New York Comic-Con 2018: Cowboy Bebop 20th Anniversary Panel
Anime News Network's coverage of New York Comic-Con 2018 is sponsored by Good Smile Company's Grand Summoners.
It's hard to believe it's been 20 years since Cowboy Bebop first premiered. It's iconic, as intricate a part of the anime lexicon as anything, and therefore difficult to imagine a time when it wasn't around.
Anniversaries are always a time to reflect, and fans at New York Comic Con were able to do just that at the Cowboy Bebop 20th Anniversary panel, hosted by Tara McKinney, Funimation's Senior Manager of Conventions.
McKinney started off the panel like most moderators at NYCC, by plugging the merchandise, including several collector editions of the series and a re-release of Knocking on Heaven's Door. The exciting announcement to come out of this was the reveal of a new 1/48 Swordfish II model (preorders begin March 2019):
McKinney didn't waste too much time before launching into the actual conversation and introducing the panelists: Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, ADR Director and English voice of Julia, Steve Blum, English voice of Spike Spiegel, Kimitoshi Yamane, Mechanical Designer, Toshihiro Kawamoto, Character Designer and Animation Director, Dai Sato, Screenwriter, and Keiko Nobumoto, Screenwriter and Series Composer.
Throughout the panel, there was lots of mutual love going on (one moment that particularly stood out was when Blum revealed his forearm tattoo — bang, from the final episode — and turned to the Japanese production staff to mutter, practically awestruck, “I'm wearing your words”), but nothing perhaps rose to the level of the anecdote that McGlynn shared in her introduction. After explaining to the crowd that Cowboy Bebop was her first job directing (“I had no idea what I was doing”), she told the crowd how she fell in love with Blum's voice after casting him, and swore that she would cast herself as Julia if the opportunity ever came up. Well, it did, and, serendipitously enough, twenty years later Blum and McGlynn revealed that they're engaged to be married.
“[Cowboy Bebop] is the gift that keeps on giving,” Blum beamed.
Like McGlynn, Cowboy Bebop was a first for Blum and Sato. For Blum, it was his first leading role in anything, a terrifying prospect considering he was working on something that he saw as a “masterpiece.” Bebop was Sato's first job as an anime scriptwriter, and he credits the success of the show for his career in the industry.
The panelists were first asked if they ever imagined the show would be so successful.
“We had no idea what we were doing, or if anyone would see it,” Blum admitted. The dub team was just trying to honor “this beautiful piece of work” they were given and “never could have predicted” the success that would follow.
McGlynn explained that when Spike walked into that church, she knew they had something special. But at the time, there wasn't really a place for dubbed anime on American television. “This might be the greatest thing I ever work on and I don't know if anyone will ever see it,” she explained were her thoughts at the time, choking up as she relayed them to the crowd. “It changed our lives,” she said, thanking the Japanese production team who sat next to her.
The Japanese team agreed with Blum and McGlynn's sentiments. "If anyone had asked any of us on production 20 years ago if it would be this popular, everyone would have said 'nah.' It was just unimaginable,” Kawamoto said. At the time they were pitching the project, Kawamoto recalled that sponsors were confused by Cowboy Bebop. There were no giant robots or epic space battles. How were they supposed to sell it? The team was worried the show would get shelved; even when working on the animation, Kawamoto was unsure of the show's future. But once he heard some of the audio, including Yoko Kano's brilliant score, he knew they had something special that might “leave a little dent in the history of anime.” Like McGlynn, he remembers being inspired by the church scene. He admitted it wasn't “just us on the production staff, but also the brilliant acting ability of the voice actors and ADR staff… We came together so well. That led to us lasting so long.”
“We were pretty satisfied with the final product,” Yamane explained, “but this was back in the day when the web wasn't as advanced.” Absent the trending topics and fan buzz that is so prevalent in today's social media heavy landscape, the team really had no way to gauge how popular the show was beyond word of mouth. “It was when we actually got a call from the home office of Sunrise about some sort of rumor that the videos are flying off the shelves… when we got the hard sales data, we were like, oh it must be hitting, but we still hadn't figured out that it would be so popular overseas.”
Sato agreed. He's been attending conventions since 2000; despite directors and producers constantly telling him how popular Cowboy Bebop was, he never really believed it until he began interacting with fans.
“It's amazing how long it's lasted and [it] is being passed down through generations now,” McGlynn agreed. “Parents introduce it to kids and talk about how great the music and writing is. It has made a strong impression on western audiences more than any other anime I've worked on.” McGlynn said that she sometimes will mention her work on Cowboy Bebop during other projects and it always elicits excitement. Recently, she's been voice directing on She-Ra. A throwaway comment about “back in the day with Cowboy Bebop” to Marcus Scribner (who voices Bow) made the young actor do a double take and, as McGlynn put it, he “came tearing back around the corner” to talk to her about it.
“Little kids up to 90 year olds watch this,” Blum added. He said he's often approached by people who are fans of Cowboy Bebop, including the creators of Legends of Korra and rapper Logic, who credits the show with getting him through one of the toughest periods of his life. “I'm approached by people all the time saying it was their port in the storm. I'm so proud and honored to be a part of something that effects people.”
“And of course we're at the age now where people say to us, you were my childhood!” McGlynn joked.
“I'm really happy to hear you guys grew up on Cowboy Bebop, but at the same time that lets me know it's been 20 years,” Nobumoto groaned. She grew up watching American shows like Bewitched and Sesame Street, and admitted that she got a lot of inspiration and influences from those shows, which she incorporated into her writing. “The fact that you guys watched Bebop and liked those elements is kind of a strange loop closing in a way. It's very amazing.”
Next, the panelists discussed favorite memories from the past 20 years. Yamane went first, sharing a story from the first episode he directed, Session 19: Wild Horses. “If you remember, there's a space shuttle that appears. The other head staff person was a big trekkie, so when it came to naming the space shuttle in that episode, I wanted to name it Columbia, but he kept pushing to name it Enterprise. I mean, sure, Enterprise would have been okay, but as you big space nerds might know, the Enterprise simply just road on top of a jumbo jet, which is why I ended up calling it the Columbia.”
Kawamoto chose to share the story of Ein. “The character Ein, who is a corgi, wasn't my own invention, it was already in the script, but thanks to Ein I ended up having a corgi myself. So, I guess Ein is my most memorable character.” Much of Cowboy Bebop is dark, “but to have a mental sanity break using Ein was very helpful to me, but of course with Ein always comes Ed,” he added to audience cheers.
Sato's most memorable episode is Session 23: Brain Scratch. After hearing Kawamoto talk about Ein, Sato said that despite being introduced in episode 2, he realized it took 22 more episodes to show how great Ein actually is. Sato added that he only actually wrote three episodes, but after viewing Session 23, Kenji Kamiyama (Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex) gave Sato a call. As far as career milestones go, it was a memorable one.
“All I know is cleaning up after Ein kept me humble as the humble bounty hunter,” Blum joked.
McGlynn's favorite episode is Mushroom Samba. “What were you guys thinking?!” she asked, turning to the Japanese production staff. According to McGlynn, it was one of only times on television where they got away with saying a swear word by leaving a pause in between the word “shitaki.” Kawamoto commented that story was cool to hear, because in Japan, they have the word “shitaki,” but not the equivalent swear word.
“This is something we never would have imagined,” he said.
Next, the panelists were asked to describe how the landscape has changed in the 20 years since working on Cowboy Bebop. All agreed that the magic of Cowboy Bebop was something unique and potentially could not be replicated today. For one, Yamane pointed out, there is a lot less original anime being produced.
McGlynn and Blum were both in agreement that Cowboy Bebop opened doors for both fans and the industry. Prior to Cowboy Bebop, Blum said he was hesitant to go to conventions because of the dreaded sub versus dub argument that was so prevalent at the time. He often was told by angry fans that he and other voice actors were ruining anime. However, thanks to the style of acting that McGlynn said Cowboy Bebop brought to the stage, in which the voice actors had the ability to be more natural and play to the truth of the stories, it opened the door and set a new tone for dubbed anime in the US. Much of that is thanks to the source material they were given.
Nobumoto shared that she is often asked why she thinks Cowboy Bebop remains so popular two decades later. She recently sat down with Shinichiro Watanabe, the Japanese Director of Cowboy Bebop, to discuss this. The two concluded that much of it has to do with the fact that they managed to create expressive characters without saying too much. That allowed fans to have their own interpretations and made them want to revisit the series to get even more out of it.
As for the idea of a sequel to the show, the panel was predictably coy about committing to an answer. Consensus seemed to be that the original was a bit of lightning in a bottle and it would be up to Watanabe ultimately.
“How about a prequel?” Blum suggested, before riffing with McGlynn in old man and woman voice versions of their characters.
“Spike… I love you Spike…” McGlynn rasped.
Finally, after 20 years, the question still remains: do the creators think that Spike is alive or dead at the end of the series?
“He's here,” Blum jumped in quickly, self-referencing, “and he got the girl.”
The panel closed on a positive message.
“I'm so grateful to say thank you to Japanese producers for creating this masterpiece,” Blum said. “Never in my life did I expect to work on something of this quality. Thanks to the fans for supporting this amazing show that we put so much love into, not knowing what we were doing. We just made something we wanted to watch and that we fell in love with. Thank you for sharing that with us and giving us the opportunity to share it with you.”
“Twenty years is a pretty long time,” Kawamoto agreed. “I can't say anything but thank you to all of you who have stuck with it. I'm so grateful… At the same time though, part of reason Cowboy Bebop is so beloved is because of the brilliant work of the dubbing staff. Thanks to all staff, Japanese and US” for making this show so great.
“Creators that stick to their guns and push it through, because of their efforts and passion we're here, and you guys embraced it. That's what Bebop is,” Sato said.
As the crowd gave a standing ovation, Blum stood from his chair, pointing his finger out towards the crowd.
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