Cowboy Bepop

Film Before the Film: Cowboy Bebop

Ben Hawley 



The first impression is often considered to be the most influential parts of a work of art. In film this certainly holds true as movies like the Bond films have proven that an elaborate and expensive opening sequence can at least ensure a memorable experience. Beyond just being memorable, a well made opening sequence should be artistically pleasing, attention grabbing, and perhaps most importantly, representative of what you are about to watch. In my opinion there is no opening sequence that achieves these goals more effectively than that of the animated show Cowboy Bebop. Created in the late nineties, it became one of the first and most popular adult animations in western culture. I will explore how the vibrant music, color, and lighting (as well as the more understated typography) contribute to a beautiful, attention grabbing, and thematically resonant opening sequence.

Take a look at these first couple of images from the intro:

In the first few seconds we get a silhouette of the main character, Spike, suddenly lit by the flame from the lighter. The music has begun by this point and it grabs you just as much as the animation of the lighter will. There’s something beautiful about seeing spike form from blackness. While the drawing is simplistic and monochrome this just serves to highlight the key features the viewer will come to know spike from: His distinct hair, the sport jacket he always wears, the shape of his face. It’s quickly burned (It’s a lighter, ha!) into your mind that this person is important and this is what he looks like. Beyond the aesthetics, the symbolism of Spike taking shape from the light of a cigarette, something toxic and dangerous, is a perfect fit for his lifestyle and sets the recklessly dangerous mood of the show. Already we have some of the key pieces mentioned earlier: Artistry, representation, and the undeniably attention grabbing start of “Tank!” the jazziest theme song ever. 

An appropriate third of the screen is reserved for the names of the concept developers. The typography here is (I believe) a very bold Rockwell font with text reminiscent of a printed newspaper in the background. One might consider a newspaper an odd choice for a science fiction show, but with the way it plays with the uneven nature of technological advancement, the idea fits perfectly. The bold text is a good choice for the credits as you might just miss them otherwise.

Some artistic themes present in the earlier images are repeated throughout the intro. One of the main points to notice is that each character gets their own monochromatic picture at some point during the opening sequence. I won’t put all of them here but below you can see how the theme is continued.

Even some of the ships (characters in their own right) get these monochrome images. Sometimes the use of color is coordinated. The ship below is Spike’s personal craft, hence the use of monochrome blue for the related images. 

Almost every individual shot of the opening sequence consists of only one or two colors. The monochrome theme is very intentional, and beyond its artistic meaning within the opening, it also speaks to the way each character views the world. Each one sees things in their own way and yet with very little shades of gray. I won’t speak to the plot of the show, but even though each individual is monochrome the end result is ultimately vibrant and colorful. What of this final shot then?

There’s no way to choose one color for all of them and a multicolored shot might break the established theme, so the shades of gray end up working well here, artistically and otherwise. Accompanying this shot is the unforgettable finale of “Tank!” Just as in the show, the climax is saved for the very end. Finally, we see the producers highlighting themselves for once instead of the characters with the last credit given.

The use of monochrome color intertwined with themes present for individual characters gives the opening sequence that key thematic resonance it needs. “Tank!” is a perfect choice for its jazzy, bombastic sound that sucks you in and won’t let you go. Finally, the physically bold yet ultimately understated text gives credit where credit is due without subtracting from the vibrant animation of the important characters. All of this contributes to my favorite opening sequence of all time, that I will probably remember even after forgetting the show itself.