I got to thinking about something this morning as I was going through the DVR and found all the episodes of Cowboy Bebop I have yet to re-watch (I’ve seen them all numerous times over the years).
It seems to me that you can pinpoint the shift 2000 era shift to anime down to this one show.
Let’s think back.
For the whole of the 90s, anime was still an overall underground thing. Channels like Cartoon Network started to mainstream more anime when they began their Toonami programming block after school hours. It give rise in popularity to shows like Sailor Moon and the numerous Dragon Ball series. Even Gundam Wing felt a bit of surge, but it was still geared toward school-aged kids.
It wasn’t until the advent of the Adult Swim programming block in 2001 that this began to change.
Cowboy Bebop was the first anime Adult Swim chose to put as part of its Sunday night programming (early AS only aired on Sunday and Thursday nights). Until then, Americans still saw anime as the cartoons with big eyes and girls in skirts fighting demons. But Bebop changed all that.
Suddenly Americans were presented with a show that fused the elements of crime noir and westerns with science fiction. There was no magic, no monsters, no transformation sequences, just old-fashioned storytelling and fantastic music by the talented Yoko Kanno.
You could walk up to an average college jock and ask him if he had seen Cowboy Bebop and there was a damn good chance he would say yes. The regime had changed. Within the year, there was a spike in the demand for anime and manga in America. Book stores expanded their shelves to include more manga. Dedicated movie retail shops started selling anime paraphernalia (many of you will remember the Suncoast boom of plushies, t-shirts and even Pocky).
The Turning Japanese generation was hitting big. Anime conventions were the new Meccas, drawing record numbers in attendance. But unfortunately it started to head back underground when anime became a dirty word again, having associations with socially-inept nerds obsessing over Inuyahsa and Full Metal Alchemist.
While anime culture is still going strong in the States, it is experiencing a slowdown and likely plateau, going back underground for the 2010s. That is until the next Bebop comes along in a decade.
Until then, we can look back at the show that started it all and still see why it struck such a chord with audiences. It’s deep story, endearing characters, gritty animation style and even the phenomenal English dubbing melded together and created that rare perfect viewing experience that I think will stay with people for many, many years. In time, we’ll look back on it and say “Oh yeah, I used to love watching that.”