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3,2,1, Let’s Jam…: The Intergalactic Beats of Cowboy Bebop

The classic anime is defined by Yoko Kanno's boundary-breaking blend of Western musical influences

Cowboy Bebop (Funimation)
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    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.

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    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.)

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    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.

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    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.

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    Cowboy Bebop isn’t so much scored as it is soundtracked, its musical landscape consisting mostly of songs that stand in as incidental score for its twenty-six episodes. And within that setlist, Kanno and the Seatbelts soars seamlessly from one musical genre to another, from the toe-tapping bebop beats of “Tank!” to the strained vocals of the hard-rock closing credits ballad “The Real Folk Blues.”

    Episodes are labeled “sessions,” and are given names that reflect the musical genres they’re going to engage in: “Jupiter Jazz,” “Ballad of Fallen Angels,” “Asteroid Blues.” The Cowboy Bebop movie takes its subtitle from Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The music is more than mere accompaniment — it’s a fundamental part of the show’s aesthetic fabric.

    It’s an ethos that pervades the characters and setting as well. Just as the motley crew of the Bebop travels nomadically from planet to planet in search of their next job, or the next encounter with a phantom from their mysterious pasts, so too does Kanno usher us from one musical destination to the other.

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    When Jet Black, a retired police officer, confronts an old lover who’s taken up with his next bounty, we hear the resigned, country-inflected “Waltz for Zizi”:

    When the crew meets up with the brash space trucker VT, she enters to the shredding, head-banging heavy metal of “Live in Baghdad”:

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    And Radical Edward’s scatterbrained personality comes through in the blippy, electronic cyberpunk lullaby “Cats on Mars”:

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    At the center of it all is Spike Spiegel, a man running from his past whose casual exterior and devil-may-care attitude hide a deep well of pain and alienation. When he’s fighting, the toe-tapping bebop sound rises; after all, Spike’s flow-like-water fighting style feels like jazz itself — it’s all about the punches you don’t throw.

    But then, he’ll be smoking alone on the ship to the blues-y harmonica riffs of “Spokey Dokey,” or flashing back to his lost love Julia as he falls from an exploding building to the haunting lullaby “Green Bird”:

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    Kanno’s soundtrack is as enigmatic and flexible as Spike himself, merging a host of influences — from the forlorn jazz of film noir to the excitable hum of Western and kung fu scoring — into a seamless whole.

    More broadly, the jazz sound of Cowboy Bebop fits perfectly with the world Watanabe has created: A cyberpunk, dystopian Wild West set out in the stars, where people struggle to get by in the wake of unspeakable tragedy and try to move past their collective and personal traumas. Spike runs away from his life as a syndicate enforcer and his rivalry with the sadistic Vicious, Jet from the mistakes and compromises he made as a cop, Faye Valentine from a past she doesn’t even remember.

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    And they’re hardly alone: Nearly every supporting character they meet is looking to prove themselves or look the other way after a horrible mistake. The future brings the excitement of interstellar travel and cybernetic enhancements, but it’s dressed in a world of cowboys, truckers, jazz bars, and casinos, reminding us of the past its characters are looking to escape.

    The crew of the Bebop, with their effortless cool hiding a very bohemian fatalism, fits the ethos of jazz in a nutshell. Said Kanno, “I think Spike’s character — tinged with an air of elusiveness, being aloof from the world, and heading to the verge of destruction — goes well with the jazz sound… I chose to create such music believing that people’s emotions in their everyday life would be the same in the future, even in outer space.”

    It’s impossible to imagine Cowboy Bebop with a more traditional score, or even one that picked one genre and stuck to it. It’s too wily, too innovative a show to play it safe like that, and the diversity of its settings and stories just doesn’t work without a freewheeling soundtrack like Kanno’s to accompany it. Just like the jazz artists of old, Kanno broke free of the stylistic constraints of anime music and, from the component parts of the show’s many Western influences, made something entirely new.

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