To celebrate the release of Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop adaptation, we’re taking a look back at stunning music of the classic anime. Watch the video essay above; a full transcript follows.
Shinichiro Watanabe’s 1998 series Cowboy Bebop is more than one of the greatest animes ever produced; it’s frequently cited as the gateway show for non-anime fans to get into the medium.
Why is that?
You could say it’s the exciting stories, its endearing crew of intergalactic bounty hunters, or its beautiful, fluid animation; or maybe it’s that the English dub is one of the few unimpeachable examples of the form. But for me? It’s the music.
From those opening bursts of trumpet from the series’ iconic opening theme, “Tank!”, it’s clear that Bebop is more than just a word in the show’s title — it’s a thesis statement. Saxophone flourishes and frenetic cymbals jam over monochromatic portraits of the main characters, guns, ships, an impressionistic shock to the senses that gets the viewer primed for the dynamism of the next 22 minutes.
(The title sequence’s style obviously hearkens back to the geometric abstractions of Saul Bass and Maurice Binder, but there’s also a note of Reid Miles’ innovative, effortlessly cool cover albums for Blue Note Records from the ’40s to the ’70s. Like Spike Spiegel from his criminal past, Bebop just can’t escape its jazz foundations.)
Bebop, a subgenre of jazz popularized in the 1940s by musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and Charlie Parker, leans heavily on fast tempos and adventurous improvisation. It was one of jazz’s first real stylistic rebellions, as younger musicians tested the limits of the more swing-centered jazz of their time.
This new jazz was for listeners only; you couldn’t dance to it. It demanded attention, both to the rhythms and the performers. Scales were suggestions, melodies were memories to occasionally recollect. In the heady spaces in between, there was room to play: syncopated rhythms, extended chords, gaps for innovation.
That sense of laidback unpredictability pervades every aspect of Cowboy Bebop, which similarly dances from East to West, jazz to pop, surreal comedy to space opera at the twist of a finger. The world itself is a futuristic melange of Eastern and Western cultural influences, Watanabe crafting a lived-in science fiction landscape that owes a debt to Westerns, film noir, the French New Wave, the kung fu film, and so much more.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the show’s music, composed by Yoko Kanno, a diverse, compelling blend of songs and scoring that starts out in jazz, before bouncing from genre to genre with all the glee of the intergalactic bounty hunters at the show’s center.
Kanno was an unlikely choice for the job; growing up as a child musical prodigy in the 1960s, Kanno’s parents only allowed her to listen to classical music as a child; It was only when a friend introduced her to popular music that her eyes opened to the possibility of the beat. Her major scores prior to Bebop, while still brilliant, were largely sweepingly orchestral works more in the vein of John Williams.
In fact, Kanno told Dazed Digital in an interview that when Watanabe tapped her for the role after working together on the anime miniseries Macross Plus, she was uncertain about taking the gig: “My answer back then was, ‘I think I can, but I don’t think it will sell.’ I’m glad that my prediction has been proven wrong.”
Undeterred by the challenge, Kanno assembled a band of her own to handle the freewheeling roulette wheel of musical genres the show would traffic in: The Seatbelts. And together, they built a sound unlike any that anime, or science fiction, has heard before or since.