Sci-fi: The Bebop is a spaceship! And, see, the story takes place in the future, and spaceships travel through hyperspace gates, and we've colonized the whole solar system, and it's all very well thought out, with different planets having very different landscapes. But the sci-fi is all really just a backdrop for the story.
Noir: Because the meat of the tale is classic noir, centering around the many ways your past always catches up to you. There's a crime syndicate, and people shoot with guns, not laser pistols or some shit. And appearances are always deceiving. Always always always.
Kung fu: It's not often that your noir hero busts out with martial arts moves. I'm just saying.
Western: The main characters are bounty hunters! And they watch a show for bounty hunters whose hosts dress up as a stereotypical cowboy and cowgirl. And there are old varmints in a saloon. And the occasional twangy guitar score.
Mixtape: Yeah, I said twangy guitar. Although the most prominent musical theme is jazz, the show is very focused on using multiple musical styles, usually highlighted by the title of the episode ("Heavy Metal Queen" and "Mushroom Samba," for instance). There's no real purpose for this except that it's clear the creators of Cowboy Bebop set out to make something new and unique and different, and throwing a multitude of world music into the mix seems as good an idea as any other. It feels almost experimental, as if they wanted to see what would happen if you scored an anime with atypical music. I mean, would you expect a space noir Western to have this fabulous opening sequence? Watch it, as it gives a fairly good impression of what's at play here.
What's impressive about Cowboy Bebop is how well this fusion of genres works. It all feels like a cohesive storytelling environment. So, let's talk characters.
Spike Spiegel, our hero, is a Man with a Past. What that past is is slowly revealed over the course of the series. One thing that's clear is that he wasn't always a bounty hunter. (But then again, who is? You don't take up a career in bounty hunting; you sort of fall into it.) Spike is a character who frequently had me asking, "Spike Spiegel, how are you so badass?" This is a guy who can stop a hijacking in his sleep (kinda). He's generally pretty nonchalant, but that's New Spike, and New Spike exists because Old Spike once existed, so the key to understanding Spike is to attempt to reconcile the Old and the New. Like I said, noir hero.
Jet Black is head of the Bebop and Spike's partner-in-crime (not literally). He's got a cybernetic arm! And his cooking sucks (not because of the cybernetic arm). Jet is older and wiser than Spike. He's the kind of gruff old grump who always yells, "If you leave, you won't be welcome back!!" And then welcomes you back with open arms. Like Spike, he has a past, but unlike Spike, it doesn't cause him nearly that much angst.
Faye Valentine has a totally badass entrance but is actually only one-tenth as badass as Spike. In reality, she's kind of irritating, unfortunately. I wanted to love a character with big boobs and blue hair, but she made it really hard! All she did was get herself into trouble. She only ever looks out for herself, and neither Spike nor Jet really seems to like her that much either. It's more like they grudgingly tolerate her. She gets the most interesting (but least explored) backstory, which did make me like her a little more.
Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV is a cute little redhead hacker girl who never fails to crack me up. Her [Japanese] voice and manner of speaking are just so adorable and ridiculous. She reminded me a lot of Uzura. She's always rolling around and spouting nonsense. I think she's one of those characters you either love or find insufferably annoying.
Ein is a dog. Woof woof doggie!
So there you have the makeshift family that lives on the Bebop. They go after bounties and have all kinds of wacky adventures!
I knew going in that the show was more episodic than most anime, but I was disappointed in how episodic it was. The majority of the one-offs were just that: one-offs. It was as if they existed in a vacuum, and in the next episode, it was like nothing had happened (especially because half the time they didn't collect the bounty because they were too damn noble or whatever). I found it slightly maddening, since I'm used to more serial storytelling now! Even the backstory episodes felt like they tried to force too much into a self-contained story; some of the plot elements would have had more resonance had they been better foreshadowed in earlier episodes. The most successful story is, of course, Spike's, which does form a beautiful arc. I found myself wishing the series were half as long, just focusing on the characters. It would be much tighter. The filler episodes, though, are pretty entertaining and interesting and often funny, and they enhance the worldbuilding and do have some nice character moments. The storytelling as a whole is very subtle; the show gives you little pieces of things here and there but doesn't necessarily connect them for you.
I did not fall madly in love Cowboy Bebop, but I really liked it. The last five or six episodes, thankfully, were some of the best, and the two-part finale was fucking awesome. Holy God. That was what I wished the entire series was like. It was the first time I really felt emotionally engaged, and even though I knew where the story was going (it's noir, baby), I was still on the edge of my seat. It convinced me even more that they should have just cut the series in half and focused more on Spike's story; that would have made an amazing show.
One last thing: I think I loved the episode previews more than the actual episodes at times. They're so fucking hilarious and amusing. Different characters tell you about the next episode, but they're often very quizzical about what's coming up. Meta jokes abound.
Cowboy Bebop is one of the most popular animes out there, and it makes a pretty good gateway series because it's fairly accessible and the episodic nature keeps it from being too confusing and cracked-out. It's also interesting as a cultural text, given that it's full of homages to many noir/Western/action/kung fu movies—as well as the many nods to famous albums and songs—and it's ended up influencing works such as The Matrix (the cathedral scene in "Ballad of Fallen Angels" is very reminiscent of the lobby scene...or vice-versa) and, of course, my beloved Avatar. So if you've heard the name tossed around (perhaps in relation to a certain other space Western) but didn't know much about it...now you do, so give it a try.
SEE YOU SPACE COWBOY.