10 Effortlessly Cool Anime You Should Watch Before Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop Comes Out

10 Effortlessly Cool Anime You Should Watch Before Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop Comes Out
Screenshot: Samurai Champloo/Manglobe, Fair Use

It’s hard to know how to feel about Netflix’s live-action Cowboy Bebop, especially when we know so little about it, even two months out from its Nov. 19 launch. Remaking any classic is a fraught prospect, and more so in this case, given that the original ‘90s series is the definitional anime for a ton of US-based fans, not to mention stylish as hell. Its look and feel are so tied up with the angular cool of its animation that any reboot — let alone one dragging the characters into an entirely new medium — has its work cut out for it.

Still, you gotta admit what little we have seen so far is on point. Anime creator Shinichirō Watanabe is onboard as a creative consultant; John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, and Daniela Pineda are all more than solid casting choices for the lead trio; and that opening sequence that dropped last week, while not necessarily indicative of how the show itself will play, is pretty flippin’ sweet.

In the meantime, let’s say you’ve seen the Cowboy Bebop already and are seeking a similarly badass show to tide you over until Netflix finally delivers the remake. Part of the original’s appeal is found in its gleeful mash-up of disparate genres and tropes: noir, old west-style lawlessness, a rag-tag crew of mercenaries, dashes of comedy and cyberpunk, all with a Han Solo-esque rogue as headliner. If you’re looking for all of those things in one show… well, that’s Bebop. But if you’re looking for other excellent anime shows that mix in some of those elements — here are some ideas.

Black Lagoon (2006 — 2011)

For fans of: mercenaries, action, moral ambiguity

There’s a moral ambiguity at the heart of Cowboy Bebop and its rag-tag crew of mercenaries. Spike and the crew generally act for the greater good, but most often only because there’s a bounty on the line. Black Lagoon does away with the idea of anti-heroes almost entirely: the show is focused on a band of mercenary pirates dealing in drug smuggling, gunrunning, and human trafficking. At the outset, Rokurou Okajima is a dull mid-salary Japanese businessman who’s kidnapped, completely by chance, by the outlaws of Lagoon Company, who hope to use him as a bargaining chip in a negotiation. Instead, “Rock” is abandoned by his company (they consider him completely expendable, going so far as to preemptively declare him dead — though they offer him a promotion and a respectful funeral for his service), and soon realises he’s been shown more respect by the kidnappers, and has more freedom as a prisoner, than he did as a cog in the capitalist machine. Given his freedom, he declines in favour of staying on with his captors, trying to maintain his core values, but discovering a strange sort of honour in his new criminal endeavours that was lacking in his earlier life.

This series’ critique of greater-good capitalism is particular to modern Japan, but the idea of working for a heartless corporation that simply doesn’t give a shit whether you live or die is, it must be said, broadly relatable. What follows Rock’s career change is an action-packed journey into a criminal underworld that still has time to ask fundamental questions about what it means (and what it’s worth) to be free.

Where to stream: Hulu, Funimation

Outlaw Star (1998)

For fans of: space opera, rag-tag crews

With Outlaw Star, we have a very motley crew in the style of Cowboy Bebop, plus enough space western stylings that it almost feels like a precursor to the better-known series. It’s got that oh-so-’90s style of storytelling and animation (so much hair; and all of it spiky), so your enjoyment might depend a bit on your level of nostalgia for the era, but it’s also got a really unique blend of magic and space opera. Its designer is the wildly influential Yutaka Minowa (from Madhouse), who also worked on shows like Record of Lodoss War and Ninja Scroll, so while the look might be familiar, it comes straight from the source.

On the nowhere planet of Sentinel III, a laborer and low-key outlaw named Gene Starwind and his partner get involved with space pirates, and in an adventure that lands them on an experimental ship that they come to call, appropriately enough, Outlaw Star. In this future “Towards Stars” era, pirates compete with legitimate vessels by way of grappling arms, and the Outlaw Star just happens to be the most advanced ship out there — designed to track and find the One Piece Galactic Leyline, a place reputed to hold immense treasure. There’s an awful lot here that seems to have inspired Cowboy Bebop, although Firefly is an even more direct descendent — there are characters and plot beats in Outlaw Star that will be instantly recognisable to fans of that Joss Whedon show.

If you first saw this one on Toonami back in the day, it’s worth revisiting on Hulu — back then it was heavily edited for violence, language, and nudity, as well as to tone down gay arms dealer Fred Luo. The streaming version is unedited (or at least much less noticeably edited).

Where to stream: Hulu

Gun x Sword (2005)

For fans of: westerns

Though Gun x Sword doesn’t pull from as many different genres as Cowboy Bebop, it does what it sets outs to do very well, and stands as one of the very best of the space western sub-genre.

There are similarities between this show’s Van and Bebop’s Spike Spiegel, though Van represents the more taciturn and driven style of western hero: he’s got one goal, and that’s to avenge the death of his fiancée. He’s not sure exactly who he’s looking for, but his quest for the claw-armed man who killed her leads him to the city of Evergreen. Though he’s just passing through, he learns the town is under siege by bandits with designs on the local treasury. In classic wester style, Van has no interest in helping out the locals, until he realises that the same bandits assaulting the town have ties to the Claw Man… and there’s also the matter of the little girl searching for her kidnapped brother. Van doesn’t particularly care about her quest, either, but events draw him closer to the town in True Grit style.

Gun x Sword leans heavily on western tropes and style, in a very “loner comes to town with vengeance on his mind” kinda way, but it does so with impressive style and polish, as well as giant robots.

Where to stream: Hulu, Funimation

Samurai Champloo (2004)

For fans of: Shinichirō Watanabe

Samurai Champloo is among the most fascinatingly structured anime series, so much so that it’s hard to provide a coherent synopsis that wouldn’t run to paragraphs. Set in early Edo Japan (roughly the 17th century), the show doesn’t take on any meaningful overarching plot until it’s nearly over, acting almost like an anthology until then. Though there are references to real events, it’s not a history lesson by any means, and it’s filled with anachronistic, often hip-hop inspired elements and aesthetics (as well as cars and subways). Which all makes sense when you consider the “champloo” of the title translates very roughly to something like “improvised.”

The series opens with the execution ceremony for two samurai, Mugen and Jin, then quickly flashes back to the events of the day previous: a waitress named Fuu is being harassed by the son of the village prefect. Mugen, the more irreverent and mercenary of the two, helps her for the promise of free dumplings. The more stoic and honour-obsessed Jin helps because he can’t abide the injustice. The two samurai, neither particularly likable and each with his own moral blinds spots, eventually wind up travelling the country with Fuu in search of the mysterious Sunflower Samurai. Through their travels, the trio is kept together by fate and circumstance, though we don’t quite understand why until the whole picture comes into focus. This was director Shinichirō Watanabe’s follow-up to Cowboy Bebop, and it carries on its predecessor’s style of standalone stories shot through with subtle overarching plot threads.

Where to stream: Hulu, Funimation

Psycho-Pass (2012 — 2013)

For fans of: noir, cyberpunk

This one’s definitely not for kids, but has a lot to offer for lovers of noir. It’s set in 22nd century Japan, with a slick Blade Runner-esque aesthetic and a set-up reminiscent of Minority Report (the movie or the Philip K. Dick novel). Here, technology exists to measure intentions, so crimes can be stopped before they’ve occurred, at which point the “criminals” are placed into psychological treatment (a la A Clockwork Orange) — if they’re not subject to summary execution because their threat potential is too high. That ability to predict behaviour bleeds over into every aspect of life: careers and even relationships are determined in large part by the same Sibyl systems that sniff out criminal intent. Obviously, this is all perfectly fine and there’s no potential for abuse or miscalculation whatsoever.

Of course, there are a couple of warning signs: the first involves a new Enforcer who becomes a potential murderer himself when he miscalculates the extent of a criminal’s potential to do wrong, and, even more significantly, the existence of a criminal mastermind who is somehow invisible to Sibyl, even as his criminal actions grow more and more elaborate. This one is definitely darker, more violent, and more generally “adult” than Bebop, but it’ll scratch that cyberpunk itch just as effectively.

Where to stream: Hulu, Funimation, Prime Video, Tubi

Carole & Tuesday (2019)

For fans of: music, science fiction

We’re going back to Cowboy Bebop’s Shinichirō Watanabe again with Carole & Tuesday, his latest as director. Though they’re very different on the surface, the two shows have some striking similarities: they’re both heavily music-inspired, and they both take place in a future that borrows much of its style from the past (in this case, the ‘80s). Both even reference pop songs in their episode titles.

Here, Carole is a keyboardist in Alba City on Mars, working part-time so that she can, maybe, build a music career. Tuesday, meanwhile, has come to find her wealthy family oppressive and runs away with nothing but her acoustic guitar. On this future Mars, entertainment is dominated by AI: computers algorithms have gotten out tastes down to a science, and each new song is carefully designed in order to appeal to the broadest range of tastes possible, with no real hope for anything more organic. (Can you even imagine?) The two girls are nevertheless determined to break through a world of AI singers and carefully managed art, a journey we follow in the anime creator’s signature style.

Where to stream: Netflix

Bungo Stray Dogs (2016 — 2021)

For fans of: noir, comedy, rag-tag teams

While Cowboy Bebop has elements of comedy, Bungo Stray Dogs leans quite a bit more into funny business. Still, it has undeniable noir style, mashing-up genre influences and taking on the standalone (more or less) episode structure that makes Bebop so rewatchable.

Bungo has an ensemble cast, but primarily focuses on Atsushi Nakajima, who gets expelled from his orphanage just in time to help save the life of a drowning detective. In the process, Atushi learns that he has a supernatural power called “Beast Beneath the Moonlight” — he can turn into an enormous white tiger. The detective convinces him to join his agency, meeting and working with others with similarly exceptional skills. Various episodes give members of the motley team moments in the spotlight, and they don’t need to be watched in a strict order. The main series includes three seasons and a movie (available for rental on prime Video), while the spinoff, Bungo Stray Dogs Wan! just came out this year, but isn’t yet available stateside.

Where to stream: HBO Max, Crunchyroll, VRV

Coyote Ragtime Show (2006)

For fans of: fast-paced action, space opera

Twelve episodes and done — no waiting, very little filler. They don’t all need to be multi-season epics, and in that vein, Coyote Ragtime Show is a perfectly bite-sized series. At least until someone decides to make more.

A few days before his scheduled release, the mysterious criminal mastermind known only as “Mister” is the subject of a jailbreak by his friends, even as the leaders of a powerful criminal syndicate execute an assault on the prison in order to capture him. The very anti-heroic lead ultimately teams up with Franca, who’s fighting for a bequest from her father: ten billion dollars hidden on the planet Graceland. On the run from the authorities and other criminal organisations, Mister, Franca, and their team are determined to secure the money and legacy despite opposition from all sides.

It’s a fast-paced, action-filled, occasionally goofy caper show (Mister’s catchphrase is “Let’s get this party started!”); though it’s a little bit lighter, it’s got a lot of that Bebop energy.

Where to stream: Funimation

Space Dandy (2013 — 2014)

For fans of: space opera, comedy, mercenaries

A show about a space bounty hunter with a rag-tag crew, pursuing mostly standalone adventures, all set to a jazzy soundtrack? Yeah, you’re definitely in the right place if you’re looking for something to watch after Cowboy Bebop. And yes, if you are wondering, this was a pointed attempt by Shinichirō Watanabe (who serves as “chief director” on the series and wrote four episodes) to replicate the feeling — and massive success — of that earlier series. It didn’t work at the time; the show fizzled in the ratings in Japan and never caught on stateside. But damn, it’s fun.

It stars Dandy (that’s his name, and also his style), captain of the Aloha Oe; he’s a mercenary who seeks out rare and unusual aliens with his main crew, including a robot named QT (because he’s cute), and a humanoid cat named Meow (don’t be surprised to find that everything’s a little on-the-nose — it’s all in good fun). In the process, they acquire a cadre of recurring enemies and even a few new friends, and go on episodic adventures that are all about looking cool and making bank.

Where to stream: Hulu, Funimation, Tubi

Trigun (1998)

For fans of: westerns, Han Solo

Trigun and Cowboy Bebop are frequently compared, largely because of the western stylings. Occasionally, Trigun is even viewed as a knock-off of Bebop, but that’s only because the latter show arrived in the the United States a couple of years earlier — in Japan, they premiered within days of one another (and Trigun’s original manga beat Bebop’s to shelves by two years). There are plenty of similarities, but that’s more to do with the fact that both riff on the western genre than anything else.

Vash the Stampede, the lead here, is the hunted rather than the hunter, but like Spike, he has a dark history that slowly comes to light over the course of the series. He’s got a reputation as a human wrecking ball, bringing destruction wherever he goes just for fun, but in reality he’s far more respectful of life than his pursuers. Still, cities evacuate at the mere possibility of his arrival, and a huge bounty sits on his head (no matter that the bounty hunters do far more damage than Vash). He and his friends — actually a couple of insurance agents — find themselves in a series of misadventures on the planet Gunsmoke, building to a final showdown that caps the series with finality. Visually, it’s probably one of the defining ‘90s shōnen-style action series, with elegantly choreographed gunfights that never get old.

Where to stream: Hulu, Funimation

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