Long before the hyper-stylistic, ultraviolence of John Wick was a flicker in the eyes of its creators — there was Cowboy Bebop, which debuted 20 years ago this month. If you know absolutely nothing about anime, but you’re curious, the best place to start is Cowboy Bebop. And if you’re a longtime anime-lover, it’s time to go back and remind yourself of its brilliance.
Cowboy Bebop is its own thing. You could call it a space western. That’s, however, like saying Beyoncé is a good dancer. It’s true. But it’s not the whole picture. Not even close. Cowboy Bebop is a mashup of noir films, spaghetti westerns, urban thrillers, Kurosawa samurai films, classic westerns and sci-fi space adventures.
Again, though, all that genre bending is just part of the equation. The show resonates so deeply because it’s a mirror in which you can see yourself, and how we all wrestle with life. This is what makes Cowboy Bebop great art. It’s a beautifully complex, aesthetically striking meditation on how we deal with love, loss, luck and that inescapable question: Why should I give a fuck?
The show’s narrative frame is super simple. We travel with Spike, Jet and Faye, three perpetually broke and desperate bounty-hunters, as they cruise through the vast emptiness of space, seeking a way to better their lot in life by hunting down someone who’s run afoul of society. Which is ironic, since each of them has run afoul of society themselves. Only instead of outlaws, they’re more like outliers, skirting the barely legal edge of society.
In each of the 26 episodes the team tracks down a “bounty head.” But more often than not, their bounty head dies before they can bring them in for the reward. It’s not that they’re bad at their jobs — or mercilessly violent or reckless — it’s typically a twist of fate, an act of karmic retribution or a kiss of bad luck that leaves their bounty head dead. The emphasis of each episode then focuses on how our space cowboy heroes deal with their own dark pasts.
The show’s green-haired hero is Spike Spiegel. He’s a long, lean, laconic type. He’s a cultural fusion of Bruce Lee and Clint Eastwood. The creator of the show Shinichiro Watanabe has made this quite clear. Proud of how he fused his influences into something new and undeniably cool, in a recent(ish) interview with IGN, he said, “I’m very drawn to Enter the Dragon and Dirty Harry, too. They definitely inspire me. And, of course, Blade Runner.”
Spike functions as the center of the show. It’s his journey we follow. His last name seems to allude to the fact that he’s a reflection of the audience’s hopes, dreams and fears. (In German, the name Spiegel means “mirror.”) However, it also might be a play on the name of a famous gangster from the 1940s, the man who built Las Vegas — Bugsy Siegel. In noirish flashbacks, we see that Spike used to be a member of an underworld syndicate.
His main partner is Jet Black, a cynical former cop and the veteran of the crew. His name also seems to have meaning, as “jet black” is a term that refers to a soft brown coal called lignite, which has the lowest energy of the various forms of coal. He’s the hardboiled detective, with the reluctant heart of gold.
Their new partner is Faye Valentine, an impulsive, hot-headed, selfish, compulsive gambler with an amnesiac past. Her name carries meaning, but in reverse: Faye is a Middle English word for faith. And what’s stronger in a gambler than their faith in hitting their next big score?
Finally, there’s Ed Wong, aka Radical Ed, a non-binary/seemingly genderless kid hacker, and the last to join the team. As with all the others, their name also has symbolic value. In Old English, Edward means “fortune’s guardian.” And for the crew of Cowboy Bebop, this is Edward’s role — the lucky charm.
True to the theme of the show, each character harbors a devastating loss that gives their journey deeper meaning. Spike is missing an eye, as well as the love of his life, Julia, a mysterious woman from his past, back when he worked for that underworld syndicate. Jet is missing an arm, that’s been replaced with a bionic arm that he keeps as a reminder of how rushing into things can have irreversible consequences. Faye is missing her memory, not to mention, her family, and 50 years of her youth that she lost when she was cryogenically frozen after a devastating accident in space. Even Ed, the genius child, is missing something: their father.
This pervasive sense of loss bonds the characters, and gives the animated show a very adult feel. For what is adulthood but learning to deal with the losses that life hands you?
The world of Cowboy Bebop is set in 2071. After a humanmade accident destroys Earth and leaves the surface uninhabitable, humanity sets off for the stars to make new homes on the planets and moons of our solar system. Mars and the massive moon of Jupiter, Ganymede, feature prominently in the show. For instance, Spike was born on Mars. Meanwhile, Jet started life on Ganymede.
To travel through the endless inky blackness of the cosmos, humanity has created astral gates that serve as entry and exit points for hyperspace travel. This allows the crew of Cowboy Bebop to chase their illicit prey all across our solar system, from Venus to Pluto. This also gives the show a decidedly cosmic feel. Yet despite all the interstellar travel and adventure, the show remains very grounded in human existence. The shopping malls on Mars feel futuristic but familiar. Also, there are no aliens represented. It’s just the messiness of humanity strewn across our solar system.
From the very first instant of the show, you know you’re watching something new and different. It starts with a visually-striking title sequence, which is still celebrated to this day as one of the best ever. It looks like something the legendary designer Saul Bass would’ve made — on coke.
A large part of what makes that title sequence so memorable is the music. The series theme song is called “Tank!” And it feels like someone dropped you into an aquarium tank from 10 stories up. Boom! Splash! You’re in it.
The uber-stylish, jazzy theme song was performed by Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts. They provide all of the music for the series, spanning musical genres the same way the show blends genres. And rarely ever is the same music used twice. As Watanabe is quick to point out, the music was vital to the show’s creation and its continued success. He’s also said he “first came up with the idea behind Cowboy Bebop […] after listening to 1940s blues and creating a story around a soundtrack composed by Yoko Kanno (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex).”
Explaining how she came up with the fire-hot theme song, Kanno has said, “The seeds for that score were sown in middle school and high school when I was a member of the brass band. […] I wanted to play brass music that shook your soul, made your blood boil and made you lose it. This yearning became ‘Tank!’ which was the opening theme. I wanted to make music which would light a fire in me when I played it.”
“I feel I compose music to express my feelings that arise from seeing the everyday world around me,” Kanno told another interviewer. “Vague and raw feelings which are not clear enough to be put into words. To give you a more specific example, the primitive and unresolved feelings such as ‘This person interests me’; ‘I don’t like that person, but I can’t ignore him/her’; ‘I want to go, but I don’t want to leave’; or ‘It will be dangerous, but it will be fine.’ I think I am fascinated with expressing feelings that can’t be expressed well with words.”
In that same interview, Kanno added, “I prefer something that is a mixture of various perspectives or opinions and feelings. I am attracted to something that barely exists at the balance between things.”
The heart of Cowboy Bebop is also a balance between things — primarily alienation, loneliness and how our pasts haunt. As this thoughtful essay opines: “Why Spike has remained a hero for many — and why Cowboy Bebop the series has so much appeal beyond our adolescent years — is because it deals with adult issues in a respectful way — by not sugar-coating them in labels, opposites, or judgments. The series presents life as it is — not evil, not good, not black, not white. Spike’s arc is ultimately heroic, and one that we should learn from. It takes a lot of courage to face one’s past, and even more to shut it down and not let it run your life.”
In order to face their pasts, the characters pursue a variety of philosophies to provide their lives with meaning:
- Spike is the wary existentialist. He believes that, as Daniel Miessler defines it, “through a combination of awareness, free will and personal responsibility, one can construct their own meaning within a world that intrinsically has none of its own.”
- Faye is the nihilist. She believes, as Miessler describes it, “that not only is there no intrinsic meaning in the universe, but that it’s pointless to try to construct our own as a substitute.” She’s a gambler who only believes in luck.
- Jet is the absurdist. The quickest to laugh, he believes, as Miessler categorizes it, “that a search for meaning is inherently in conflict with the actual lack of meaning, but that one should both accept this and simultaneously rebel against it by embracing what life has to offer.” Even with his one good arm, Jet is willing to embrace life as it is.
Over the show’s arc, each character abandons their previous position and tries out different philosophical approaches to life as their old view fails them. “These constant contradictions and questions suggest that any philosophy our characters implement is never consistent,” filmmaker Lewis Bond says in this brilliant video essay on the series. “And it leads to the show’s brutally honest reminder that no matter how much we convince ourselves, the majority of our lives are lived without purpose. There is no unifying belief that makes everything connect. The truth is still the simplest answer.
“But our characters act as though, if they keep searching, perhaps they will discover life’s greater purpose, because they fear to acknowledge that they’ve built an existence that’s fused to their past. And until that point, all they do is wait. Wait endlessly for something or someone to make everything okay again; thus, they’ll fabricate an individual philosophy as a way to avoid this truth.
“It’s an accurate depiction of the human race. We’ll do anything to find meaning in the meaningless, because the truth of the matter is that as humans, we typically have only one goal in our minds: finding that one connection that makes us feel whole. And everything up to that point is devoid of any true meaning. Our characters want to feel connected but avoid the truth that their only objective is simply waiting for confrontation with whatever spawned the emptiness they feel.”
The Eastern philosophy of Zen emerges as the healthiest view one can apply to create meaning in their life. As Spike puts it in one episode, when he’s unsure if he and his damaged spaceship will burn-up on re-entry to the Earth, which is a symbolism fraught with meaning, he says, “Whatever happens, happens.”
This is the Zen cool of Cowboy Bebop.
It all comes back to what composer Yoko Kanno said, “I am attracted to something that barely exists at the balance between things.” And that’s the true secret of Cowboy Bebop’s genre-bending, space-travelling, adventure story through a future world. We all are attracted to things that exist at the balance between things, because that’s where life exists.
In the East, the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu offered the world this advice for life: “To the most trivial actions, attach the devotion and mindfulness of a hundred monks. To matters of life and death, attach a sense of humor.” And this is why Cowboy Bebop remains a timeless work — it unblinkingly confronts what it means to be alive. It questions how we deal with feelings of emptiness, whether it’s empty stomachs, empty fuel tanks, the emptiness of space or that emptiness we feel down in our souls. And it reminds us to be bold, to remain open to life and to “attach a sense of humor” to how we create meaning in our lives — reminders we could all use from time to time.