A version of this article originally appeared on Noisey.
Cowboy Bebop. Uttering those two words to casual and diehard anime fans alike often elicits an enthusiastic response. Since the series’ end in 1996, Cowboy Bebop became the cool, new gateway anime, a project that preferred to emulate western fiction over Japanese anime conventions and that offered a sci-fi world that didn’t seem so far-fetched.
The result was a 26-episode “masterpiece,” which blended elements of film noir, independent film, action fiction, pulp fiction, science fiction, and so much more. The premise—a group of bounty hunters hustle day to day to capture small and big time criminals—gradually gives way to what the series is actually about: a group of people (and a dog) trying to understand and come to terms with their past and not letting that define their present or future. The show is a commentary on existentialism and loneliness, packed in between crisp and tight action sequences, detailed and imaginative shots of an intergalactic universe, and scenes of some of the tastiest-looking Instant Ramen you’ll ever see.
But another integral aspect of Cowboy Bebop that, although it often gets acknowledged, doesn’t receive the same analysis as other notable parts of the series, is its soundtrack. You come to Cowboy Bebop for a compelling and complex narrative, and stay for the bangers: blues bangers, bossa nova bangers, heavy metal bangers, jazz bangers and J-pop bangers. The eclectic collection of music complemented the show so well. The image of anti-hero Spike Spiegel fighting drug dealer Asimov Solensan wouldn’t be the same, for instance, without the hard bop of “Rush.” And of course there’s the anime’s now-famous theme song, “Tank,” a hard-hitting jazz track that’s just as important as the series itself.
Behind Cowboy Bebop’s soundtrack is Yoko Kanno, a composer and musician who first made a name for herself as the composer for 1994 animated series Macross Plus. Combining elements of breakbeat, orchestra, techno and tribal, Kanno showcased her ability to mix genres into something cohesive and enjoyable early on, and she has perfected that talent ever since. She’s scored other anime series like Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, The Vision of Escaflowne, and Wolf’s Rain, and she’s also produced for Japanese singer-songwriter and actress Maaya Sakamoto. Yet Cowboy Bebop was a world of its own.
The conception of Cowboy Bebop’s sound came several years before the anime even existed. “The seeds for that score were sown in middle school and high school when I was a member of the brass band,” Kanno said in an interview with the Red Bull Music Academy in 2014. “I’m not sure how it is nowadays, but back then all the songs kids were taught weren’t at all cool, so I made and performed originals. But a part of me was always frustrated because I couldn’t understand why everybody else was content playing uncool music. I wanted to play brass music that shook your soul, made your blood boil, and made you lose it.”
After being recommended by someone at Victor Entertainment, Kanno joined Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe and began creating the show’s score. Watanabe initially created the series by using the first scores Kanno made, and he continued to use her music as the show went on. “There were instances where I heard these songs she created for Cowboy Bebop, took inspiration from them and created new scenes for Cowboy Bebop,” Watanabe said in aninterview with Toon Zone in 2013. “And then she would be inspired by these new scenes I’d created, they would give her new ideas for music and she’d come to me with even more music. So it was a game of catch between the two of us in developing the music and creating the TV series Cowboy Bebop.”
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