Cowboys vs. Brown Coats…

…or “West Meets East Meets East Meets West.”

Before Firefly made it’s debut, there was an anime called Cowboy Bebop, directed by Shinichiro Wantanabe, that was also a space western. Today we’ll be comparing and contrasting the two shows. Before we begin, I would like to give a shout out to a great critic by the name of Bennett White ; I might’ve never gotten into editorial writing, or watched Cowboy Bebop if I hadn’t watched his review of “The End of Evangelion”, but I digress.

I strongly suggest you check out some of his work after reading this. I should also note I will only be comparing Firefly to the Cowboy Bebop English dub, which has a reputation as one the few animes that’s better to watch with an English dub than in Japanese with subtitles.

The biggest similarity between the two is that they’re space westerns, but to different degrees. In Cowboy Bebop, motifs used in the genre the episodes, but a lot of the episodes themselves are mimicking other genres. For instance, in the  episode “Pierot Le Fou”, Cowboy Bebop is mimicking the noir genre, while down playing space western elements. Sometimes Bebop even imitates specific films, with episodes such as Toys In The Attic, which was an homage to the movie Alien. On the other hand, Firefly does not have any episodes that are borrowing motifs, or deliberately imitating any specific films.

Furthermore, the shows are both episodic, with episodes that feature different characters and plots every weeks. Don’t get me wrong, they do have central plots like Spike’s conflict with rival bounty hunter Vicious, and the “Hands of Blue” hunting down River, but not every episode is driven by that central plot. However, I would say that Firefly is something that you need to have watched the first episode to understand the show, because it gives all the backstory that someone would need to understand the show, whereas with Cowboy Bebop, you could show almost any episode to someone, without showing them any episodes prior.  The same can be said of the movies derived from both shows. Anyone who watches Serenity without having watched Firefly will have some trouble following, but you could watch Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heavens Door, without any confusion, because it’s pretty much a very long episode of Cowboy Bebop.

Firefly and Cowboy Bebop both have ensemble casts(where the actors get roughly the same amount of screen time and have equally important roles), and the characters are just people living on the fringes of society trying to get by with the money the get from a job or bounty of the week. A difference between the casts is how we learn about character back stories. In Firefly, the back story for everyone, but Shephard (who later gets a whole book about him) is revealed explicitly, with flashbacks, like the ones in the beginning of the Pilot episode, and “Out of Gas”, and “Safe”. On the other hand, Cowboy Bebop reveals character background more slowly over the course of the series through conversation, and when there are flashbacks, they don’t usually contain dialogue, and leave a lot more things to be implied, with the exception of Faye’s past in the episode “My Funny Valentine”.

All in all, both shows are masterpieces. I give them both 5.01 stars out of 5. I’d say Cowboy Bebop is the gateway drug of anime, if you want to make the hyperjump from sci-fi to anime, watch it. And if you’re a dedicated otaku that refuses to watch anything American, Firefly will be an exception. Have you already watched both shows? Do you think one is better than the other? We’d love to know what you think, let us know in the comments below.


  1. S.R. Gordon says:

    Interesting commentary regarding “Cowboy Bebop”. I’ve seen several episodes, and it’s never made me think of “Firefly” (not that it wouldn’t, obviously, for at least some folks). A less-well-known anime series that might be more likely to do so is “Outlaw Star” which I picked up on Amazon specifically because it was favorably compared to “Firefly” in reviews (it predates “Firefly” by a few years). The “cowboy” theme is less obvious; the hero is more of a mercenary/bounty hunter/bodyguard than a trader/smuggler; but the first episode ends with a scene that should be very familiar to all “Firefly” fans, as should be the not-quite-right girl on the run from a mysterious group (or 2) and various other scenes/elements of this entertaining series.

    • Theoperative says:

      Funny you should mention Outlaw Star, I actually wrote an article about Firefly and Outlaw Star before i wrote this, but then I thought “what if I make a comparison between Firefly, Outlaw Star, and Cowboy Bebop?” so I tried that and it was too much to write an article about all three of them, and I decided to split it into two articles, about how they compare to Firefly, since my column is Firefly-centric. The article will be titled “Starwinds VS Browncoats” and will be coming soon.

  2. jon says:

    you people are stupid. two great shows. two great concepts. nothing really like the other. shut up and just let people enjoy them without comparing and contrasting them to a heap of picked apart bullshit. just..shut…up.

  3. Bob Allen says:

    I watched “Cowboy Bebop” long before “Firefly” and I have to admit that it’s the first show I thought of when I started watching “Firefly”. I never really made the connection between “Outlaw Star” and “Firefly”, but I often wondered if Joss Wheadon had seen “Bebop” and it gave him some ideas for his work. I agree totally that you can’t mistake one for the other or that there was any copying going on. They’re two different takes on the “space western”, but they make a fun comparison and contrast. As for my opinion? I’d be hard pressed to chose one as being better than the other – I love both. And I’m still just as likely to pull out my “Bebop” DVDs as I am my “Firefly” collection when I’m in the right mood.

  4. Cheza says:

    I agree with your critique for the most part, but Vicious IS NOT a “rival bounty hunter”. Vicious is a member of the Red Dragons (i.e. the syndicate – read: the mafia); Spike used to be a member of the group as well. This is well established in several places, but especially in the final two sessions. However, if you have watched Bebop, you know who came between them and what led to Spike “dying” and leaving the Red Dragons.

    Also, I think it’s important to note that the Bebop movie should be watched BETWEEN SESSIONS 22 & 23 of the series. It does not occur after the series’s timeline.

    Outlaw Star is on my “to watch soon” list, mainly because I have heard of the comparisons between it and Firefly. I picked it up at a recent con (where I also got to meet the English voices of Spike & Faye – Steve Blum & Wendee Lee).

    Trivia: Mr. Blum explained that he carries Bebop with him as much as the fans, because he has a tattoo of the sound file of Spike’s final line in the series. *Will not say what that is…you know…more people need to watch it* It’s on the inside of his left arm. He said Bebop still pulls crazy numbers in the middle of the night on Toonami. Wendee Lee (a.k.a Faye Valentine) and Beau Billingslea (a.k.a Jet Black) also did work on the English dub for Outlaw Star.

Speak Your Mind