Rotten Tomatoes launched 25 years ago in August 1998, bringing the Tomatometer into households worldwide. Certified Fresh was born six years later and, in 2013, we began aggregating reviews and dishing out scores for TV series. In celebration of our 25th birthday, we’re taking a look back at some of the most impactful TV shows that premiered the same year we did. We previously shined a light on Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, Sex and the City, Will & Grace, and now we’re looking at anime game-changer Cowboy Bebop.
Cowboy Bebop takes place in the year 2071 and follows a team of rag-tag bounty hunters as they travel among the stars looking for their next big score. Spike Spiegel is the go-with-the-flow leader; Jet Black is his older, jaded ex-cop partner; and smart femme fatale Faye Valentine rounds out this offbeat crew of Space Cowboys. Later additions to the gang: hyper-energetic child hacker Ed and the lovable data-dog Ein added necessary elements of comedy and cuteness to the genre-smashing collection of adventures.
Written by Keiko Nobumoto and directed by Shinichirō Watanabe, the 26-episode anime premiered to Japanese TV audiences in 1998. The reception was lukewarm, which lead to its early cancellation. A year later, the show found new life in syndication and, in 2001, Cowboy Bebop gained further fame and notoriety when it aired on Adult Swim for American audiences.
The English-language reviews that make up the season’s perfect 100% Certified Fresh Tomatometer score date back to 2003.
Cowboy Bebop is an original story, which was unheard of at the time. Most anime tends to be based on preexisting manga, which mostly ensures a title’s popularity upon hitting the small screen. Needless to say, the show was a risk for all involved.
The pop culture influences featured throughout the season, and in the less popular movie that followed, helped make it feel familiar in its uniqueness.
Everything from classic rock tracks by The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Queen to Hong Kong martial arts movies, Blacksploitation entries like Coffy and Shaft, the sleek sci-fi aesthetic of Star Trek, Ennio Morricone’s Old West scores, and of course, the soothing cool sounds of Blue Note jazz provides an extensive creative tapestry for Watanabe to build his story world in.
Cinematic, well-written, and superbly performed by voice actors Steve Blum (who voiced Spike), Beau Billingslea (who voiced Jet), and Wendee Lee (who voiced Faye) – in a rare turn of events, the English dub is widely preferred over the original Japanese subtitled version – Cowboy Bebop leans into its self-contained narrative installments and ditches the anime tropes that came before it. Instead, the show uses action movie archetypes to inform our lead characters, giving viewers a spectrum of flawed empathetic heroes to latch onto and root for.
All these components come together in what Panos Kotzathanasis of Asian Movie Pulse called, “a masterpiece of the category, a triumph of coolness and a testament to the narrative depth anime can occasionally show.”
The show is legendary anime; it didn’t just elevate the genre, it altered how anime entertainment was made and how we viewed it. But when it comes to anime, keeping the story in cartoon form may always be the best plan of action.
Over two decades after Cowboy Bebop first premiered, Netflix partnered with Tomorrow Studios to adapt the story into a big budget live-action TV series of the same name. John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, and Daniella Pineda brought Spike, Jet, and Faye to life against elaborate set pieces and visual effects. But, most critics agreed the adaptation fell short due to its clunky narrative structure and creative character differences, ultimately lacking the panache that made the original anime so iconic.
“Sadly, it misses the core appeal of Cowboy Bebop, which finds its deepest resonance in a richly textured surface,” wrote Judy Berman of TIME Magazine, while Sam Stone at CBR said, “Cowboy Bebop brings a lot of style and flash but fails to tap into what made the anime classic so great.”
The Cowboy Bebop legend lives on, though. Watanabe’s 2004 anime follow-up Samurai Champloo is a spiritual prequel, of sorts, that takes place in Japan’s Edo period. Similarities in themes and character dynamic make this a worthy story to dig your teeth into.
And Watanabe is now cooking up something new for Adult Swim: Lazarus, according to the logline, will take place in the year 2052, “an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity prevails across the globe.” Mankind has freed itself from sickness and pain thanks to the work of Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist Dr. Skinner. His miracle drug, “Hapuna” is humanity’s cure.
Soon after a three-year disappearance, Dr. Skinner returns to warn of the dangers Hapuna presents the world. Everyone who has taken the drug, he says, will die three years later.
To navigate this new threat, a special five-agent task force is gathered from across the world to save humanity from Skinner’s plan. The group is called “Lazarus” and must find Skinner and develop a vaccine before time runs out.
We’ll have to wait to see Lazarus, which is expected in 2024. In the meantime, let’s see what critics have said over the years about season 1 of Cowboy Bebop.
Its tightly-wound narratives, gorgeously three-dimensional characters, vast original universe, and distinctly mesmerizing visual style help it stand apart from the crowd.
–Meghan O’Keefe, Decider
Choose subtitles over English dubbing; the native vocal performances, in Japanese, convey a hypnotizing malaise.
– Doreen St. Felix, New Yorker
The characters in Cowboy Bebop are engaging, mysterious, and likable misfits one can easily sympathize with… Having one of the best English dubs out there, Cowboy Bebop is an excellent first anime.
– Irina Curovic, CBR
The jazz used for the intergalactic-western setting is smart. It gives it an old-timey noir feeling and it meshes well with the way the characters are written and the way they’re animated.
– Allyson Johnson, The Mary Sue
It tends to resemble a random grab-bag of American and Japanese TV icons, tossed into a blender that’s set on puree. But it’s fast, frantic, and very funny, the animation is top-notch, and “Lupin” fans at least will find the characters warmly familiar.
–Tasha Robinson, Sci-Fi Weekly
The show’s greatest asset is its ability to look cool and be smart in ways that other anime only strive for.
–Simon Abrams, AV Club
It feels like a magnum opus produced at the pinnacle of a long career despite being, almost unbelievably, Watanabe’s first series as a director. It is a masterwork that should justly rank among the best works of television of all time.
–John Maher, Paste Magazine
Each of the 26 episodes of Cowboy Bebop exemplify a concerted effort to create artwork, music, plot, and character that best play off one another, establishing subtle but consistent series-long themes and arcs.
–Jean-Luc Bouchard, Anjali Patel Buzzfeed News
Cowboy Bebop is now 20 years old and it is wild to think that this show, which has influenced countless artists, filmmakers, writers, and animators, feels utterly ageless.
–Jazmine Joyner, Slashfilm
Bebop lays down a stone-cold violent, futuristic groove.
–Marc Bernardin, Entertainment Weekly
Cowboy Bebop was a perfect storm of a series. It had an intriguing storyline, memorable characters and one of the most revolutionary soundtracks in anime.
–Andy Patrizio, IGN Movies
Visually, the show was an astonishing feat of invention premised on unlimited cultural exchange.
–Frank Guan, New York Magazine/Vulture
Cowboy Bebop’s atmospheric animation is a notch above the static images of many anime.
–Scout Davidson, Common Sense Media
One of the all-time great anime series, this romp set in the year 2071 features plenty of action, but never skimped on character development.
–Liz Shannon Miller, IndieWire
Cowboy Bebop is perfect, hitting every off-centre beat and crazy subplot with reckless energy and momentum that nails it every episode.
–Kwenton Bellette, Screen Anarchy
The show ultimately features so many cross-ranging influences and nods to other famous works it’s almost impossible to keep track. It’s Sergio Leone in a spacesuit. It’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with automatic weapons.
–Alex Suskind, The Atlantic