Will There Ever Be A "Next Cowboy Bebop"?
by Justin Sevakis,
Every now and then I will here somebody talk about “the next Cowboy Bebop” is coming down the pipe and how it's going to completely ripple through the anime community now and for years to come. In the last few I have heard this when Space Dandy, DEVILMAN crybaby and Megalobox were being advertised. Don't get me wrong I think these are great shows, but certainly not shake the fandom up into a frenzy for more than a few months let alone over a year. I realize there have been a number of very popular long running shonen show like Fullmetal Alchemist, Attack on Titan, My Hero Academia that have had post Cowboy Bebop longevity. But these shows are designed to be you are in it for the long-haul series. But short 12 to 24 episode shows seem to disappear within a season or two of airing. Was Cowboy Bebop just a real lightning in a bottle title where it came out at the right place at the right time to sink into the pop culture history. Do you think it is ever likely to for another 12 to 24 episode self-contained show to raise to Cowboy Bebop proportions?
No, there probably won't be a "next Cowboy Bebop."
Cowboy Bebop occupies a special place in anime history in the West for several reasons. When the series came out Stateside in 1999, anime was on the precipice: it had been buzzed about in the underground/comic book scene for years at that point, and had made some major inroads into retail home video distribution, but overall awareness was still not great. Akira was a big cult hit, but it was too violent and weird to have wide mainstream appeal. Ghost in the Shell did well with critics, but it was too talky and cerebral to expect everyone to be on board with it. While a few shows, like Macross Plus and Ninja Scroll, were big hits, they just BARELY fell short of mass accessibility.
At that crucial time, Cowboy Bebop was EXACTLY the mainstream-friendly icon anime needed in the West, and especially North America. It was realistic for anime standards and had high quality visuals and animation. It had an excellent English dub. The characters all had easy-to-pronounce Western names. It was stylish, its characters were cool, and it had a great soundtrack. No cultural notes were needed, nothing had to be explained. You could show it to anybody and not only would they understand it, but they could easily figure out what it was trying to be. When experiencing new things, it's essential that people are able have a frame of reference that they are already familiar with if they're going to be at ease with it: "This might be an anime, which I don't know, but this is basically just a sci-fi action comedy, which I totally get."
But more than that, it FELT American. Director Shinichiro Watanabe made no secret of his love of American film -- the series had direct references to Alien, Taxi Driver and Blade Runner, among several others. The series also has a similar pacing and blocking as American films; unlike many anime of the period, it follows so much Western film tradition that it simply felt familiar. There were no Ozu-like long knee-high observational shots, no rhythmic "breaths" ("Pillow shots" in Ozu-speak), no surrealist touches like characters breaking into chibi-form or dramatic triple-pans. Much like Akira Kurosawa knew how to compose film like a Westerner and therefore enjoyed outsized success in the US, so did Watanabe.
Americans still had to get used to the idea of watching Japanese cartoons, and an anime that was essentially as non-foreign as possible while still being an entirely Japanese production was the perfect on-ramp. Not a single element the show was built from, be its Country-Western homages or its rollicking jazz soundtrack or its space travel sci-fi elements was unfamiliar to Western audiences, or would feel out of place in a Western production. (Edward's lack of gender specificity may have been a little bit ahead of its time, but so little is made of it that it barely matters.) It essentially took the "scary foreign-ness" out of anime. It was approachable.
Of course, none of that would have mattered had the show not been as good as it was. Is it the best anime ever made? No, not by a longshot. Is it perfect? Certainly not -- there were good episodes and bad episodes. But there are no real dead spots. The show's visual quality has its peaks and valleys like any TV anime, but it never looks bad. More importantly, it stays consistently engaging, its characters stay likable, and its writing is very strong. Unlike many anime, it has a "real" ending. That last part was especially important, because it let people new to anime sit back after a relatively undemanding 26 half-hours and think, "well, that's over, and I really liked it. Maybe I should watch more anime." Being left wanting of a resolution doesn't leave people with as good of a taste in their mouths.
We'll never have another show like Cowboy Bebop. Fortunately, we don't NEED another show like Cowboy Bebop. Americans are generally much more open to international content, and Japan doesn't seem anywhere near as foreign to most people as it once did. The first American generation that can be truly said to have grown up on anime and Japanese video games are all adults now, and are never going to give their kids a concerned look when they say they want to learn more Japanese culture. Our parents sure did.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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