Cowboy Bebop History and Overview: Characters, Setting, Live Action, More

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Cowboy Bebop is regarded by many as one of the greatest productions to ever come out of Japan in recent years. For many fans, it is a class, a masterpiece, and the bar from which every other anime and manga is judged. A Cowboy Bebop history and overview cannot avoid the acclaim that it has achieved over the decades.

For someone interested in this fantastic series and checking it out for the very first time, the Cowboy Bebop history and overview guide will help you to understand what it is all about. Here’s what you need to know about the characters, setting, story, and, of course, the live-action adaptation.

Bottom Line Up Front

Cowboy Bebop is an original anime series (ignoring that one manga) that later received manga and live-action versions that began in 1999. Starring Spike as a bounty hunter who scours the solar system in 2071 alongside his crew and produced by Sunrise of Gundam fame, it is one of the most renowned and high-quality anime of all time. For many, it is considered a masterpiece and the best there’s ever been.

What is Cowboy Bebop?

Cowboy Bebop is an anime original series (sort of) from Sunrise that follows the story of Spike Spiegel, a bounty hunter who lives in the future version of society in 2071. The story takes place across the entire solar system that Earth is in, from Earth itself to the moons of Jupiter, and more.

Much of Cowboy Bebop’s overarching storyline is shrouded in mystery at the start of the series as it focuses on a more standalone story structure for much of the show. The basic plotline is that Spike is hunting down bounties on people who are criminals to earn money.

Along the way, he gathers a crew of other people in the solar system to help him in his hunt for these people. The storylines are typically pretty wacky and jazz-filled with a beautiful soundtrack that amplifies the action that is happening onscreen. Cowboy Bebop is a show that was built and meant for an animated series.

The tone of the series is varied and smart, being goofy at times with some gags here and there to make the person laugh, but then also moments of tragedy and sadness when necessary. It also has a gradual and smart tonal change that helps to usher in the more overarching storylines as time goes on.

All in all, Cowboy Bebop is regarded by many as one of the greatest anime ever created, if not the best one of all time. The manga is pretty good and a decent way to experience this story, but the anime is at the forefront for sure. With such a strong quality and success behind it, it is a must-watch for any anime and manga fans out there.

Cowboy Bebop History: Manga

In the interesting case of Cowboy Bebop, this is a series that did not necessarily begin with the manga version. Well, sort of. It is a complicated history surrounding the manga version of Cowboy Bebop and it all begins with the Shooting Star series that began in 1998.

Launching with its first chapter on September 18, 1997, in the Monthly Asuka Fantasy DX magazine, it predated the actual anime series itself by a few months. However, the key point behind this is that the anime was what started Cowboy Bebop and it was getting ready to release itself.

As a promotional piece before the start of the series, the manga version known as Shooting Star began. It only ran for a few chapters, ending its publication early in its lifecycle on June 18, 1998. This was likely due to the mixed reception surrounding it and the fact that it only was loosely connected to the main anime series.

After all, it had some weird changes to it from the anime series like making Ed a male character, rather than female, and some of the events being told in a strange order. It was not a great manga and though it came out first, it was not the origin of this series. Given its somewhat poor quality, this meant that a later manga series had to come out.

Because of this, another manga adaptation began after the start of the actual Cowboy Bebop anime on October 18, 1998, and was created by Yutaka Nanten. It would run for only around 11 chapters in total, coming to an end on February 18, 2000. The few chapters that were released for this rather short manga were divided up into only three volumes that readers could purchase to add to their collection.

What is also interesting about the second and much more faithful manga is that it featured some funny titles that were referential to pop culture, much like the names of the anime episodes were. Overall, the manga series is a good one and a fun way to experience the story of Cowboy Bebop differently.

However, in the end, Cowboy Bebop was not created to be a manga series originally and, therefore, is not the best place to experience this story. That said, I do think that it is a great way to check it out in a different light after watching the anime series and maybe even see the bizarre take from the Shooting Star manga.

Cowboy Bebop History: Anime

At the heart of Cowboy Bebop is the anime adaptation. This is where it truly began and what fans should check out first before anything else in the franchise. It was created by the anime production studio Sunrise, which was already one of the greatest anime studios at the time.

Sunrise was known for creating the Mobile Suit Gundam series that popularized the entire mecha genre of fiction. With several series of that under its belt, Cowboy Bebop was a somewhat drastic departure for the company as it explored space but without any mech suits involved.

Sunrise created the series while the actual story concept for Cowboy Bebop was invented by a group of staff members that composed of the director Shinichiro Watanabe, renowned composer Yoko Kanno, character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto, and the designer Kimitoshi Yamane.

Together, this group is all considered the ones who created this series and are credited as such. What is notable is that each of them had been working together for quite some time, having worked on other series from Sunrise and more.

In the case of many of the animators who worked on the series, they had worked together on some of the Gundam series. For the director, he already made a name for himself on the Macross franchise, and composer, Yoko Kanno, had created music for Porco Rosso, Macross, The Vision of Escaflowne, and more before this series.

Without a doubt, this was a dream team of young and talented creators who were oozing talent all across. Given that they seemingly worked nicely together and shared the credit for this series, it was a once-in-a-lifetime development experience that led to this fantastic series.

It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that there are so few original anime series these days as most everything is based on a manga, light novel, webtoon, and so on. It is so rare that you will see a studio tackle an original storyline and concept that was not already proven beforehand.

And even when they do it, it is not guaranteed to be great. That said, I have found that the overall quality of original anime shows tends to be generally higher than that of adaptations, but that is a topic for another time. In the end, the anime adaptation of Cowboy Bebop turned out to be one of the lightning in a bottle moments for Sunrise.

The studio gambled in a new series rather than yet another Gundam, and it paid off brilliantly. The first episode of Cowboy Bebop launched on April 3, 1998, in Japan and would run for a total of 26 episodes. It would have two broadcasts to finish off the series.

The first broadcast came to an end on June 26, 1998, with the series picking back up on October 24, 1998. From there, it would continue with the weekly episodes or so until its conclusion on April 24, 1999, just over a year after its start. However, this was only in Japan.

At the time of the turn of the 21st century, anime was in a strange place since it was still not super easy to find new shows out of Japan outside of bootleg discs and DVDs. However, Cowboy Bebop was an influential show that changed much of that when it came to the West.

Cowboy Bebop was the first anime to ever be aired on Adult Swim on Cartoon Network, paving the way for what is essentially still happening today more than 20 years later. It came West shortly (relatively speaking for that time) after its Japanese run in 2001.

In fact, not only was Cowboy Bebop quite popular and successful in Japan, but it became one of the first major international anime series hits around the world. This was also in large part due to the fantastic English dubbing of the series that remains one of the pinnacles to this day.

Many will argue the English subtitles versus dubbing all day long, but at the end of the day, Cowboy Bebop is one of the main examples of when an English dub can work extremely well. As such, it ushered in a new group of young anime fans that would go on to enjoy other shows from there.

Cowboy Bebop is also a singular season show. There are no plans for a second season and we will likely never get one as it was simply not meant to be that way. That said, the series did get a spin-off film called Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door that would release a couple of years later in 2001.

It did not take long to reach the West, either, and fans were able to experience this mostly standalone tale with the Cowboy Bebop gang. Taking place in between some episodes in the latter half of the series, it was a brilliant one-off that worked quite well with the film length and even better animation quality.

Episode Structure Explained

The reason that the anime film succeeds so well is that it is just a continuation of the episodic structure that is used in Cowboy Bebop. The series, at the time, used the quite interesting “monster of the week” sort of formula to it. This sort of “genre” is where every episode is a standalone experience.

This was seen in lots of other shows and even anime at the time but was mainly used for serial television sitcoms and stuff for all ages like Sailor Moon and Pokemon. That said, Cowboy Bebop was a much more mature show that is not for those that are younger than teens.

So, the episodic structure was fascinating and it worked extremely well. The gist of the story being that Spike, Jet, and the gang are bounty hunters meant that basically, every episode could feature the team going after a different bounty.

This gave a movie-like quality to each of the under 30-minute episodes as you had a distinct intro, middle section, an end to it all within that same episode. This meant little to no filler whatsoever and non-stop action and intrigue throughout the series from start to finish.

It also meant that players were only slowly drip-fed the details surrounding the overarching plot about the series. Small details here and there could be figured out about the past of some of the characters while leading up to a final act of the series that was not as standalone.

Sure, there were a few exceptions out there like some stories that would have two-part episodes but this allowed the team to earn the more story-driven plot that came at the end of the series. It was an interesting take on the episodic formula that was surprisingly consistent in quality.

It helps, too, that many of the episodes were so well-written that you could ask a group of fans their favorite episodes from the series and there are chances that you will get several different answers. Someone might like a particular action-packed mission that the team went on in one episode while another might prefer the wackiness of a different one while still another person might like the tragic story of certain characters only featured in one episode.

Live-Action Explained

Normally when I cover the history and overview of a series, there is mainly just the manga and possible anime adaptations to go over. However, in this case, there is a live-action version of Cowboy Bebop and it does not go without being mentioned for its notoriety.

For many years following the release of Cowboy Bebop, there were talks about possible live-action films and the like. There were deals that were being handled for years with rumors everywhere until we finally found out about an actual live-action adaptation happening.

In the end, it came as a series rather than a movie and was released on Netflix around the world. The Cowboy Bebop live-action series launched with hour-long episodes that mostly followed the same general format of the anime series with episodic storylines that were pretty standalone from one another.

The casting for the series was pretty decent, featuring the core trio of characters in the group looking fairly similar to their anime counterparts and acting like them. One of the major problems with the series, though, was that it took liberties in certain areas that did not pan out too well.

It would take the ideas of certain episodes and rewrite them from scratch with a new spin on them, which did not always turn out great. There were also new storylines entirely in the overarching plot that were a bit filler in nature and lackluster compared to the core story in each episode.

It also did not help that it almost did not feature Ed at all in the entire show as the series was trying to go for multiple seasons when it should have just been a single one like the anime. With all of that said, it is no surprise that it was canceled and will never receive a second season.

It was overwhelmingly disliked by the community, however, I did not hate it as much as others. I think it was just okay but I enjoyed watching it in the end. It was also a good way to show off the series to someone like a parent who may not be into anime and manga. In my opinion, it wasn’t good but not necessarily bad, either. I do think it is a shame that it was canceled honestly.

Setting

The setting for Cowboy Bebop is 2071, set around five years after a catastrophic event has left much of planet Earth unsuitable for people to live on it. Colonies and other planets are becoming more and more populated, like moons and even Mars.

With this series set in space, it might be expected that it would be similar to Gundam, Sunrise’s previous work, but the style of the setting is completely different. The series has been described as a jazzy take on a space Western and that is exactly the case for Cowboy Bebop.

While futuristic and featuring spaceships, many of the episodes feature towns and locations that look straight out of a Western movie. In this way, you could describe the setting as a cowboy Western that just so happens to be in space at times.

Even the spaceships and futuristic nature of it all is pretty dingy at times and rundown compared to the sterile and shiny nature of other sci-fi shows.

Main Characters

Cowboy Bebop

The core cast of Cowboy Bebop is the central bounty hunters who are aboard the titular Bebop ship. There are slight spoilers here for some of the cast members that eventually join the group, but it is nothing at all that will lessen the impact of the story; just the people in the crew.

At the very beginning of the story, it focuses on the two initial bounty hunters on the Bebop: Spike and Jet. Spike has a mysterious background to him that haunts him to this day while Jet is a former police officer. Both of them are now bounty hunter partners, hunting down criminals to get a paycheck to survive on.

Through the course of the various events that happen in the story, other characters eventually join the crew of the Bebop and help them to track down bounties. One such character is the beautiful Faye Valentine, a con artist and generally shady person who has a mysterious past of her own that eventually leads her to join the group.

Then there is Ein, the Corgi pet companion who just so happens to also be a valuable member of the crew. While he is a dog, he has been experimented on to have immense intelligence and is capable of helping out the team in some of their missions occasionally.

And last but not least, there is Ed who is a young girl who is a hacker genius. With all five of them together, they can go out on missions across the solar system and hunt down bounties while dealing with their ghosts from the past along the way.

Where to Read and Watch Cowboy Bebop

With most of the manga titles that we talk about here on MangaInsider, we can easily recommend places where it is available both digitally and physically. The problem with Cowboy Bebop is that it is both old and something notoriously difficult in the licensing business.

This may be in part due to being a Sunrise production and its other franchise, Gundam, has also been infamous at times when it comes to watching the shows legally. Sadly, when it comes to the Cowboy Bebop manga, there are no legal ways at this time of reading it either digitally or physically. There are ways out there but they are less than legal so you can find it on your own.

On the other hand, the anime is faring a little bit better these days. There was a time when it was very hard to watch it legally, too, but it is now more readily available on Netflix for you to view, perhaps, due to the live-action series’ release. The movie is another story entirely but that could also change shortly if it ever joins Netflix or another streaming service.

FAQs

Question: Why was Cowboy Bebop canceled?

Answer: Cowboy Bebop’s live-action adaptation was an ill-fated series on Netflix that was ultimately canceled. Interestingly enough, it was quite successful in some ways and was in the top 10 series for a good period following its release in 2021. It also enjoyed a considerable amount of millions of hours viewed.

While it was not record-breaking in the way that some hit Netflix live-action shows are, the Cowboy Bebop live-action was successful enough in its way. However, it did not take long before it was canceled by Netflix and, because of that, will never receive the second season that it certainly hyped up.

The cancellation was likely due to a few factors adding up for Netflix and not necessarily just its popularity. This is a show that likely would take time to garner more views, which may have been an issue, while the critical failure that it was for media and fans alike only likely added to its eventual cancellation.

Question: What is the timeline of Cowboy Bebop?

Answer: Cowboy Bebop takes place in 2071 in our current solar system. It features space travel and moving from planet to planet and moon to moon. While set in a sci-fi future, it does incorporate a lot of space mixed with Western vibes to it.

Question: Is there a season 2 of Cowboy Bebop?

Answer: If by this question, someone means a second season of the Netflix live-action series, no, there is not going to be a second season. Though it ends on a clear cliffhanger to drum up hype for a second season (and possibly more beyond that), it was canceled before that could ever happen.

Now, if someone is wondering about the original anime series, no, there is not a second season for that, either. Cowboy Bebop is a one-and-done sort of show where a single season is all it takes to get the main story across, and there is no reason to do another one. That said, there is the aforementioned animated film that can at least offer a little bit more content to enjoy.

Question: Is Cowboy Bebop an original anime series?

Answer: Yes, Cowboy Bebop is an original anime series. Though a manga story did appear just before the anime began, it is strange and only loosely connected, leaving most to consider this an original anime series.

Question: Is Cowboy Bebop the best anime ever?

Answer: This is the big question that many will wonder about going into this series. It is also a subjective one that will differ with each person. When it comes to my thoughts on the matter, I don’t think that Cowboy is the best anime ever, however, it is most definitely in the conversation and likely in the top 10 of all time.

The writing is impeccable, the characters are instantly memorable, and the stories that happen across each of the various episodes are interesting and fun. While not every episodic mission is great, most of them are and it helps, too, that the overarching plot is also intriguing in its own right.

And then there is the beautiful soundtrack that is such a key part of why this anime works so well. It helps, too, that it is almost timeless in its visual nature as I first watched it myself more than 15 years after it came out and I was able to greatly appreciate it even then.
That said, I would not be against a faithful remake of this anime or at least a thoughtful remastered version from Sunrise someday to bolster its claim further for the title of best anime of all time.

Conclusion

Cowboy Bebop is a one-of-a-kind show that has such a perfect blend of comedy and tragedy that is so amazing in anime and manga. That said, it is easy to quickly finish this series and not have anything else to enjoy since it was only a single season and movie.

In the event, this happens to you, one show and manga that we recommend for you to watch is My Hero Academia. While these shows could not be any more different, there are some similarities in the tone that it goes for. My Hero Academia is meant for all ages, so it has a lot of comedic elements to it.

Even still, it balances it masterfully with the tragic and darker tones that come later in the series. It helps, too, that it features a lot of great bad guys being taken down like in Cowboy Bebop. Be sure to check out our full My Hero Academia history and overview guide for more info about this recommended series.

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