Seeing as I covered one musical behemoth last week, I might as well deal with another one this week before retreating back to the comfort of relative obscurity. It’s pretty rare for a discussion on anime soundtracks, or even just Japanese soundtracks, to conclude without mention of Cowboy Bebop. Not only is Bebop one of the most beloved shows in existence, it’s also got a phenomenal score from anime veteran composer Yoko Kanno, a score which thankfully has not gone overlooked by the show’s fans.
For those of you who don’t know, you poor unfortunate souls, Cowboy Bebop is basically a western based in space that trades in Spaghetti Western imagery for a pastiche on 1960s americana, all mixed up with a cyberpunk sensibility and a dash of noir intrigue thrown in for good measure. The story follows a rag tag team of fugitive bounty hunters as they traverse the galaxy looking for work and, inevitably, uncovering and coming to terms with the messy history that lead them here. It’s a whole bunch of things all mashed together that shouldn’t work, but do. Today, let’s take a listen to some choice cuts from Kanno’s score and see just how influential she was in keeping this ship on course.
These paragraphs are gonna be short this week because Kanno’s music pretty much speaks for itself. Tank! is the opening theme for Bebop and what a great introduction it is. Racing horns and a frantic jazz rhythm come together to set the tone for the entire show; exciting and unpredictable with a touch of class you won’t find elsewhere.
Occasionally, Kanno hits the american jazz thing so squarely on the head that it feels like you’re listening to cuts from The Real Book. This short trumpet soliloquy doesn’t have any of the technical wizardry that can be heard in other tracks, but it’s remarkable for it’s very presence among them; sparse and lonely, Kanno doesn’t need to use every trick up her sleeve to hook you in. She can do that with one solitary trumpet.
Let’s not get too hung up on the jazz thing though, Cowboy Bebop is, at its heart, part western after all and that influence does not go undocumented in the score. Spokey Dokey plays like some kind of americana medley, covering bluegrass, blues and country at different points across its 4 minute runtime. There’s some strange glissando stuff going on too, just in case you forget we’re in space, but it’s the harmonica and slide guitar that carry this one home.
Waltz for Zizi
Sometimes Kanno seems to get a little bored with jumping back and forth between Jazz and country, and instead decides to weave them together and see what comes out. One such result is the magnificent Waltz for Zizi. Jazz brushes and upright bass join some plucked guitar while another guitar slides up and down in the background, all working together on a laid back yet jaunty waltz that wouldn’t sound out of place in a wild west saloon or a hip 1920s jazz club.
Yoko Kanno is one of the biggest names in composition in Japan and you only need to look at, or listen to, her resumé to understand why. With credits on some of the biggest hits of the last twenty years, she has more than cemented herself in the minds and hearts of many anime fans. Her work on Cowboy Bebop will probably always be her most memorable though, both for its quality and relentless bravery.
Note: There are two additional Cowboy Bebop soundtracks, “No Disc” and “Blue”. I chose to focus on the first one purely for the sake of narrowing the selection down to four pieces, but feel free to post your favorites in the comments!