Well! This epic marathon went relatively smoothly, I think. Probably because I had some good momentum coming in. I've watched a good chunk of Cowboy Bebop before, largely out of order, enough to realize how good it is and to recognize its spiritual ties with Firefly, but not enough to really get a feel for the whole arc.
Short summary: it's really good. I'm a bit of a cheat when it comes to anime: with a few exceptions, I don't go out by myself and hunt around for something new; instead, I rely on a few friends who are much more strongly connected with the scene, and so I just get recommendations for the really good stuff. This means that I have an inflated idea of the overall quality of anime, much like we Americans have an inflated idea of how great British comedy is. Did you know that a lot of Britons think that America makes better comedies than they do? That's not because out nations' tastes are backwards; it's because only the best shows of each country get exported. So when we think of British comedy, we think of Fawlty Towers and The Office and Are You Being Served, and not of the dozens of rotten series. Likewise, the British get to see Seinfeld and The Simpsons, but not According to Jim or That 80's Show.
All that to say, when I say that Cowboy Bebop is an excellent anime, it's a much stronger statement than saying it's an excellent show. Even compared with the high quality of most anime I watch, this one stands out.
The first thing that jumped out at me is the music. Most anime shows will have a really good theme, a J-Rock song that plays over the closing credits, and some forgettable genre-specific tunes in the middle. Bebop was incredibly creative and varied. The cornerstone of the show is jazz, and they have great jazzy pieces that both help the story and also stand well on their own. In keeping with the hybrid feel of the overall show, though, the music isn't limited to just jazz... you get some strong choral pieces, folk tunes, heavy metal, and some really excellent rock pieces towards the end. While there isn't much electronic music in there, the one episode that includes a lot of electronica has some of the best music I've ever heard in the genre.
The setting of the show is another strong point. When watching this, I had to remind myself that it was made back in 1998, long before Firefly had brought the term "space western" into widespread use. (Well, "Widespread" among a small group of nerds, at least.) It's even broader than that, though. Besides the western and futuristic elements, there's also a strong hint of 1920's-era speakeasies. The locations and dress of the characters seem to be hailing from the Prohibition era, while they listen to 1950's jazz and pursue an 1850's profession in 2070's world. It's all sort of a mishmash, but for some reason it actually works. After you're a few episodes in, it becomes natural to accept this universe's particular logic, at which point all the different sources just provide more opportunities for great devices and delightful elements.
One particular thing to call out: unlike every other anime I've watched, the English dub rocks. I was a bit skeptical when others insisted I should forego my normal subtitling habits, but they're absolutely right... the voices are right for the characters, and actually done well. For that reason alone, I think I'm more likely to recommend this series to anime neophytes. (I'm also a little curious why there have been so many more mediocre dubs since this came out - one would hope that having one example of an excellent dub would encourage distributors to make appropriate efforts to round up appropriate talent.)
The characters stand out as well. I've always assumed that Spike was the hero, and I guess technically he is, but towards the end of the series I almost felt as though Jet was the real center of the show. Each of the characters is very unique without being too stereotypical. For some reason, Edward irritated me far less on this viewing than when I've watched individual episodes before.
The overall pacing of the story was really good as well. The show sits comfortably between being purely episodic and being a serial: there is an ongoing plot that is carried out through the 26 episodes, but at the same time most of the shows stand well on their own. If I were showing this to someone else, I wouldn't necessarily start with the first episode; I don't think it really gets cranking until the 5th or so. Anyways, that sort of balance was nice. While the characters had strong desires, they also just had to live their lives, and the viewer can get a much better feeling for what the universe feels like via these looks at the bounty and their homes.
In an odd sort of way, the pacing reminds me of Lord of the Rings, or maybe The Hobbit. There's a definite story to tell, but not every minute of the show is slavishly devoted to reaching the incredible climax. By indulging in detours and side jobs, they make the universe richer and more real, thereby giving even more meaning and weight to everything that takes place. It also creates fresh territory for fans to explore and fantasize about.
Wow... I think I'm actually going to finish this review without giving any spoilers. Cool. Bebop was a great side trip of my own, and I'm glad I took the time to see it as a whole. Next stop, Firefly Redux!