‘Cowboy Bebop’s Musical Journey to Anime Legend Status

Michelle Nguyen Bradley
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The iconic bongo drums paired with the brassy sounds of horns, saxophones, and pure big band sound of “Tank!” can stop any Cowboy Bebop fan in their tracks. For me, it takes my brain to a halcyon time as a teenager where my friends and I gathered around the tiny tube TV in my dorm and tuned into Adult Swim so we could catch the latest episode together and scream like the little weeaboo babies we were. I mean, do y’all REMEMBER that time that they accidentally re-aired the same episode twice in 2 weeks because they COULDN’T FIND THE TAPE??? Ah, the drama of it all! But listen, even as an adult, my memories of scenes of the anime always come with the music that played along with them. It was like nothing I had ever heard before, and still sticks with me to this day.

Go ahead and hit play on “Tank!” I’ll wait. You hear that beat? Can you feel your foot start tapping and your heart begin to race? This is it. This is the feeling of Cowboy Bebop. The music, the mood, and the fun are all so simply communicated to the viewer in this celebration of sound that has been ringing in our ears since 1998 (or 2000 if you were outside Japan). Now, 23 years later, CowBe (as some Japanese Cowboy Bebop viewers affectionately call it) fans are buckling in for a new symphony of unforgettable tunes for the live-action Netflix series promised to us by the original composer, Yoko Kanno. The music that made made me decide that my whole design aesthetic in college was anime wall scrolls (oops!) sent me on an internet deep dive into the history of how the series all came together. Turns out? The music was at the heart of the show all along.


Shinichiro Watanabe is revered in the industry for merging top tier animation with signature music resulting in some of the most memorable stories ever created. Following the success of Bebop, Watanabe continued to bring music to the forefront in Samurai Champloo (2004) where he blends modern music with a historical Japanese setting, Kids on the Slope (2012) in which he creates an intense ride into jazz as explored by a group of teenage friends, Space Dandy (2014) an exploration of new wave music, and Carole & Tuesday (2019), a heartfelt exploration of how music can bring people together.

With so many genre-defining works in Watanabe’s collection, Cowboy Bebop is still considered his most essential. Watanabe’s career was cemented into the minds of anime fans with CowBe’s epic space cowboy adventure, an original story he created alongside character designer and animation director Toshihiro Kawamoto, and of course, the unparalleled composer, Yoko Kanno.


We have the seemingly limitless talent of Yoko Kanno to thank for the bountiful variety of music in CowBe. With the impressive range of her musical accomplishments, I was surprised to discover that Kanno grew up sheltered, with her parents only allowing her to listen to classical music. Like a modern-day Rapunzel, she was forbidden from partaking in popular culture like anime, films, and comics in her youth. But all that changed when she was introduced to rhythm music while attending Waseda University. After hearing her classmate play drums for the first time, her life was forever changed. She never knew music could be as passionate and moving as what she witnessed. Inspired by her friend, she took up the band elective at her university, which introduced her to current popular music and started her on a path of discovering all the varieties the world had to offer. While still a college student, she took a trip coast to coast of the United States on Greyhound buses, discovering the sounds of a culture she had only seen in films. Most importantly, the experience exposed her to funk and jazz, especially on her trip to New Orleans. That’s right. Kanno got ALL into THAT JAZZ our mothers warned us about!

But it was a change for the better, as Kanno clearly brings her passion for a multitude of musical styles in Cowboy Bebop’s soundtrack. In a 2014 interview with Akihiro Tomita, she talks about her love of creating moving instrumentals. “I wanted to play brass music that shook your soul, made your blood boil, and made you lose it. This yearning became Tank! which was the opening theme. I wanted to make music which would light a fire in me when I played it.” And so, Kanno set the hearts of viewers ablaze with her musical passion in the opening sequence for the series, and quite frankly, I’ve never been the same.


So, what the heck is bebop anyway?

Besides being the name of the spaceship that houses Spike and the gang, bebop, or bop, is a genre of music created in the United States in the mid-1940s. The music is characterized by a quick and frenzied tempo, dynamic changes of chords and keys, and is at its best when highlighted by bouts of improvisation from the performers. Notably, bebop allowed for freeform experimentation, and provided an outlet for musicians to revolutionize what kind of music was created and listened to in public. Instead of adhering to music that was written down on a page by a famous composer, entertainers began to experiment with sound in front of audiences, letting the space and people around them influence their creations. Is this where the phrase, “F*CK IT. WE’RE DOING IT LIVE,” came from?

Cowboy Bebop the series was developed in the same the improvisational style of its namesake. Instead of the traditional method of starting with story, then progressing to character design, and later having music as a finishing touch, Watanabe worked in tandem with composer Kanno and animation director Kawamoto to fluidly create each episode, letting the music take center stage. The music influenced the look and feel of the story, the characters, and the tone for the entire show. Kanno was already hard at work on CowBe’s soundtrack before background and character design had begun–even before the script was complete! Like a true jam session, Kanno created music while Watanabe shaped the story around it and vice versa, with each informing the other. The music of Cowboy Bebop is never just part of the background. Instead, it acts as the storyteller, the scene, the characters, the feeling behind the show.

In an interview at Otakon in 2013 Watanabe said, “There were instances where I heard these songs [Yoko Kanno] created for Cowboy Bebop, took inspiration from them and created new scenes for Cowboy Bebop. And then she would be inspired by these new scenes I’d created, they would give her new ideas for music and she’d come to me with even more music.”


You’ll notice that CowBe is broken up into “sessions” rather than “episodes” on the title cards. Staying true to its bebop theme, Watanabe wanted to be sure the audience knew they were in for a complete journey in each session of the show. Of course, there is the larger storyline that we get inklings of as the series progresses. When the slow emotional jazz hits, we know we’re about to hear more about Spike’s lost love Julia, or see that melancholy look alluding to a past still haunts him. However, each session exists self-contained, just like an individual piece of music. And like a well-crafted tune, we experience a complete if sometimes tempestuous emotional journey in each one; a tiny emotional rollercoaster, if you will.

In creating Cowboy Bebop, Watanabe combined the mood and feeling of music with animation in a way that had never been done before. Especially in the West, where animated media was still largely considered “for kids,” CowBe introduced a whole generation to the art and beauty that’s possible in animation.

Watanabe knew that music was the key to art, and still utilizes the spiritual blueprint of a jam session to create anime and films today. Back when he was creating Cowboy Bebop, however, he knew he was going against the grain of how story-making tradition.

Cowboy Bebop was originally commissioned as a series by Bandai, who were in the market to sell spaceship toys to children, a la He-Man or G.I. Joe. What Watanabe ended up producing for them was a story with mature themes, hopeless heroes, mood swings, and nuance. The spirit of bebop is woven through this series, as Watanabe attempted – and succeeded – in making an anime series that stood out from anything else created at the time, all while still remaining accessible to the casual viewer.

In plain sight, Watanabe “hid” the manifesto for the show. Look for the text scattered across the opening while you listen along to Tank! and keep an eye out for it again in the commercial bumpers–or eyecatches, for those in the know.

Once upon a time, in New York City in 1941… at this club open to all comers to play, night after night, at a club named “Minston’s Play House” in Harlem, they play jazz sessions competing with each other. Young jazz men with a new sense are gathering. At last they created a new genre itself. They are sick and tired of the conventional fixed style jazz. They’re eager to play jazz more freely as they wish then… in 2071 in the universe… The bounty hunters, who are gathering in the spaceship “BEBOP”, will play freely without fear of risky things. They must create new dreams and films by breaking traditional styles. The work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called… COWBOY BEBOP.

And reinventing what the genre of space operas could be is exactly what Watanabe did, not only for the Japanese concept of what anime could be, but for audiences all around the world to discover a new way to enjoy animated media.


Listen, let me get out my monocle and climb on my soapbox to tell you kids how DIFFICULT it was for us elder millennials to get ahold of anime back in the day! Before Toonami, and before even Sailor Moon on your local cable channel, we had VHS. A single VHS tape of a series you loved would cost you maybe 35 of your hard-earned teenage dollars and give you two… MAYBE TWO 30 minute episodes. And $35 back in the 90s was ALL THE MONEY YOU HAD for a month. So you could watch your beloved Tenchi Muyos or your Ranma 1/2s at the speed of two episodes a MONTH. MAYBE. IF YOU HAD THE MONEY.

So, you have to understand that, of course, Cartoon Network’s Toonami was viewed as magical, gracious god that bestowed unto us FREE ANIME as an act of mercy and joy, and we worshipped at that altar every week, same time, same channel. Well, that is to say, anime that did not come from our other lord and savior, Suncoast Video (R.I.P.). Toonami was the hottest thing to happen for us nerds, and we were going to savor every broadcasted second of it.

Adult Swim was like Toonami’s sexy older cousin: it was where the weebs in the know went to get the versionsof Gundam Wing where blood and curse words flowed freely. Since Cowboy Bebop was definitely not for kiddos, to Adult Swim it went, where it debuted in September 2001. And unless you had a trust fund or wealthy benefactor to shell out the dough for the DVDs released the year prior, your only option to catch all adventures of Spike and co. was to catch the English language broadcast, doled out two episodes at a time, on a week to week basis. Because of this, many of us original fans of the series distinctly remember the dub voices of the Bebop Crew. Under the direction of Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, we got to hear Steve Blum wax poetic as Spike Spiegel, Beau Billingslea grumble about food prep as Jet Black, Wendee Lee give a whole lot of sass as Faye Valentine, and Melissa Fahn squeak out the curious sounds of Edward for all 26 sessions (and the movie!). I got a chance to talk to the cast about their thoughts on the music of Bebop, and how it informed their work.

Blum loves the pure energy that the “Tank!” brings to the top of each show. “It kicked it off so powerfully too. I mean, from the very first second of the title sequence, “Tank!” just kicked it in the ass and really got things going. 3, 2, 1, let’s jam and off we go!”

They were all very aware of how much the music took center stage in the series. Lee mentions, “The music is really dear to us. We feel like the music is the fifth main character in the show.” Billingslea agreed, emphasizing that there were so many poignant moments in the show that were full of music that transferred emotion. He says, “There’s air in the show. There’s not constant talking. The music helps that aspect along, I think. There are times when Jet is alone on the Bebop, and the music carries you along and connects.”

The music of the series dictated the energy of scenes. Watanabe was very deliberate in making sure the music matched the feeling of each scene. Lee points out, “The understanding of [the] winding up and winding down energy… the way that was played like an instrument within the timing of the show really gave it something unique….” And truly, Cowboy Bebop was a show unlike any other the cast had worked on before.

Even though the show was finished by the time the English voice cast began to record their lines, the music still informed the actors’ performance. Fahn recalls when recording lines for Edward’s last scene that she was able to listen to “Call Me, Call Me”. “That one always stays with me. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because it’s my character or maybe because that was [Edward’s] exit, but I always think of that part of that song. It was very emotional. I remember… getting to hear the music [while] doing the scene as well and it brought a lot to what I brought to that ending scene.” Music was just as important for the creation of the story and animation as it was to the actors voicing the characters.


Check out an exclusive clip from Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop live-action series: 

The English voice cast from the anime are enthusiastic in their support of the upcoming live action series, especially with Watanabe as a consultant and Kanno back on board for the music. They all, like all us fans, are hoping for some fresh Kanno jams that we can rock out to for the next decade or two. Blum mentions, “I carry the soundtrack in my phone and I listen to it all the time. Still, 20 years later. It’s powerful. It’s really amazing.” With Kanno at the helm for the soundtrack, the cast is excited to see what the Netflix series brings for the franchise. Lee says, “I think we all felt like this series is going to be done right because they got Yoko. As soon as that happened, we knew that the show was going in the right direction, it was honoring the past production, and it’s laying the groundwork for exposing it to all the new future viewers.” Fahn emphasized this, saying, “We’re all a part of this big Bebop family. We had it in this genre, and they’re going to take it on camera… and we want it to do well!”

Look, I hear you, other anime fans who are reading this and are still furrowing your eyebrows in judgement. Like all of you, I too have been scorned  by the mistress that is, “live action adaptations of my favorite anime that turned into horrifying spectacles in director’s hubris.” To say I am jaded is a severe understatement. But you know what? This time, I feel hopeful. In fact, I would say CONFIDENT and EXCITED for Netflix’s version of Cowboy Bebop. Netflix realized that you can’t make Cowboy Bebop without the music. The music shaped the characters and the story of the anime, and this time, I know that Yoko Kanno will cast her musical spell once again to shape the live action series into something I will love.

So let’s cross our fingers, play “Tank!” on repeat, and get ready to take another frenzied, musical space adventure with Spike, Jet, Faye, Ein… and maybe even Edward. Look, they didn’t actually say there’s no Edward…

You can revisit the entire original Cowboy Bebop anime series at Funimation, Hulu, and Netflix.

The live action Cowboy Bebop series releases on Netflix on November 19, 2021.

Michelle Nguyen Bradley