What can I write about Shinichiro Watanabe’s seminal, acclaimed, hugely influential anime Cowboy Bebop that has not already been discussed, in greater detail and with more eloquence, by people before me? I came very late to Cowboy Bebop; I’ve mentioned before when reviewing anime that aside from a handful of exceptions, like Ghost in the Shell, I hadn’t watched much until a few years ago. Cowboy Bebop was one of the landmark series that I’d somehow missed out on, and it took me seventeen years – the series aired in Japan in 1998, but not until 2001 in the west – to correct that grave mistake. Fortunately, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001) gives me an opportunity to discuss the series as a whole and the film in particular. Set between episodes 23 and 24 of the original 26 episode run, the film works as more of a “lost episode” than as a either a capstone to the series or a truly standalone adventure. I imagine a casual viewer could approach it without having watched the series, but that would leave them missing out on much of the world- and character-building that went into the show – and as the film is set largely on Mars, it misses out on much of the swashbuckling, spacefaring charm of the series.
Like the main series, the film takes place in 2071. Humanity has mostly fled to and colonised the solar system after a catastrophic disaster on Earth (though that backstory doesn’t factor into the film much). The majority of the action takes place in a city built inside a Martian crater, with an Earth-like atmosphere and contemporary architecture inspired by a mix of American, East Asian, and North African cities. The protagonists are the ragtag crew of the titular Bebop spaceship: bounty hunters Spike Spiegel (Kōichi Yamadera) and Jet Black (Unshō Ishizuka), gambling ingenue Faye Valentine (Megumi Hayashibara), genius hacker teen Ed (Aoi Tada), and adorable, hyper-intelligent corgi Ein. They get caught up in a bioterrorist plot to unleash deadly nanomachines into the Martian city during a Halloween celebration, for convoluted reasons that become clearer as the plot progresses, and wind up being instrumental in trying to stop that attack from taking place. It’s the kind of standalone story that the original series did so well but writ large. Indeed, the series managed to cram so much into brief, twenty-odd minute episodes that the film – running 115 minutes – feels astonishingly long in comparison.
Cowboy Bebop, as the title implies, has always been heavily influenced by Westerns; from the cut of clothes, the weapons used, the look of certain towns, to the crew’s profession as bounty hunters – and the cowboy-themed bounty hunter news show they watch. It mixes that with science fiction trappings that of course recall Star Wars, but it feels even closer to Joss Whedon’s later, much-beloved Firefly and Serenity – especially with the importance of its Chinese diaspora in shaping the culture and demographics of its colonised solar system. The Asian-Western fusion could also perhaps trace back even further, with Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo transplanting many Western tropes into a sword-and-samurai setting, complete with one of the ronin (played by Tatsuya Nakadai) carrying a revolver. Westerns borrowed from Kurosawa, with Seven Samurai remade as The Magnificent Seven, and Lee Sang-il would go on to reverse that with a remake Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven as Yurusarezaru Mono in 2013.
Having said all that, by limiting the action to Mars, the film barely indulges in its usual Western sensibilities. In fact, it feels more the crew of the Bebop have stumbled into the plot of a Ghost in the Shell instalment (or even Mission Impossible 2’s bioterrorism-focused story, with Spike obviously standing in for Ethan Hunt, and Elektra and Vincent as Thandie Newton and Dougray Scott’s characters). One of the joys of Cowboy Bebop, much like Watanabe’s other work in Samurai Champloo or Space Dandy, is that each episode functioned almost like a self-contained film. An episode could be about anything from a straightforward yet action-packed bounty hunt to a moving exploration of loss and memory, a slapstick, mushroom-fuelled caper or a high octane race against time on a dekotora-like space freighter.
That’s why I’m so torn about Cowboy Bebop: The Movie’s choice of plot and environs: it’s not that the film is bad, but since there’s only one feature length Bebop story, it’s impossible not to consider the almost infinite possibilities, the roads not taken in choosing this story as the one to explore in such an extended manner. Still, the extended running time, higher budget, and collaboration of multiple studios means the film is far and away the best looking example of Cowboy Bebop. Movement, expressions, and action are all richer, while the length means scenes can be allowed to linger where they might have been rushed through or elided entirely before.
As a coda to the incredible Cowboy Bebop, the film – aka “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” – should not be missed. Any fan of the series is likely to find much to love about this essentially feature length episode. It’s harder to recommend unflinchingly to a more casual viewer or someone unfamiliar with the series, as it pulls few punches in establishing that this is only part of a much larger, more complicated world. I’m not sure how many people might have seen the film and gone on to explore the show, rather than the other way around. It does, however, make me lament how few features Watanabe has directed – do we not deserve more Samurai Champloo or Space Dandy? At least there’s his next series, due in 2019, to look forward to with interest.
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie / カウボーイビバップ 天国の扉
Director: Shinichirō Watanabe
Japanese Release Date: 1st September, 2001
Version Watched: 115 min (cinema screening)