Cowboy Bebop is widely considered one of the best anime programs of all time, a gateway into the wider genre and one of the most clear cut examples of a Japanese production with non-Japanese influence.
It’s also a show that might not immediately hit you with how impactful an experience it truly is. There was no love at first sight for me with Spike Spiegel and the bounty hunter crew of the Bebop. But it grew on me in ways both expedient and calculated. By the end, you may be uncertain of how you feel but you did feel something.
That’s important considering Cowboy Bebop is a deep dive into facing ennui, isolation, regret and uncertainty in whether or not you have lived life to the fullest or at all.
It covers all of that while still taking the time to dazzle you with expertly done yet economic animation accompanied by a wide range of music that will make you excited, jazzy, introspective, melancholic, determined and unnerved. It’s symphonically varied yet cohesive, much like the crew of the Bebop.
it is an adventure, noir, comedy, romance, horror, speculative science fiction, pulp action, Hong Kong martial arts, cyberpunk and more rolled into one. How could it not find an audience somehow?
In the year 2071, humanity has largely abandoned Earth following a catastrophic accident involving “slipgates”, the technology that allows fast travel throughout the solar system. That incident cracked the moon open and has created a nigh-permanent asteroid belt around that pale blue dot.
People still live on Earth, mostly underground to avoid the regular meteor strikes, but humanity has conquered through technological breakthrough the rest of the solar system. Mars, Venus, the moons around Jupiter and Saturn and beyond have been terraformed into new permanent habitats for our stubborn species.
Perhaps as a wide ranging reflection of not letting the past go, much of the new cities in the terraformed zones intentionally resemble Terran metropolises of old. Best shown off in the Cowboy Bebop movie, the main city on Mars is a massive combination of New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, Casablanca, Paris and other major cities.
The people have largely not moved on. Humanity seems stuck both in the past and the present. Where do we go if not the past’s assumed comforts?
That is a large scale reflection of the woes of the Bebop crew. Captained by a former police officer named Jet Black, he and protagonist Spike Spiegel look for bounties to get them paid and just subsist rather than go anywhere up the food chain. The matter of maintaining the ship and having food and ammo keeps them in that situation the entire series.
Spike was once part of the Red Dragon crime syndicate and fell out of sorts with them when he found a more meaningful goal in life: love in the form of a woman that was seemingly separate from his life of crime: Julia. The attempt to escape that life succeeded but Julia disappeared. Not knowing if she is alive or dead, Spike moved on, or so he thought.
Overtime, Spike and Jet are joined by three more members for the Bebop. First is Faye Valentine: a physically revealing and attractive con artist/ gambler with her own past-related issues.
Next is Ein, a super cute Welsh Corgi who is highly intelligent but rarely gets to demonstrate that sadly, for whatever reason. He acts as a sweet-natured comic relief and companion to the third and last member.
Finally, we have Radical Edward or just Ed. She is an androgynous, adorable and highly eccentric 12 year old tech wizard living by herself on ruined earth. That is until she gets in contact with the Bebop crew and convinces them in her own special way (remote controlling the Bebop) to have her come aboard.
Ed runs the terrible risk of being the annoying character that gets on more than just the cast’s nerves but ended up becoming my favorite character on the show.
She’s not only useful to the crew through her insane hacking skills, but she acts as a bizarre yet uplifting contrast to the cool yet dour presences of Spike, Faye and Jet. If anything, the show might have underutilized her and Ein, but perhaps that was due to a air of caution in having them not overshadow the more consequential characters.
The overarching plot revolves mostly around Spike and his connection with the crime syndicate he tried to leave. That multi-ethnic and brutal organization has an enforcer who was once Spike’s best friend and partner in organized crime: Vicious.
Despite having perhaps too literal a name to describe himself, Vicious does live up to his name, both in his tactics to rise up the Red Dragon’s ladder and when chance allows an encounter with Spike, rubbing in the failures of his past and showing how tethered he still is to it.
In spite of the ultimate importance of Spike and Vicious’ feud, the majority of the show revolves around the gradual yet ever tenuous connections the Bebop crew cultivate and their many crazy adventures while searching for bounty money.
In spite of the lack of screentime committed ultimately to the Red Dragon, those other semi-standalone stories help build up a case file for the various crew members. How the Bebop respond to the complications and details their bounty hunts create is where we get to see them in the truest light.
Spike, for all his effortless swagger and having true friends in people like Jet, is a deeply sad man. His lost love, lack of self worth and if any of his entertaining adventures actually make him grow as a person are part of who he is.
Spike’s motivation is not so much to become a better person following his mafia life, but to see if he cares about being a better person and if doing so can wipe away the pain from his past.
Jet is much more jovial, pleasant and seemingly self-actualized compared to Spike. His role in connection to him is a mixture of surrogate father, best friend and big brother, no one trait overtaking the other. He’s older but not too old. Old enough to realize that his idealism and pursuit of justice in the solar system’s police force, the ISSP, was not cutting through the corruption.
He ultimately thinks bounty hunting allows him to utilize his moral code more effectively. Most of the time, he finds himself vindicated. All that said, Jet also harbors sadness over his inability to better influence the people and institutions around him. Over how the world, however stagnant, still manages to make him feel left behind.
One episode spotlighting him also shows that part of his failures were not the fault entirely of others, but an inability to adapt properly to other people’s needs. Strangely enough, Jet might be the only cast member who has grown beyond his past by the end. Even then, you can’t completely mute the pain. You remove too much by that point.
Faye, in spite of being an immodestly dressed, gun-toting, gambling badass who is unafraid to speak her mind, is just as broken as Spike and Jet. Her issues are more unusual compared to them as she was forced into becoming what she now is.
Faye, like Spike, is in her late 20s, but in truth might be close to 100, as she was awoken from cryogenic sleep from nearly a century ago. Some incident that she slowly starts remembering through investigation caused her to go under to keep her alive and now the new world she wakes up in molds her into something very different than who she was before.
Faye is also two different people in the present tense. She is a voluptous, seductive beauty ready to use force if her wiles fail and a quiet, cynical person in private or not on the job. She tries to figure out who she was and who she is the most literally of the cast and whether she succeeds is anyone’s guess by the end.
Ed and Ein do not face the same psychological woes of their adult/human compatriots. Ein is a sweet dog who in spite of advanced intelligence still decides matters like a dog. Ed is a character who is rarely seen sad and may in fact internally be just as happy on the inside.
Being the youngest, Ed and her own eccentric way of viewing the world is more optimistic, playful and at times just weird. Yet the weirdness of Ed acts as a relief to the angst of everyone else. While she does have some connection in issue to the other three, like her own past and where her own future lies, she treats those challenges as if it is a fun game she will eventually overcome.
Her story arc, while still bittersweet, leaves the most hope intact. She might be a symbol that humanity hasn’t reached a dead end and might yet advance somewhere, anywhere one day.
Cowboy Bebop, for its exploration of angsty subject matter, also acts as a observation of 20th century popular culture, through the analytical lens of Japanese animation studio, Sunrise. There are playful send ups of so much in relation to that century in terms of music, cinema, graphic novels and electronic entertainment.
One episode combines 60’s psychedelic drug trip with blaxplotation action. One involves a tribute to Sunrise’s own work on a quite noteworthy American cartoon show: Batman the Animated Series.
That episode features an antagonist that acts as three-way hybrid of the Joker, the Penguin and Bane while featuring the visual aesthetic of the Bruce Timm/ Paul Dini take on Batman, even ending with an explosive finale in an amusement park, like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
It also touches on cultural iconography, not all of it Western or Japanese. You’ll have Spike, the figurative “space cowboy”, face a literal cowboy gunslinger, complete with steed and Ennio Morricone-like tunes in accompaniment. A funeral dirge for a one time character is a mixture of saxophone and traditional African song.
Ultimately, considering its production and original release in 1998, near the end of the century, Cowboy Bebop is more than a blues-filtered character study. It is an examination of a dying century’s contributions to world culture and is especially prescient in representing a worldview that is utterly multicultural yet cluttered and lacking any direct sense of momentum. It is both adulation and condemnation.
How do these five figures fit in in a solar system that is so different yet so similar to how the world was like at the most recent turn of the century? They clash with it, they compliment it, they observe wryly at it, they respond to it as the characters they are.
Cowboy Bebop can and will inspire awe, contemplation, sadness, and yet feel as if it is not disparate moods in contention with one another but merely co-existing, like in real life.
The world we live in can often feel as if one emotion is currently dominant, but that might say more about your perspective at the time than the truth.
Cowboy Bebop isn’t asking you to emulate its character’s manner of getting through that complicated reality, but to understand that it’s okay if you yourself feel lost in such an environment.
Whether or not our heroes or anti-heroes will overcome that inner grey and make it somewhere better or at least different would give the game away. But it’s an experience that though at times underwhelming in certain stand alone episodes, was powerful when the whole thing came together at the beautifully bittersweet finale.
Before I wrap up, a word about the Cowboy Bebop film. It takes place inbetween the 22nd and 23rd episodes of the ultimately 26 episode series. It’s a great movie and companion piece to the show, though some see it as not entirely in sync with where the characters are narratively at the show’s point.
I view it as a microcosm of the show’s themes and ideas and even acts in some manner as foreshadowing for how the show will conclude. It’s also a great film to watch around the Halloween season due to the film being set at that time and as such it would be best to watch the whole show in that timespan, as I did serendipitously.
I doubt that Cowboy Bebop will become an immediate new favorite of yours, whether you’re into anime or not. It’s full appeal or why it’s seen as among the very best in Japanese animation will not be immediately apparent. Give it time, like the characters, in working through what you have seen, heard and felt.
You might not see it as the masterpiece it is proclaimed, but I think you will feel as if something important, something fun and something thought provoking was had.
As is the case for myself, like most of the Bebop crew, you’ll be unable to let go of whatever it is you felt. You’ll cling to it and maybe even revisit it, just so something about that experience stays alive and was alive.
Just like all the best, enduring works in history, you’re gonna carry that weight.