Yoko Kanno shaped the sound of ‘Cowboy Bebop,’ again

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The anime series “Cowboy Bebop” debuted in Japan in 1998, combining futuristic space travel with spaghetti Western grit and the slickness of film noir. In 2001, Cartoon Network aired an English dubbed version, introducing American audiences to the suave yet troubled bounty hunter Spike Spiegel and the ragtag crew of the spaceship Bebop.
The animated import also acquainted U.S. viewers with composer Yoko Kanno, whose swinging earworm of a theme song became among the most recognizable in anime. Her eclectic compositions — with their percolating jazz and doleful sax solos and languorous blues harmonica riffs — were an essential part of the cult hit, helping its director, Shinichiro Watanabe, set the mood for every botched payday, steely-eyed showdown, lovelorn flashback and fast-paced space chase. The show has since become internationally known as a top-tier anime, thanks in large part to her bold and brassy sound.

So when the production teams at Tomorrow Studios and Midnight Radio decided in 2019 to create a live-action adaptation, showrunner Andre Nemec believed it was “critical” to persuade Kanno to return as composer, he says.
“The fans of ‘Bebop’ know how important the sonic identity of the show is,” he says. “It’s a beloved anime, so there was a real effort to get that right.”
The live-action series premieres Friday on Netflix, with Kanno once again overseeing the score. In the span of four months, she rerecorded key original tracks and crafted new pieces for the 10 hourlong episodes, which include Rat Pack-era jazz, Latin horns and even ’90s alt-rock. A soundtrack for the new series debuts on streaming platforms that same day.
“She immediately started spinning her magic,” Nemec says of Kanno’s return. “She really understands storytelling, and she lived in those characters.”
But it’s not as if Kanno was waiting idly by the phone. In the 20 years since the original show’s maiden voyage, she has become one of Japan’s foremost composers, creating the soundtrack for Watanabe’s acclaimed series “Kids on the Slope” as well as music for other anime, video games and films, and album tracks for J-pop stars. In 2019, she composed the piece “Ray of Water,” which was performed at the enthronement ceremony of Naruhito, the emperor of Japan. (She also conducted the orchestra’s performance.)
Still, the decision to return to orbit with the Bebop gang was easy, she explains: “I’m a die-hard fan of the show.”
On a video call from Tokyo, with the assistance of her translator, Kanehira Mitani, Kanno talked about reuniting with her band, Seatbelts, to rerecord tracks from the original series, and about engaging all five senses in order to create an interstellar soundscape. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

The composer Yoko Kanno has gone on to greater acclaim since scoring the original 'Cowboy Bebop,' but she didn’t hesitate to return for a new version. | TRACY NGUYEN / THE NEW YORK TIMES
The composer Yoko Kanno has gone on to greater acclaim since scoring the original ‘Cowboy Bebop,’ but she didn’t hesitate to return for a new version. | TRACY NGUYEN / THE NEW YORK TIMES

What was your reaction when you were approached to score the new series?
The first response was surprise. Since the original anime series was from 20 years ago, that they would be making this live-action version now — I was surprised at the courage they had.
How would you compare working on the new show to your experience back then?
In the anime version, I didn’t really get any direction from Mr. Watanabe. So what I did was just create all these pieces of music, and then the director and creative team would piece it together and put it into the anime. I’d heard that was the kind of approach that Ennio Morricone used back when he was working on western movies. But in the live-action, we actually had to look at the material and spot where to put the music in.
How did that work in practice?
I received the script three years ago. Then the first time I actually saw the visuals that were shot was around April this year. During the time in between, I would kind of imagine what the music would be like and gestate those ideas. Once I saw the actual footage, those ideas went away, and I started all over again.
What changed once you saw the footage?
In the anime, the main image that you have is Spike Spiegel, who’s lost all his emotions due to his traumatic past. He’s going through the arc of putting himself back together as he goes on all these dangerous adventures. That was the image I had in the beginning, but when I actually saw John Cho in the footage, I saw more subtle tones in his acting. It was more like he has this weakness that he holds and is trying to reconcile. So that made me change the approach to the music as well.
You worked in genres like ska and dub that weren’t featured in the original. What prompted you to add those sounds?
In the anime, there’s not really much killing. So in the live-action, where there is more, I had extensive discussions with Andre about how to musically represent that. When those scenes did happen, I was very aware of trying to alleviate it, to make sure the killing doesn’t seem too graphic or to make it seem ironic or comedic.
And you revisited some of the original songs, too. What was it like to team up with Seatbelts to rerecord those?
We got a more “mature” version of the original music. It’s kind of a miracle to have the same artists who played 20 years ago still in their A-game and in great shape, performing again. It’s a very rare thing.
Were the “Bebop” sounds familiar to you once you got started, or did you have to get reacquainted with them?
Since the recording started in April, it was a really tight time frame. We’d have to finish the score for one episode in two weeks. It was a really hard sprint, so I didn’t have the luxury to take time and go back to think about what the [original] music was. That sort of intense, time-sensitive environment was similar to when I was doing the anime. I would run through it, not thinking too much, just kind of “in the zone.” Not too much good stuff comes out if you’re overthinking things. Spike has that personality, as well: “Don’t think, feel.”
Did COVID precautions impact your recording sessions?
What would’ve happened is, I would fly to LA to attend all the recording sessions. But since the pandemic happened, I had to rethink my approach. I did try a couple of remote recording sessions, but inevitably, the time lag, even if it’s just a split second, would just be unbearable. If I’m playing something and I don’t get live feedback, my motivation drops really sharply.
So I ended up doing recording sessions in Japan, where I could attend and actually see the whole thing. What turned out to be a benefit to the show was that musicians who would otherwise be too busy to attend the scoring sessions were able to because all their other gigs were gone due to the pandemic.

In Netflix’s 'Cowboy Bebop,' John Cho embodies the bounty hunter Spike Spiegel. | KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021
In Netflix’s ‘Cowboy Bebop,’ John Cho embodies the bounty hunter Spike Spiegel. | KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

Was your creative process affected by the pandemic as well?
Yes. In coming up with music, I usually get inspiration from smells, or tastes, or feelings, and not necessarily from audiovisual stimuli. If I wanted to express “the sea,” I would go to the sea, dive in and feel the waves and the overall atmosphere. The whole digital environment made that a challenge this time.
So you weren’t able to go out and engage your senses the way you normally would when you’re composing?
Exactly. Over the course of 4 1/2 months of music production, Zoom meetings and exchanging demo pieces, I stayed almost entirely in a basement studio. Little by little, I would start feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, and then I knew that must be how the main characters are feeling. Feeling disconnected from Earth.
So when composing for [the show’s] different locations, I would dive into my memory — from my experience being in the graffiti-filled, dangerous areas in New York; or the atmosphere in Tijuana, Texas and Arizona, with the sandy feel, the smell of machine oil and the taste of food made of artificial ingredients.
What other sensory ties to “Cowboy Bebop” characters and settings inspired you?
It’s the food they’re having to fill their empty stomachs, as well as the cheap drinks. The ephemeral sense of not thinking much about the future. The sense of them treating their vehicles roughly, like when I used to drive a really old, ramshackle truck. Artificial light striking into the darkness of space, like arriving in Las Vegas from LA at night.
In terms of how the world was built in the live-action version, it has a very steampunk usage of old materials, and you have a sense of grittiness. I was very conscious of the sense of rust that was present throughout the whole show. So I would use that secondhand kind of feel for the music as well. I would do a recording in one take and then add these rusty, almost dirty sound effects.
How did you feel when you saw the finished product?
I was excited and super full of pride. I imagine a lot of fans are worried about how the creative team is going to handle this world that they’ve adored so much. To them, I’d say it’s the same thing, but different! And, really, it’s just fun to watch. I hope the show goes on and on. I want to see Faye [a bounty hunter in the show] grow up and become an old woman, still shooting her gun and being cocky, with her children running around. Yeah, I want to see that!
© 2021 The New York Times Company
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