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Review: “Cowboy Bebop” Blu-ray Yields Big Bang for Your Buck

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Cowboy BebopIt’s hard to be objective about Cowboy Bebop.

This is the show that helped cement action on Adult Swim years ago (and is still a mainstay even now on the new Toonami block). This is the “gateway drug” for so many fans of Japanese animation. This is the reference point for “good dubs.” This is the benchmark for style and storytelling married. This is the show that makes readily-evident how important a quality soundtrack is.

This is a show that transcends “a Japanese cartoon.” And now the legendary animated series has returned, courtesy of FUNimation’s new boxed set, bringing a brand-new high-definition transfer and sixteen years of legacy with it. Does the show hold up? Is it something like Marvel’s The Avengers — something that you really enjoyed the first time, but where later viewings make you realize it’s not as amazing as you thought it was? Is it a show that gets boring and uninteresting once you’ve seen it and you know all the twists?

Is it perfect?

Actually, no… but it’s as damn close as any mature story has been in the past two decades can get.

Cowboy BebopNearing the end of the 21st century, mankind has spread amongst the planets. Earth has become a desolate wasteland, populated by small batches of destitute people. The real money is in bounty hunting, retrieving dangerous criminals for a nice reward. Spike Spiegel is a bounty hunter with a dark past. His partner is Jet Black, an ex-cop whose body tells the tale of why he’s a bounty hunter and who owns the starship Bebop. While they’ve worked together for years, they’re thrown into upheaval when they (somewhat reluctantly) pick up two new crew members: Faye Valentine, an upstart woman trying to pay off her past; and the mysterious teenage prodigy hacker “Ed.”

Cowboy Bebop is one of the greatest works of modern media. This is a series that accomplishes more in 26-episodes (and one movie, which is not included in this set) than many multi-year series accomplish in 100 or more. This is a show whose entire budget might be smaller than single episodes of a modern cable drama.

This is a show that belongs in the same breath as Breaking Bad, The Wire, Arrested Development, and more as benchmarks for high-quality television series. This is a show that belongs in the same breath as Pulp Fiction, Star Wars, and other landmarks of cinema.

Cowboy BebopThe series has some great episodes. The “Jupiter Jazz” two-parter stands out like it could have been a mini-movie, and the ongoing mystery of Faye’s backstory gives way more emotional depth to her than most characters wearing skimpy futuristic yellow latex. Jet’s episodes focusing on his past feature a fair amount of heartbreak and betrayal. Of the main four, Ed receives the least amount of screen time and development. Admittedly, at 13, she has the least amount of plot, but the show would have been tighter if it had more episodes like her final one and fewer like the Teddy Bomber or other “criminal of the week” episodes. On the other hand, this might have made the show a little less accessible. The episodes that stand-alone may be the weakest for the show’s continuing narrative, but they are likely the best introductory point for anyone looking into what Japanese cartoons offer that American don’t, or what mature cartoons can do that children-oriented ones don’t.

The controversial opinion I have might be that Spike’s story really isn’t that engaging. He’s the main character (theoretically), the first and the last person we see, and an integral factor in nearly every episode. He has a well-crafted story that starts with the pre-credit teaser on episode one and is regularly fleshed out all until the very last scene of the series. He’s the epitome of any number of “heroes with a mysterious dark past” that crawled out of 1990’s guns-and-crime flicks. He’s a great character, and your mileage may vary, but you might find his story to be the least-interesting.

That being said, Steve Blum’s role as Spike is career-defining. To this day, he says that people come up to him at conventions to say that their personal touchstones were often Spike Spiegel and TOM (of Toonami). There’s a reason why the final line of the series was also the final line of the original Toonami block, and such a memorable one-word phrase that can instantly recall the feelings of the show. It’s a truly brilliant performance, alternating between comic and serious as needed, but always giving the character depth and credibility.

Cowboy BebopBlum is only the headliner for an excellent dub cast, to the point where it’s generally believed that the Japanese producers actually favored the English production. The voice of Ed brings a whole new life to the character absent from the Japanese version, as Melissa Fahn imbues her with a “manic-pixie” spirit as she sings facts and monologues instead of just delivering the facts. Beau Billingslea as Jet gives the definitive performance as “gruff older cop” that will define how you feel about your age; for many, when the show first aired, the “36-year old” was “the really old guy.” For those now closer to that age or even a little younger, it’s clear that Billingslea affected a lifetime of trouble in 36-years into the voice of the character. Wendee Lee’s Faye Valentine can go from manipulative and troublesome to shaken and shattered, a true testament to the character’s growth beyond twisting men around her fingers for personal and financial gain.

Another audible accessory to the series is the music and soundtrack crafted by Yoko Kanno, which is a definitive part of why this series works so well. Everything from incidental music to the songs that accompany key moments in the series are perfectly-fitting and appropriately moving. The opening and ending, “Tank!” and “The Real Folk Blues,” are great standalone pieces, doing everything from pumping you up to winding you down, even showing off the show’s inherent multiculturalism with the extraneous use of English.

Cowboy BebopThe fact that the show is clearly inspired by so many cultures is heavily apparent in the design, which keeps things in that pleasant “relatable but futuristic” world. We can recognize a vending machine and a cell phone, but when the vending machine pops out a customized hologram based on your appearance, and the cell phone connects from surface to space, we see it as a future that we can reach out to. It’s hard to even say that any of the main cast is “Japanese;” there may be some ancestry there, but what do you call yourself when you’re born on Mars with a German last name? Characters such as Ed are even more vaguely ethnic (with commentary mentioning that she was originally supposed to be a black boy, who’s character design appears in an episode), and while the main cast lends to the pale side, there are much darker skin tones thorughout. Admittedly, one episode draws exaggerated character designs from Shaft and Jackie Brown, which may be a bit more stereotyped than would like, but the series has no problem breaking from the mold. There are no anime stereotypes like “angry German” or “ditzy American” (unless you count the actual cowboy that appears in one episode), and there are even characters that cross the normative gender borders. All of these characters are handled exceptionally well.

The stories also find inspiration from a wealth of tales. John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Rodriguez all get their due in the series, and even films like Alien get a good homage in here. This is a series that wears its influence on its sleeve, loud and proud, which provided a fresh air to a franchise. If this was a more “traditional” Japanese cartoon, you’d expect things like the Bebop transforming into a giant robot, or Spike’s arm being a special sort of laser cannon. Nope: the Bebop can get wrecked and repaired, Spike has to stick with his guns (unless he’s using his fists or a sword), and nobody’s getting a nosebleed from seeing Faye walk around in zero-gravity wearing nothing but a towel. This is partly what makes the series such a great “gateway drug” to Japanese cartoons: it’s accessible, it’s strong, and it doesn’t have any of the problems that previous exposure may have. Nobody has incredibly large eyes (outside of Ed), and odd hair colors can be attributed to the future setting.

Cowboy Bebop Amazon.com exclusive Blu-ray boxFUNimation has packaged Cowboy Bebop in three different versions, similar to the earlier release for Space Dandy. The on-disc extras and digital presentation of the series should be exactly the same on all three. The standard issue release features no physical extras but maintains the vinyl record design of the discs from the original Bandai releases. The FUNimation exclusive version adds art cards and packaging inspired by vinyl record covers, and the Amazon.com exclusive version gets an art box (not just a slipcase, pictured at left), a 140-page black-and-white sketch book, and a 52-page color art book. We were supplied the Amazon.com exclusive version of the release for review.

You will not find a more complete set of extras for Cowboy Bebop in any other place. It is incredibly rare to find any Japanese animation release that gets anywhere near the quantity and quality of bonus features as this set, especially Cowboy Bebop could have simply been a license rescue and reissue. Many of the extras are compiled from previous American and Japanese releases. There are five commentaries throughout the set, featuring a mix of Japanese and American casts and crews. You have the “Session #0” behind-the-scenes episode that only comes subbed, but gives a good luck at the production of the show from the late 1990’s. There are two on-camera interviews with Wendee Lee (Faye Valentine) and Sean Akins (former Adult Swim and Toonami co-founder) that gives a time-capsule look at the show in years past, since the featurette was shot when Akins was still part of Adult Swim and Toonami had not relaunched as the action segment of the franchise. Eight openings and closings, original and textless, the FUNimation trailer for this release, and music videos for the theme song all easily round out the expected extras, and a very short film, “Ein’s Summer Vacation” looks beautiful and is the lone “lost tale” that you don’t see during the series.

Created for this release are nearly three hours of new material regarding the English dub. Memo From Bebop: The Dub Sessions Remembered is a series of interviews and clips that go into the dub of the show, covering everything from why actors chose certain accents for a few characters to the meaning of Steve Blum’s tattoo. This is easily a feature that could have been released on its own, and thrives as a true highlight of this box set. “Dinner Aboard the Bebop” features the main four leads and the voice director having dinner and joking about. There are only a few cuts, making it a nearly uninterrupted hour of wining and dining, with a live reading of a scene from an episode that happens to feature all four actors. Once again, this is a substantial feature that is incredibly entertaining, and it really lends credence to the thought that the dub team really became a family over the years.

Cowboy BebopThe Amazon.com exclusive sketch book features nearly every set, prop, and character design you could think of from the series in black-and-white. The art book features numerous promotional images and stills like the opening and eye-catches of the series. Both physical bonuses are a great addition, and could be sold as-is in a larger-format. Bonuses like these (and the booklets for Ghost in the Shell: ARISE) are a valid argument to keep physical releases coming in the digital age.

Cowboy Bebop is a landmark of animation: an amazing example of how the marriage of voices, music, and visuals can pair to create something legendary. The Bebop sails strong in one of the best animated series box sets released in America.

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