Release Date(s)1997-98 (December 16, 2014)
Studio(s)Sunrise Inc. (FUNimation)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B+
The year is 2071. A catastrophic accident has left the Earth and Moon badly damaged, so Humanity has moved out into the Solar System and colonized Mars, Venus, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and the asteroid belt. Travel around the system is accomplished quickly through an intricate network of hyperspace jump gates. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor has widened, fostering the growth of a thriving black market dominated by warring crime syndicates. Against this backdrop, Cowboy Bebop’s storyline follows Spike Spiegel and Jet Black, one a former assassin and the other an ex-cop, who hop around the system in their beat-up spacecraft (the Bebop) earning a meager living as bounty hunters. Over the course of the series, additional characters end up tagging along too, including the femme fatale Faye Valentine, a genetically-engineered and hyper-intelligent Corgi dog named Ein (a nod to Albert Einstein), and a preteen girl/computer hacker named Ed. Naturally, the criminals that Spike and Jet look to capture seldom go down easy. Many of the show’s episodes (here called Sessions) feature stories driven by the character’s pasts coming back to haunt them. Genuine villains emerge as well, including a former friend of Spike’s who is now determined to kill him.
Part of what makes Cowboy Bebop so interesting is the way it seems to defy convention. The show isn’t a typically-impenetrable Japanese anime. You don’t need to know much about Japanese culture to appreciate the show, nor is it purely Western. It essentially creates its own new hybrid international culture of the future. Bebop’s stories are strongly character driven, but combines aspects of many familiar genres including science fiction, western, film noir, comedy, thriller, hardboiled detective and cop fare, Hong Kong action, kung fu, and even Blaxploitation cinema. The future it depicts can rightly be called post-apocalyptic, but it’s not really dark or depressing – this is a society that’s simply adjusted and moved on. The series also features a terrific soundtrack that blends jazz, blues, rock, classical, and other musical genres. This is readily apparent right from the show’s opening theme, a snappy little number called Tank! by the Seatbelts (led by composer Yoko Kanno, who was also the composer for the series). Much as Bebop was influenced by international cinema, it went on to have an strong influence of its own. Fans of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, for example, will quickly recognize Bebop’s genre-bending style and tone.
The video quality of the episodes on FUNimation’s new Blu-ray release is excellent. Thankfully, the show is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. All of the original film footage has been scanned in high-definition and looks quite good. I should note here that the episodes are in full 1080p on these discs, not interlaced like the UK Blu-ray release. Colors are vibrant and well saturated, and contrasts are nicely rendered too, with deep blacks. There’s even a little bit of film grain visible. Select visual effects shots (notably scenes in space involving obvious CG rotating asteroids and the jump gates) are upconverted from standard definition, so some of the HD quality benefits are lost (and there’s a little bit of banding here and there). But these shots are typically brief and relatively infrequent.
Audio-wise, both the original Japanese and English dubbed audio mixes are available in 5.1 Dolby TrueHD. Both mixes are of excellent quality, with great atmospheric use of the surround channels, the occasionally more aggressive directional cue, and excellent bass. The show’s soundtrack is well represented in the mix, and the dialogue is always clear, clean, and discernable. I have to admit that, until reviewing this Blu-ray version, I’d never really listened to the show’s English dubbed audio. It turns out that it’s actually quite good. I still prefer the original Japanese of course, but you’re not losing too much by listening to the English version. The English voice actors are good enough that this version actually has its own charms.
Disc One of the Blu-ray set includes Sessions 1-9, plus audio commentary with Koichi Yamadera (Spike) and Unsho Ishizuka (Jet) on Session #1, and audio commentary with Wendee Lee (the English voice of Faye) and ADR producer Yutaka Maseba on Session #2. The latter commentary is in English, while the first one is in Japanese, so English subtitles are provided as needed (they come on automatically when you select the relevant commentary).
Disc Two includes Sessions 10-18, plus audio commentary with Lee and Maseba on Session #10, and director Shinichirō Watanabe and composer Yoko Kanno on Session #17. Again, the first commentary is English, while the second one is Japanese with English subtitles.
Disc Three includes Sessions 19-26, plus audio commentary with Megumi Hayashibara (the original Japanese voice of Faye) and Aoi Tada (the Japanese voice of Ed) on Session #24 (Japanese with English subs), the Cowboy Bebop Session #0 featurette (22:30), video interviews with Wendee Lee (8:48) and Cartoon Network producer Sean Akins (4:07), the show’s original opening and closing songs (with text and without), the original closing songs for Sessions 13 & 26 (with text and without), the U.S. Blu-ray trailer for the series, and trailers for other FUNimation anime titles. All of the video extras are in 1080p except for Session #0 and the two video interviews, which are SD.
Disc Four includes the all-new Memo from Bebop: The Dub Sessions Remembered retrospective documentary featuring the English voice cast (including Lee, Steve Blum (Spike), Beau Billingslea (Jet), Melissa Fahn (Ed), Paul St. Peter (Vicious), and English voice director Mary Elizabeth McGlynn (also the voice of Julia) among others – 94:48), the Ein’s Summer Vacation short (1:01), the all-new Dinner Aboard the Bebop “picnic table” discussion (67:39), and both the “full-size” and “UK Club Remix” versions of Tank! (the show’s theme song). All of these extras are in HD.
As you can see from the disc breakdown, essentially all of the extras from the previous DVD versions of this series carry over here (with the exception of the Cartoon Network promos), and you get some new material as well. The two new documentary pieces are entertaining and unexpectedly comprehensive, but I will note that they’re perhaps a bit too long. They’re probably far more in-depth than you’re going to really care about given that this is only the English dub cast. Still, I’m rarely one to complain about getting too much content, especially these days. (Hats off to FUNimation for going to the effort!) Each of the English dub cast members talks about their characters, the show itself, the story, favorite scenes and moments, what it was like to work with each other – pretty much everything you’d expect and then some is covered here. During the Dinner piece, the English voice actors are actually feasting on Beef with Bell Peppers, a reference that fans of the show will surely appreciate. They do a great deal of toasting, laughing, and reminiscing, and clearly get on well. Note that this is the same cast that voiced these characters for the dubbed-English version of the Cowboy Bebop: The Movie feature film, which is set right between the events of Sessions 22 and 23 of this series. (That’s also available on Blu-ray at this link on Amazon – via Image Entertainment – and I definitely recommend that you pick it up).
This review covers the standard Blu-ray edition shown above. On a side note, if you buy either the deluxe Amazon-exclusive version or the deluxe FUNimation store-exclusive version, you get a DVD copy of the series as well as the Blu-ray. The Amazon package also includes a pair of artwork books – one color and one black and white. The FUNimation package, on the other hand, includes a set of character artwork cards and tri-fold packaging in the style of a vinyl LP.
Cowboy Bebop is a highly entertaining animated series and one of my all-time favorites. It also happens to be a great (and easily accessible) first experience for those of you new to Japanese anime. The story, the writing, voice acting, animation, editing, and music – all of it combines to produce a fantastic piece of entertainment that’s simply not to be missed. Even if you’re yet not a fan of Japanese anime, or Japanese TV and cinema in general, trust me – this series is well worth your time. What’s more, I’m very pleased to say that there’s never been a better way to experience it than FUNimation’s new Blu-ray release.
- Bill Hunt