Stills from Cowboy Bebop
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 an interview 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.”
The music for Cowboy Bebop is credited to Yoko Kanno and The Seatbelts, the ensemble Kanno enlisted to perform the music of the series. Made up of musicians from Japan, New York and Paris, the group performed acoustic ballads, blues, bossa nova, country, electronic, funk, hard rock, hip-hop, jazz, samba and other genres. Although an instrumental big band, The Seatbelts occasionally featured singers such as Mai Yamane, Soichiro Otsuka, Steve Conte, and Gabriela Robin (a pseudonym for Kanno).
As the bandleader for The Seatbelts, Kanno created a diverse and vast soundscape for the world of Cowboy Bebop. Almost each scene is accompanied by its own song, creating a certain mood and pace that truly brings you into that moment. Whether it’s the strumming of an acoustic guitar joining Spike as he sleeps his day away, or an airy, solemn saxophone looming in the background of a bar, the music makes you feel like you’re there, emphasizing those themes of existentialism and loneliness that are trademarks of the series.
Music is rarely, if ever, the center of attention of an anime. New and old school series often treat their scores as a background element, and they usually use J-pop or rock songs in their opening and ending sequences. Even a series such as Angel Beats, where music plays a pivotal role (a fictional girl group called Girls Dead Monster performs throughout the show), succumbs to the J-pop and rock sound prevalent in other animes. The Cowboy Bebop score is diverse and does its own thing, and its relationship with the animation is fittingly improvisational: They riff off of each other, taking turns grabbing our attention.
Most importantly, the scoring just makes Cowboy Bebop cooler. There is a confident swagger to Cowboy Bebop, and that’s not only because of the attitude that comes through the show’s structure or style, but its soundtrack. Kanno is on Kanye West levels of curation, her vision so ambitious and multifaceted, that she got the best of the best to help her bring it to life. The genre transitions come across as effortless and genuine. You can tell that the musicians who made up The Seatbelts have an admiration, appreciation, and respect for genres of all types. The end result is an iPod playlist that’s on shuffle but is serendipitously always on point. There’s the upbeat groove of “Mushroom Samba” as Ed chases a man possessing psychedelic mushrooms, the melancholy of “Call Me Call Me” as Faye figures out her past, and, of course, the general badassness of “The Real Folk Blues” as Spike goes in on Vicious and his boys. Song after song, scene after scene, there is never a pairing that feels out of place.
The soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop was just like the show: innovative, rich and timeless. Discovering songs from the series is only a YouTube search away (several soundtrack albums and a boxed set have been released, and can be found on eBay). Kanno’s sound is on DJ Mustard levels of distinguishability, in that you’ll know when she’s the composer for an anime series. She runs the anime soundtrack game, constantly branching out as a musician and bringing different musical backgrounds together in a way that translates really well. Her work on Cowboy Bebop will always be a testament to that. Seriously, try imagining the series without her scoring. Try imagining it without “Tank.” You can’t. That would be like Reservoir Dogs without “Stuck In The Middle With You,” Garden State without “Such Great Heights,” or Spring Breakers without “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.” The music and development of Cowboy Bebop went hand in hand, and if there’s anything to take from Kanno and Watanabe’s creative partnership, is the power of music and its influence. Kanno and The Seatbelts gave the series that extra something it needed, that last ingredient necessary to make it one of the best anime series of all time.
Elijah Watson prefers the manga version of Coltrane. Follow him on Twitter.