Building a Beginning: Cowboy Bebop

It seems like, as much as I love it, I complain about Cowboy Bebop a lot. To me, from a writing standpoint some of the characters are under-used and the ending is full of holes.

But at the same time it’s brilliant and you know it’s brilliant and I know it’s brilliant. It looks and sounds great, right? And while the ending is swiss-cheesy – I mean, seriously, what happens to Jet and Faye? – the beginning is pretty danged great.

Is this something you guys can recite by heart by now? The beginning of a story needs to accomplish three things:

Introduce the setting
Introduce the characters
Hook the viewer/reader/listener/user

You need the first two to make the story make sense. You need the last one to keep the user going. It doesn’t matter “going where.” Through the rest of the story. That’s where.

So let’s take this puppy apart.

Even before the show begins, there is a shootout among some gangsters. One is injured. A rose falls into a puddle.

The rose in the puddle motif

What the heck? Right now you’re on notice: This ain’t Astro Boy, right? Blood, violence, gunfire, and they haven’t even started the show yet? (You’re also on notice that you are in the hands of a master director!)

Then the opening titles. They look great and the music is better, right? The hook is in your mouth now.

After the opening title sequence, the episode opens on a panorama of spaceships. That sets the genre, science fiction, right? I mean, spaceships are a trope. See spaceships, think science fiction.

Next, we see both the guys aboard the Bebop. Spike is practicing his Jeet Kune Do moves. Jet is cooking bell peppers with beef, except there’s no beef in the bell peppers with beef because they are broke. They are broke because they just got a huge bounty but all the bounty went to cleaning up all the damage Spike did.

In that couple minutes – and it really is two minutes or less of run time – they introduce you to Spike and Jet, tell you they are bounty hunters, show how the relationship between them works, and show you one of Spike’s strengths (his martial arts ability) and one of his weaknesses (his inability to judge costs and benefits). All that in that tiny space! Plus it creates mystery: What are these two jokers going to do?

Introduce setting. Check.
Introduce characters. Check.
Now let’s set that hook in the user’s mouth and reel them in.

Okay, you know the story, right? They go after the bounty for Asimov, the drug dealer/user. Asimov uses the drug Bloody Eye and it turns him into a monster. Monster? Isn’t there a plot called Overcoming the Monster? Oh, heck, yeah! And Spike and Jet are after Asimov! Overcoming the Monster, a classic plot!

As part of the package with Asimov comes his partner, Katarina. She’s cute, she’s got great ahems, and she’s visibly pregnant. She and Spike meet … Wait a minute! Boy meets Girl. Oh, and sparks fly. They flirt, they talk about hopes and dreams (Katarina wants to go to Mars and Spike is from there), Katarina saves Spike’s life from Asimov. They’re so clearly attracted to one another that even Asimov, the stone-cold stoner, notices it.

Boy gets Girl … uh oh. It’s not the end of the story yet …

Long story short, in this one episode you have two plot lines running at once, the pursuit of Asimov and the romance between Spike and Katarina. Once that’s all set up you can let it all play out. We get lots of action as the syndicate goes after Asimov/Katarina and Spike tries to save them, because if he does he gets the bounty AND the babe. See it? If Spike saves the day he resolves both plot lines triumphantly.

So Asimov goes totally off the rails, Katarina kills him, and the syndicate kills her. Oh, and Katarina wasn’t really pregnant. That was just the drug stash.

Looks what that does. It resolves the romantic plot as a Tragedy: Boy meets Girl, Boy gets Girl, Boy loses Girl. Literally in this case. And it resolves the main plot, Overcoming the Monster, as a failure. Spike doesn’t get the bounty. And Katarina’s drug smuggling is a form of betrayal of Spike. It’s three emotional pumps reinforcing each other, and it punches. It punches HARD.

Did that get your attention? Want to see episode two?

Oh, heck, yeah!

You know what’s really scary? In the context of the entire series it’s not even a really good Cowboy Bebop episode. The place is slow and we haven’t met Ein, Faye, or Ed yet. But in the context of doing what the beginning of a narrative is supposed to do, it’s really, really good.

THAT’s how you begin a story!

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

12 thoughts on “Building a Beginning: Cowboy Bebop

  1. There’s nothing quite like a great beginning. As much as I like the slow burn, there’s something incredibly satisfying about a show that grabs you, roughs you up, and then drags you feet first through the rest of the episodes. This is definitely one of my favourite first episodes.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. This reminds me of Samurai 7 which had a very mediocre first episode. So much so that I put it on hold and watched something else. When I finally came back to it, the second episode was incredible and the series pretty much kept it up from there on. I can’t help but wonder how many people walked away after the first episode and didn’t come back.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Good question. I was told to go back to Code Geass after disliking the first episode, and that turned out to be worthwhile, too. Given the nature of the biz, that an anime series is made on a contract so most of the episode have to air to recoup their investment, that first episode would have to be an absolute disaster to have no chance to recover an audience.

    From my perspective as a writer, to me it’s the one of the jobs of the beginning of a story to hook the user, and if it doesn’t you have to wonder how many other mistakes they’ll make along the way 🙂


  3. I have to agree. That is probably one of my favorite episodes of Cowboy Beebop because of how hard it leans into both the noir and Western tropes that run through the series.

    Even more than that, the thing I love about the show is that it knows how to land an emotional punch. There are only a few episodes that don’t really connect for me, but that is fine.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh damn I loved this. I’ve been overthinking and writing on this show for like the past four months just for fun. It’s such a masterpiece that even its own creators didn’t quite manage the exact same experience in any of their subsequent works. There is so much going on and the minimalism is its strength. Leaves you frustrated too but what is not shown is as important as what they do show. Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Minimalism is the key, I think. I’ve been thinking about it more, and you know what? I think they just said, “Let’s make it really cool,” and that’s all they did. Of course, it helps to have Watanabe and Kanno on board 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t know about what Hemingway said, but yeah, that makes a lot of sense. In Bebop they just barely show us the plot, but everything else follows from it somehow so it all makes sense even though it’s barely visible.

        If you’re reading this thread, that link plutomango posted leads to a REALLY interesting post. Check it out!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Exactly. It’s not just Hemingway I feel but also spirituality, references etc. Like Ed’s presence in the story seems as much a metaphor as a character. Episodes like Toys in the Attic, Mushroom Samba etc. are like lenses you need to decipher the larger narrative. Bunch of stuff. Is the “end” of the story really the end? Is Julia really a love interest or an antagonist? Bunch of stuff. Thanks for the call out! I will stop disturbing you now. Great stuff on the site!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s