I’ve been consuming a lot of media recently that was created way before I cared so much about film – from Cowboy Bepop and Back to the Future, to Some Like It Hot and Taxi Driver. The youngest among my recent binges, the tv sitcom Scrubs, premiered in 2001, when I was more concerned with Play-Doh and making my parents’ life a living hell than I was with television. It’s hard to pin down the feeling of watching these iconic films perfectly in words, but there’s something so nostalgically meditative about them that I can’t seem to avoid. Movies like Jurassic Park or The Shining are undeniably timeless, but like all art that has ever been created, films are a reflection of the time and culture that created them. A hundred years ago, the movie The Birth of a Nation depicted KKK clan members as national heroes in Reconstruction Era America (and is actually responsible for the revival of the KKK in the 1920s). Just two decades later, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were fighting Nazis on the silver screen.
The aged culture of cinema can draw us is in, though; anyone my age can attest to how kids’ shows like Adventure Time or the Suite Life of Zach and Cody were so fleetingly enthralling, and how kids’ shows of today can never capture that same energy. Even a movie like Taxi Driver, a story about a mentally unstable man committing actual acts of terrorism disguised as civilian justice, sucks me into New York City’s rhythmic, wandering nightlife and its morbidly enticing streets that conceal all kinds of the Red-Light District’s people and culture.
The quintessential example of this hypnotic, magnetic feeling, for me, is the 1997 anime Cowboy Bepop, a half-noir, half-sci-fi, and half-western about jaded bounty hunters in an equally jaded, technological future. As my sister described it, it’s a story about ennui-stricken, chaotic neutral individuals, whose main conflicts and biggest personal developments ended long before the show actually takes place. The cast is suave, yet deeply troubled; apathetic, but only as a way to undermine the grief that haunts them in the show’s few quiet moments. They are absolutely refreshing characters compared to the outright cynics or inexplicably carefree clowns that make up much of today’s antiheros. Simply put, Jet, Spike, and Faye are cool, real cool, and the momentum created by director Shinichirō Watanabe, from the show’s jazzy soundtrack and fluid, efficient camera work, only enhance Cowboy Bepop’s seductive vibe.
Yet there’s something beyond Cowboy Bepop’s sturdy and innovative production quality that draws me in so much into its dystopian world. Watching the show, I am hit with a mysterious, haunting nostalgia, the kind I feel listening to old Christmas songs on a snowy, Colorado night, or having that first bitter sip of Moxie on our yearly trip to my grandfather’s house in Maine. I’m not a 90s kid and didn’t even know Cowboy Bepop existed until a couple years ago, so why, upon my first ever viewing of this show, does the show evoke the same feeling of rediscovering a treasured but forgotten album, or finally tasting my dad’s spaghetti after a semester away?
I delved into the show’s history and the effect it has had on modern culture. There’s obvious places it has influenced cinema – directors like Quentin Tarantino, Rian Johnson, and Josh Whedon all were inspired by Cowboy Bepop to some capacity on their respective projects. Snappy, witty dialogue (ala every superhero movie created after 2008), fight scenes more focused on rhythm and movement than brutality and force (The Raid), and any movie that tries to reinvent the Western or Film Noir (No Country for Old Men) all have some roots in Watanabe’s forceful masterpiece. For me, though, the nostalgia linked to this show stems from a kind of media very close to my heart: music.
I’d say I had a pretty standard taste in music growing up – I liked what my parents liked and whatever played on the radio. I didn’t really have the chance to develop a distinct music taste until middle school, when YouTube provided a cheap and financially feasible way for young introverts like me to discover new songs. After about a year or two of micromanaging my playlists, I discovered a genre that instantly captivated me: lofi hip-hop. “Low fidelity” hip-hop has roots in 90s alternative hip hop with artists like J Dilla and Nujabes, but now, smooth relaxing sounds, jazzy riffs, and grainy distortion dominate the genre. The capacity for creators with limited resources and production equipment to sample tunes and audio from their favorite artists and repeat them throughout their songs is a particularly ubiquitous part of this kind of music.
In early 2015, when my interest in the genre was really taking off, Cowboy Bepop was being sampled constantly, from dialogue of climactic, character defining moments, to some of the saddest music the show has to offer. Back then, I had absolutely no interest in anime, so I ignored most of the sampling and focused on the melancholy emotions the music brought out of me. However, lofi hip-hop, as a genre, is entirely focused on the distillation of pure, righteous nostalgia, and when an artist samples dialogue from a movie or a tv show, they want their song to evoke the same feelings as watching the scene they sampled. By repeating those lofi songs over and over again, hearing the voice actors’ restrained and poignant performances, and listening to the show’s musical motifs appear in several different songs, I was creating a distinct emotional bond to Cowboy Bepop that I didn’t even know existed. Years later, as I watch the show for the first time, those echoes of emotion return as fully formed nostalgia; though I have no previous association to the show itself, I desperately miss the music inspired by Cowboy Bepop, created years after it was released, and I miss the halcyon days of high school when I listened to it so much.
Nowadays, the music I listen to is a natural maturation of the lofi of my youth – frequent sampling and relaxed tunes – but with a greater and varied use of instrumentals and vocals and a higher emphasis on production value. It’s the perfect amalgamation of the alternative music that formed the basis of my taste and the lofi that gripped me so strongly years later.
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and after 3000 years of cultural and technological development, it is literally impossible to find any creation that doesn’t take inspiration from someone else. Before there was Ancient Rome, there was Ancient Greece, before Pablo Picasso, there was Paul Cezanne, and before Stormi Daniels, there was Monika Lewinsky. Cowboy Bepop informed my taste in music and film long before I knew it even existed, so of course watching it for the first time today was going to be an eerily familiar, transcendental experience. If you have the time, seek out the inspiration behind your favorite movies, tv shows, books, songs, etc. and see how those inspirations may have impacted your life in other ways. It might turn out to be a totally pointless, but it also might give you some insight as to how and why your preferences developed the way they did. And, for goodness sakes, watch Cowboy Bepop.