What are space westerns, and what's the deal with them?
The Swordfish II (left) and The Bebop (right)
The first space westerns appeared in American pulp fiction magazines around the 1930's. They enjoyed a rise in popularity during subsequent decades, as characters such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon struck a chord with readers. Space westerns are essentially a sub-genre of science fiction which combine elements from classic westerns.
Another interesting aspect of the genre is that there's a level of fluidity in what defines a space western. There are no hard and fast rules in which a story, comic book, film or anime needs to comply with. A space western may consist of characters that carry six-shooter guns, laser guns, bazookas or even swords. Characters may travel on horseback but can also time-travel, teleport or use a spacecraft.
Stanley Kubrick's monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey was responsible for popularizing space-themed films. It is not categorized as a space western, but is one of the most important sci-fi movies ever made. It's lauded for its impressive level of realism, particularly as it was released in 1968. Before Kubrick's masterpiece, most space movies were either cheesy or unrealistic, and just not taken seriously. Needless to say, it influenced many live-action and anime directors of the space western for decades to come.
Famous Non-Anime in the Space Western Genre
If we want to indulge in the ultimate space western experience, then there is no better example than the Star Wars saga. It's no secret that George Lucas, who directed most of the Star Wars movies, drew inspiration from many sources. He is a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa's movies and code of the samurai, hence the well-choreographed lightsaber duels which are a trademark of the Star Wars franchise. Incidentally, samurai films are the Japanese equivalent of the classical cowboy western.
Star Wars enjoys a massive global fan base and it's not hard to understand why that is. George Lucas spent a considerable amount of time and effort in creating deep and interesting characters, settings and lore. The above illustration by Noriyoshi Ohrai pretty much sums up why Star Wars is, so incredibly awesome. Wouldn't you love to live in that universe, and hang out with Han Solo and Chewbacca?
Another popular space western is BraveStarr, an American cartoon series from the late 80's. BraveStarr takes place in New Texas, a planetary system orbiting three suns. Marshall BraveStarr is the main characters and is accompanied by his trusty companion and cyborg stallion, Thirty. During each episode, they deal with various villains which are typical tropes from traditional westerns. Except, well, now they're in space.
Space Western Anime
MAL Rated 8.83, Ranked #23 | Aired Spring 1998 | Produced by Sunrise
A primary reason that Cowboy Bebop works well with the space western theme is that the two main characters, Spike Spiegel and Jet Black are bounty hunters. It's their job to hunt down the lawless and turn them in for the credits. Considering that they're almost always broke, they have an added incentive to track down all those intergalactic criminals.
The setting is itself another reason why the space western theme is a great fit for anime. Space, represents the final frontier for mankind to explore. And as a new frontier, it is the quintessential haven for nefarious types to exploit. Besides that, having an array of planetary outposts and colonies means that plenty of unique towns and cities need to be designed. Since Cowboy Bebop is an anime, this is less costly and easier achieved than what it would be if it was a live-action production, which is often limited to a few locations.
MAL Rated 7.23, Ranked #2474 | Premiered Jul 3, 1982 | Produced by TMS Entertainment
Buichi Terasawa's Space Adventure Cobra series epitomizes everything that is cool about 70's and 80's science-fiction. The main character, Cobra, is a space adventurer who sports a cybernetic arm-laser gun known as the Psychogun. He has a penchant for cigars and is an unrepentant ladies' man, albeit a goofy one at times. Man...those sideburns?!
Cobra is always on the run, and travels from one outlandish outpost to another. It's apparent that the Space Adventure Cobra series is influenced by spaghetti westerns and samurai movies, similarly to Star Wars. This makes it another great space western that every anime fan should watch!
MAL Rated 8.00, Ranked #516 | Aired Winter 1998 | Produced by Sunrise
At times, Outlaw Star feels like Cowboy Bebop 2.0, which isn't a bad thing. After all, it was also produced by Sunrise and enjoys similarly lavish backgrounds and attention to detail. Gene Starwind may lack some of the charisma of Spike Spiegel, but he still is rather amiable and cool.
One particular area in which Outlaw Star shines is in the mechanical design of the various spaceships. They are definitely a step above most space western films and anime of the era. The 'XGP 15A-II' Outlaw Star is the type of ship any badass gallivanting through space would love to pilot.
MAL Rated 8.32, Ranked #196 | Aired Spring 1998 | Produced by Madhouse
I've got to admit, 1998 was a great year for the space western anime. Not only did Sunrise give us Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star, but Madhouse decided to get in on the action. Trigun is a series that borrows immensely from classic spaghetti westerns, but is still regarded a space western. The reason for this is because there are plenty of science-fiction elements that set it apart from traditional westerns and other action-packed capers.
MAL Rated 7.82, Ranked #803 | Aired Winter 2014 | Produced by Bones
Space Dandy is probably the quirkiest space western anime here. What's even better is that it was co-directed by Shinichiro Watanabe of Cowboy Bebop fame. Dandy is the cavalier main character and hunts down aliens across the galaxy. One thing he enjoys doing is hanging out at Hooters type of diners. He is definitely a dyed-in-the-wool space cowboy.