Cowboy Bebop is regarded in various Japanese and International circles to be one of the best anime of all-time, which is due to its timeless themes. Throughout the cast’s journey, viewers are asked to confront the meaning of the self, are presented with gray morality, and examines the effect of the past. All of this is wrapped up in a neat sci-fi, film noir, action, comedy package that is easy to get into.
Here are some other modern anime that explore similar themes found in Cowboy Bebop. Keep in mind that they are not carbon copies (which would be boring), but they do a similarly great job of covering heavier themes while being entertaining.
Quick pitch: Mugen and Jin view each other as worthy opponents and decide to dual at a teahouse. In the midst of the chaos, the duo accidently kills the magistrate’s son and face execution. Fuu, a waitress from the teahouse, offers to help them escape, but they must travel with her to search for a samurai that smells of sunflowers.
Similar themes: Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop were created by Shinichirō Watanabe, so they share the same tics. Watanabe loves to have is characters confront their pasts (emotionally and with a violence) while creating an ambivalent cast. Like Bebop, the trio of Champloo only work with each other as a means to an end…or do they give each other meaning?
Episodes: 24 + 5 OVAs
Quick pitch: Rokuro’s mediocre life as a salaryman is changed after being asked to deliver a data diskette to a customer in the South China Sea. The mundane task takes a wild turn as his boat is attacked by the Black Lagoon pirate crew. After being taken as a hostage and surviving a shootout, Rokuro learns that his company has pronounced him dead. With nowhere to turn, he takes on the name of Rock and joins the Black Lagoon crew.
Similar themes: Despite Black Lagoon‘s proclivity for Tarantino-esque violence and crude language, the series does a great job showing the world through the eyes of outcasts. The Black Lagoon turned to piracy and unsavory mercenary work because they couldn’t find a place in society: it’s a bit of a nature vs nurture conflict.
3Tiger & Bunny
Episodes: 25 + 2 movies
Quick pitch: The metropolitan city of Sternbild is home to superpowered humans known as NEXT. Some of them have decided to become corporate sponsored heroes and fight crime while participating in a reality TV show called HERO TV. Kotetsu is an old-school hero who chooses to fight by his own code, which often conflicts with is sponsors. Since his popularity is low, he is forced to team up with a rookie named Barnaby, whose modern approach to fighting crime clashes with Kotetsu’s views.
Similar themes: While I was surprised to see Tiger & Bunny top NHK’s Top 100 anime poll, I was even more confused by the number of commenters claiming to have never heard of the series. Despite the hero aesthetic, Tiger & Bunny explores a lot of themes that hit modern society: our voyeuristic nature, corporations pervading nearly every aspect of life, and the clash between the past and the future. Like Bebop, the anime is an existential approach to our lives.
4The Big O
Quick pitch: Paradigm City: a city of amnesia and loss. 40 years ago, a calamity occurred and wiped out the inhabitant’s memories. Roger Smith is one citizen who has the affliction, but his job as a negotiator makes it his duty to shine a light on the forgotten past. With his butler, a snarky android, a relic mech, Roger slowly uncovers the unsavory truth of Paradigm City.
Similar themes: The past. But where the cast of Cowboy Bebop is running from their past, The Big O is about searching for it. The Big O takes a similarly existential stance on one’s past and asks how big a role it plays in a person’s sense of self.
Studio: Tatsunoko Productions
Quick pitch: Otoha is a former yakuza who is chosen by “The Will of Shinjuku” to become the city’s Kara, which is a superpowered protector sworn to combat demons. The city’s previous Kara, Eko, feels the city has been corrupted by humans and created mechanized demons called mikura. It is up to Otoha to stop Eko before he cleanses Shinjuku of humanity.
Similar themes: Karas explores the relationship between people, society, and conflicting beliefs.
6Darker than Black
Episodes: 37 + 5 OVAs
Quick pitch: 10 years ago, the Heaven’s Gate appeared in South America and the Hell’s Gate appeared in Japan, replacing the skyscape and devastating the land. However, people known as Contractors emerge, and they use their powers to fight for various national and corporate interests. Hei is a Contractor based in Japan and works for the Syndicate in Tokyo. He’ll accept any job, as long as it leads him to the truth of his sister’s disappearance.
Similar themes: Take the existential crisis of the self found in Cowboy Bebop, but replace bounties and space exploration with proxy wars and superpowers.
Episodes: 13 + 1 OVA + 2 movies
Quick pitch: Kino is a marksman who travels the world with her sentient motorcycle. She encounters all sorts of people and cultures but follows a strict rule of never staying in a country for more than three days and two nights.
Similar themes: Kino’s Journey is concerned with the juxtaposition of the beauty and brutality of human nature, which is explored in a handful of Cowboy Bebop episodes. Instead of giving answers, the view is asked to reach their own conclusions.
Which are your favorites?