the man slowly rather than dropping it to the floor. As soon as the gun is on target, it clicks with a kind of mean growl.
And then, it never once strays from the target until he pulls the trigger. There’s this awesome fish-eye lens placing both the burglar and Spike in the same shot that’s so much more dynamic than a lot of anime movies nowadays. Then Spike feigns reconsideration about the hostage, to which the burglar, the hostage, and Jet all fall for it.
It’s when the hostage suddenly shouts at Spike in anger that the burglar gets too jumpy and decides “shit, it’s either me or him,” but he’s already lost. Practically the only thing difficult to decipher in the chaos of everything is how many times Spike fires.
Seriously, I’ve watched back the moment and I can’t tell if he fires once, twice, or four times. It makes sense that he fired twice since the first shot disarms the thug and a second shot pierces his shoulder. Perhaps another shot or two might have been grouped in the shoulder but that may have been overkill. Anyway, listen to the audio in the scene yourself and tell me what you think.
The most impressive thing about this incredible opening that should be like, the envy of all action movies that try to start strong, is that no one dies. Not even the burglar holding the hostage dies. He slumps down and gets knocked out by all the cans falling on his head.
It’s a nice bit of restraint that makes Spike and Jet seem especially noble as protagonists, while also being rather funny for a few reasons. Firstly, just because the scene and the dialogue are plain funny, but also because this is one of the few bounties in the entire series that goes off 100% without a hitch.
Later in the same film, Spike comes face to face with Vincent, the bad guy of the film and practically a mirror image of Spike. They have a similar face-off almost identical to the opening scene. The only thing missing is another fish-eye lens, but other than that Spike’s pose is the same (his natural firing stance no doubt but bear with me).
But this time, Vincent gets the first shot off. He takes advantage of a distraction just as Spike did in the opening and turns around to open fire. So begins the train fight, which starts as a gun battle before turning into a close-quarters fistfight.
The opening salvo turns out to be an omen of things to come as Vincent ends up winning the fight, putting a bullet in Spike, and throwing him off the train. They don’t meet again until the end of the film, a time by which neither is underestimating the other and they both get one shot off.
Both of them shoot and hit the other with flesh wounds before colliding and disarming one another. And then all that’s left is one of the rawest fights in the whole Bebop series, while one of the most rocking tracks in the soundtrack blasts in the background. It’s perfection.
Ok Let’s Wrap It Up
I don’t mean this to ramble on and make my followers think that I turned into a gun nerd in my time away from the blog. Trust me, I have always been a gun nerd, I just try not to be one of those weird, NRA-fellating, child-murder ignoring gun nuts. And I think that the way weapons are given power in fiction is compelling.
Like, I watched Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero the other week, and that’s a story where a gun holds absolutely no value. What is a character holding a gun going to do, seriously? In that movie, a character got shot and then triple-tapped while they were on the ground.
My friends and I couldn’t stop laughing because it felt so out of place. That shit never happens in Dragon Ball and kinda feels like it shouldn’t. Weapons are often integral in stories. They’re either iconic or hold significant power as a plot device, but if they aren’t given the proper gravitas, the impact rings hollow.
I went in on the Bebop movie because it’s a solid example of how weapons can effectively be given power. The importance of weapons even extends to the fundamental tenets of building good conflict throughout a story. Spike and Vincent’s rivalry is awesome and their weapons played a role in creating that tension.
I guess if there was a huge takeaway from this, it would be that if you want to try and break down why things work in your favorite movie, look for patterns. Focus on a particular thing and try to see if it comes up throughout a story. It could be a certain shot, an action performed, or a plot device, but look for it throughout the text.
Then, if that thing does appear throughout the text, try to see what connects those scenes together and what role they might serve in the larger narrative. In the case of Spike and Vincent’s rivalry, the guns were a small part of the rhythm of the story. Spike is built up, then laid low by Vincent, then comes back at the end ready to face him again.
Cowboy Bebop is available on Blu-ray through Crunchyroll. It’s also available for streaming via Crunchyroll, Funimation, and Netflix. The movie, for some fucking reason, isn’t available on streaming anywhere, but I guarantee you there’s a nice DVD copy at a video store near you. I don’t know, Funimation definitely put the movie on Blu-ray a year or two ago but stopped selling it like immediately. It’s bullshit.
Can you tell that it’s been a while since I’ve written completely? I’ve been in professional writer mode for a while now. Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed.
Thank you all for reading and as always, see you next time.