Yes, it actually took me this long to get around to watching Cowboy Bebop. Or should I say, to completing it. I had watched a couple episodes maybe five years ago and stopped there since it wasn’t too interesting to me. As what I like to call “The anime that you’d call the best anime ever if it’s the only anime you’ve ever seen”, I don’t know if I can come up with a better example of “cool Japan” anime than this.
The soundtrack (although I’ll go on record and say that Kanno’s best is actually Macross Frontier), character types (bounty hunters with dark pasts!), and splashes of violence help, but the real “cool” comes from the emphasis on theme, mood, and pastiche rather than plot. Cool seems to flow more easily to me when it’s communicated through moods and themes rather than things like plot and dialogue. I’m reminded of the common complaints against Tarrantino (“Nobody talks like that!”) here. I’d also guess that the exoticism makes it easier to swallow when you’re not getting the references, whether they are (Yusaku Matsuda) or are not necessarily Japanese (Pierrot le Fou, heroic bloodshed movies, film noir). Furthermore, it also helps that this kind of cool aesthetic isn’t exclusively a Japanese thing (like as I said above, Tarrantino). Compare this with concepts that are much more of a Japanese, and by Japanese I mainly mean otaku, concept, like moe or amae or it’s OK if it’s with you, onii-chan.
The coolness also helps the show get away with being ridiculous. When everything is so stylized, it’s a lot easier for a stuff like the blaxploitation episode or the heavy metal truckers one with Woody Allen to be cool rather than stupid. Additionally, since it’s all surface, there isn’t a need to actually really be knowledgeable of the homages and references like you would for a show like say, Nadesico. On that topic, I’ve always been at best wary and at worst annoyed by “space westerns” since they usually seemed like they only superficially included a western aesthetic onto their sci-fi base. This may be the only time I’ve ever seen this work successfully, and it is entirely because of that focus on the surface.
I’d also imagine that the episodic, thematic structure helped it play really well on Cartoon Network. You could just tune in to a random episode without having to worry about it making no sense because you’re watching it out of order in bits and pieces. I can just imagine trying to watch say, Code Geass like this and the show becoming basically unwatchable. The only ways it would get weird here would be if you watched the few episodes in the beginning where characters get introduced in random places. Oh, or when Spike dies LOL OLD SPOILER WARNING JOKE. I mean seriously, a million DVDs. And that was 5 years ago! Who knows how many more it’s sold since then?
(One last thing: I was about to tag this with “THE CHILDREN OF MARX AND COCA-COLA” until I remembered that that’s Masculin Feminin, not Pierrot le Fou.)
Would I watch it even if I weren’t forced? I mean, I had always wanted to, although mainly just for canon completion rather than because “Anime. So cutting edge. So cool. The artform of the future!”