Cowboy Bebop crams so many different styles from visual art, music, and storytelling together that it becomes easy to miss how profoundly deep it reaches into the human condition. The allure of wayward dreams, friendship and finding home, and facing up to a difficult past and certain death all subsist beneath the flare of this single 26-episode season. Fight scenes dazzle with such exuberance, the soundtrack composed by Yoko Kano and performed by The Seatbelts unleashes a fury of notes reminiscent of all-night jam-sessions, and the tv show’s writing so seamlessly weaves death-defying adventure with boredom and bickering-inducing downtime that it’s easy to get caught up with the Bebop crew. Look close enough at the show and you will find more than an abundance of style; Cowboy Bebop’s brilliance lies in capturing the affections of an entire generation and putting them into a single story.
It’s a bold claim, as bold as the sign the show throws up in the middle of an episode, prompting a commercial break, that reads: “The work which will become a new genre of its own will be called Cowboy Bebop.” But hang with me a bit longer. This anime tv show launched in Japan in 1998 to universal praise. It tops many a list of best anime shows of all time and I am not alone in my unflinching praise of it as a masterful piece of art. What I will do here is attempt to probe Cowboy Bebop and unearth some things that might have been missed by viewers, hoping to explain just what it is that has kept this show so fresh.
If you prefer not to be spoiled, then here: *spoiler alert*. Now go watch the show asap and come back. This essay would better be read after watching the whole show, but I’ve tried to write it for those who haven’t as well. Many will not be familiar with Japanese anime, but those put off by cartoonish things are missing out on a true piece of art with Cowboy Bebop.
The world of Cowboy Bebop is post-catastrophic. Written before our era of post-apocalyptic over-saturation, the world of Bebop drags on much like our present does but does so in the greater theatre of the solar system. “Hyper-space gates” have allowed for travel to other planets and asteroids for human colonization. The science fiction imagination that stimulated thoughts of outer-space exploration in the dark uncharted sea of black has pushed people as far as the (once)planet-turned-prison Pluto and the terraformed planet of Venus. Though we travel to exotic locations, much of the scenery doesn’t change that much – we still have the same airports, slums, skyscrapers, and cars but now with flying ships fit into the grid. The only thing to indicate a difference in the city environments is greater and lesser degrees of poverty. It is as if the future has come and only made things worse: more homelessness, a greater disparity between rich and poor countries (now planets instead of earth-regions), and mafioso “syndicates” that routinely infiltrate the police force and extort the local neighborhoods. The main characters are self-employed bounty hunters who scrape out a living by catching criminals wanted by the police and chase the dream of that big payoff for that big bounty head. From a macro perspective, this is a system by which a corrupted police force (the beyond global ISSP: ’Inter-Solar Special Police’) sics poor people on wanted criminals who don’t have the means to pay them off. Welcome to the future of Cowboy Bebop, 2071.
The new hyper-space gate technology mentioned above was developed when people were still earthbound, but they quickly found a way to travel to the moon and back with relative ease. As we learn in Session 14, the still young invention was pushed into production prematurely and caused a massive disaster that marks the beginning of the new era. An explosion of the first hyper-space gate near the moon destroyed a large chunk of the earth’s only moon and sent its shards hurling toward earth. The moon rocks killed many people on earth and formed a thick asteroid layer in earth’s orbit that pelts its surface repeatedly with meteors. The entire planet earth became a disaster zone – a place where the memory of a great catastrophe lives on everyday. Rather than tend to the planet of their origin, the earthlings of Cowboy Bebop chose to double-down on their new space-travel technology and transform the rest of the solar system into synthetic earth-like environments. Like with most characters and the general mood of the show, the home that was once earth has been lost and we are left as drifters wandering the great empty expanse of outer space. Everyone seems haunted by some demon of their past; a missing sense of belonging pervades the atmosphere of Cowboy Bebop and nowhere is this more obvious than with the loss of the earth as home.
There are those that still remain, but throughout the show they are depicted as “weirdos” – the only ones crazy enough to still remain there amidst the rubble and meteor showers. So we are in a situation in which those with a home (planet) are the crazy ones and everyone else who is opportunistic enough to move towards greater wealth and prosperity are homeless. The homeless are well-adjusted and sane, while those that remain are crazy.
One of the most important devices that Cowboy Bebop employs is the transitional shots between scenes set over the moody soundtrack. These landscapes, cityscapes, slum shots build up the world without doing too much work And give the viewer a respite from the high-octane battles and chase scenes. They are mostly still-shots that give the viewer a sense of what ordinary life is like in this new world:
This bleakness pervading the societies and the tightly controlled environments they are set in is reflected in the main characters of the show. Spike Spiegel is a former syndicate member searching for his beloved Julia, hoping that when they reunite they can start over and live free: “it’ll be like watching a dream.” Faye Valentine is a woman in massive debt who is constantly worried about authorities trying to collect on her, while simultaneously unable to remember anything at all about her life before she woke up in this future in her mid-twenties. When Faye wakes up, she is immediately conned into taking on somebody else’s huge debt load before she can even get acclimated to this new world. Welcome to the future Faye. Jet Black is an ex-policeman of the ISSP, who quit in a quiet protest of its intractable corruption. Jet owns the spaceship that the Bebop crew makes their home for a few years, turning his sense of justice towards catching criminals in a non-institutional setting. It is in investigating the circumstances around bounty heads that the theatre of justice takes place in Cowboy Bebop, where the crew members must decide which characters should be pursued and captured and which ones should be assisted. All of this, of course, so long as they have enough food to eat.
Then there’s Ed, the child genius hacker from earth whose personality is as wily and chaotic as the internet screen which she is constantly looking at and a master at controlling. Coming from earth, Ed is reminder of the manic, ecstatic earthlings together with the hyper stimulation of the internet, where one’s attention can be pulled in many directions at the speed of light. They also have a dog, his name is Ein.
Together the Bebop crew becomes rather successful, as each one of them is extremely talented in their specialties. Everyone can shoot firearms and pilot aircraft very well, Spike and Faye are top-notch hand-to-hand fighters with Jet being no slouch, Ed’s hacking gives them almost unlimited access to information, and Jet has many useful contacts from his old police-force job. Though they are able to tackle the most dangerous and difficult cases, they always seem like they are just barely earning enough to get by. While they are likely the most adept bounty hunting crew in the solar system, the threat of running out of food and fuel always looms, making you wonder just how difficult it is for everyone else. And we don’t have to guess too much either, the bounties they go after and side characters they meet along the way are usually in a desperate situation and trying to get out if not seeking some lost connection of yesterday. They generally earn the sympathy of the Bebop crew, in contrast to the scammers and thugs who do the grunt work of keeping these dreamers locked into their place in the system and/or extracting tribute. That job falls on the syndicate henchmen, small-time crooks, and the police.
Nearly everyone we meet including the main crew has a dream for how their life will be resolved and their fortunes reversed. Between the constant presence of the syndicates, the ISSP, and the bounty hunters, improving one’s life is a high risk endeavor and often means moving to entirely different planet. Migration from the global South to the global North is dangerous today on earth, so imagine having to get off your economically depressed colony in an expensive spaceship, fly through space, then enter only a handful of guarded gates and you get the picture. As the Bebop crew witnesses the failed dreams of the people they meet it starts to dawn on them that this rag-tag living situation they have going on right now with each other isn’t as bad as they think. Faye’s dream for finding and remembering her past life is dashed when she discovers the rubble of her old house, Spike comes to terms with Julia and his’ entanglement with the syndicate, and Jet becomes resigned to carry out a little justice on the fringes of the inter-solar system instead of root it out entirely as a hero-cop. The glitter of their lost dreams starts to fade as time wears on but rather than let it drag them down, they learn to make good use of their exceptional skills by relying on each other. Most episodes are a lesson in the dangers of lofty dreams of distant place, with the occasional nod to the comfort of friendship, that is, if they are not about how irredeemably corrupt the solar system is. By putting their camaraderie to good use and getting over their illusions the Bebop crew actually ends up helping a few people their struggles and ridding the world of some nasty ones.
There are hints of our characters progressively breaking free from the grip of impossible dreams as the show progresses, but the subtlety of it is what makes the show so endearing. You can go back and watch the series a second time (or nth time like me) and look for the slow transformation that the characters go through; doing this will only increase your affections for the characters and their little crew. The in-your-face gushing of energy from all of the fighting, musical jamming, and noir-style case-cracking becomes almost a distraction from how the main characters learn to face-up to their fate.
The first session, Asteroid Blues, sets the thematic standard for how the show will operate. Broke, hungry, and angry with each other, Spike and Jet set off for a new bounty head on a slummy border-town asteroid. They chase after a man named Asimov Solenson who stole a lot of a potent drug that the syndicates cooked up. His plan is to sell enough of it with his girlfriend and run off to Mars – where they can be happy. Breaking with their gang and taking the drug-selling business on all by themselves creates a ripple in the fabric of their town – a colony called Tijuana situated on an asteroid. Their attempted break with the crime business norm has got not just the gangs but the police and our protagonist bounty hunters all chasing after him. Asimov and his lady make their play to improve their lives, following an new form of the American dream we could redub ‘The Mars Dream’, and end up the center of attention.
The runaway couple escaping their troubled life for a safer, more prosperous one elsewhere perfectly mirrors Spike’s motivation. His own attempt to abscond with his beloved Julia was cut off when she stood him up at the meeting place. A deflated Spike is now cast adrift around the solar system looking for her: his lost dream. This gives him more time to contemplate the prospect of escapist dreams, which he does by interacting with the colorful characters that the Bebop crew comes into contact with in their bounty hunting adventures. The nameless woman that looks very much like a Hispanic version of Julia befriends Spike for a brief conversation. She tells him of their dream to go to Mars: “ I hear there are parks, festivals – people are happy there”, to which Spike replies “Sure, if you’re rich.” “Then I’m sure we will be quite happy.” She seems to think that they can be rich too and start a nice family in their better place: she looks about eight months pregnant. This suggests she is looking forward to idyllic family-life you see in advertisements from the nineteen-fifties, but the swell under her dress is actually a hiding spot for the drug vials they need to sell. Spike follows them to the end of the line – a police line that lights up their spacecraft and ends the couple’s dream at the same moment she makes eye-contact with him and says: “Adios.”
Though Spike may be sympathetic to the couple’s plight, his goal was to chase after them and collect a reward for putting them in jail. Watching the two go out together he is no doubt reminded of his own dream-girl and the danger that comes with trying to get out from under gang rule. The ’better place’ in this solar system has massive barriers to entry and requires, for the majority of people anyways, an escape that sets off alerts in the systems of control headed by the syndicate-police corruption alliance that Jet so despises. Even here, in the outer space that once filled children’s dreams with wonder, social mobility is only more risky – in proportion with the size of the society that has grown out into space. Everybody dreams though, so what’s a person to do? Much of the progression of the show shines forth in those moments when the characters alter their dreams to fit the realities of their situation. This is not merely say they quit dreaming and get real, but, as we will see, reevaluate their expectations and make the best of the powers that they have.
We finally meet characters from Spike’s past in session 5, Ballad of Fallen Angels. Spike’s old boss, his mentor Mao Yenrai, has been killed and goes to investigate a bounty that’s been placed on his head, though he knows there is far more behind the story. He returns to his old neighborhood to get more intel on the situation and visits his old friend Annie who then begins drinking big glasses of hard alcohol in front of him.
“What’s bad for my health is seeing you come back from the dead;” she says, “it’s a shock to the system.”
“But I’m alive” says Spike.
“No you’re not, you died three years ago. That’s how things work around here.”
There is an awkward silence and then they exchange some warm words about Mao. Spike gets filled in with what the viewer already knows: Spike’s old friend Vicious has killed and replaced the two’s old boss Mao in a power play. He wants to keep the syndicate fierce and resents the way old men are forging peace with other syndicates when they should be fighting for more and more power. This turns out to be Vicious’s sole motivation: achieving power through violence.
Spike returns to the Bebop and immediately gets into an argument with Jet. He is going to face off with his old friend Vicious to get some revenge for his murdering of Mao. He cannot resist getting back involved with the politics of the syndicate from wence he came. The syndicate keeps attracting him back; the old social web of friends and enemies asserts itself. He justifies his fight with Vicious by saying to Jet: “Let’s just say my past is catching up with me.”
When he arrives at the meeting spot, a giant church on a dark hill, Vicious refers to Spike as an angel forced out of heaven become a devil, to which he replies “I’m just watching a bad dream.” Later, the middle of a standoff, Vicious refers to Spike as a “ravenous beast” like him: “The same blood runs through both our viens – the blood of a beast who wanders, hunting for the blood of others.” To which Spike replies, “I’ve bled all that kind of blood away.” The haphazard use of a mix of religious and “wilderness” imagery highlight a greater confusion about dreams coursing through the show. Spike sees his life as if he is drifting around in a purgatorial dream-land. After his affair with Julia fell through, he is still caught in the prospect of a better life with Julia (his dream-object) but in a hazy limbo of dejection. As an soul he is in purgatory, as a beast he is a wanderer no longer hunting other beasts, as a human body he has lived through death with no concern for his future survival anymore (a corpse not yet dead); but in a way, it doesn’t even matter.
The mixture of types of imagery itself does the work of turning Spike into a character stuck in a dream. We will get more imagery in the Spike-centered episodes about snakes, dragons, and stars (on top of angels, beasts, and corpses) but the important point is that Spike is lost and his life is itself a dream. Is Spike stuck in a dream or is he dead? Is he an angel forced out of heaven? Is he an anime character? In the world of Cowboy Bebop, where cybernetic cities are littered across dark, empty space, life goes on as if in a dream that doesn’t get anymore real by fleeing from one side of it to another.
It is between the fantasies that pull us outward and the forces playing on us in our immediate environments that our futures are foretold. A dream imbued with enough desire becomes fantasy, and a fantasy’s merit is determined by where it leads us – its destination. The image of perfection in an entirely different social and environmental situation is a powerful attraction, but all too often the result is abandonment. A dream is just a heap of images upon images upon images, flashing one after the other in an only semi-coherent form. Following an image and placing all of your hopes and wishes into it is not necessarily futile: this is how some of the most intense of human dramas are played out. What Cowboy Bebop demonstrates is the harm that comes to people when they are separated from their formative relationships and the difficulty that comes in reconstructing a place one can call home. The bounty hunters of the Bebop create their new home reluctantly and carry with them a dream that no longer inspires but haunts their lives. Each brief montage of our character’s memories is a patchwork of shots put together without a narrative and layered in a kind of nonlinear hallucinatory sequence. The past buggers every character in Cowboy Bebop like a puzzle that won’t ever accept completion. Our protagonists ease this jumble of painful memories by solving cases and catching bounty heads during their time in their makeshift home. Together and with not a little bit of animosity, they help reground each other in what they have been missing: genuine human relationships.
This situation with our main characters is resonant with the greater solar-system-capitalism or cybernetic-capitalism-in-outer-space of Cowboy Bebop – humanity’s new condition. People have lifted-off from earth and “escaped” its bounds* only to end up with more of the same: consumerism, corrupt authorities, and different, more restrictive bounds*. One can jump from planet to planet, through spectacular and expensive hyperspace gate tunnels, only to end up in the same technocratically controlled cities and terra-formed environments. It’s like the progressive fantasy of jet-propelled innovation already sent us to the stars and our dreams are only left to wander around looking for anything better. The poverty never left, we (as humans living with security-capitalism) just took it right along with us in our mad dash to leave it behind. In this ordeal, the dream of life on another planet is within reach but offers no reprieve: it’s the same as life on earth except more technically integrated with human inventions.
Ballad of Fallen Angels ends with Spike getting thrown off of the church balcony through a window, falling down next to shards of glass as a dream-montage kicks in on his way down. The images of key moments from his past are interspersed with his view falling away from the broken window over a haunting song.
He wakes up looking like a mummy with all of the bandages from the damage. He will continually skirt death throughout the show, only to end up right back on the Bebop crew. Spike just can’t seem to die until he faces Vicious and makes his move at the old powerful syndicate of his past. The immediately following session, Sympathy for the Devil, hits this home with the antagonist being someone who can’t die. As a result of the first hyperspace gate accident on the moon that sent the earth into perpetual turmoil, a boy was infected with some kind of substance that prevents him from aging and always regenerates any bodily harm done to him. This near-immortality has made him totally indifferent to the lives of others. He kills people without care and just moves from one person to use as cover to another, never with any friends to grow old with. This time spent all alone has given him time to perfect the blues harmonica and he wails beautiful sadness throughout the session. Spike takes it upon himself to find the cure and free the boy (now at least seventy) who then thanks him for lifting the curse off of him. Death is something that Spike is going to have to earn. His life itself is a long dream that he will only wake up from when he reconciles with his past. A fallen angel does not get to die so easily.
We get more than a mirror of Spike’s predicament in the immortal child though; we witness a kind of healing of the world with this death. Since the great catastrophe on the moon, nothing has been able to halt humanity from expanding into the solar system or even alter its course. The child is like a painful memory of a human-wide traumatic event that has finally been exorcised. If only symbolically, a different future not wholly stained by the mark of a ruined earth becomes possible with the death of this child who hasn’t aged since the catastrophe.
Two more posts to come!