what ‘cowboy bebop’ can teach us about friendship and loneliness
20 years after its release, Shinichiro Watanabe’s critically-acclaimed series remains a landmark in anime.
When Shinichiro Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop first premiered in Japan in 1998, initially broadcasting only eight episodes because of its violent content, no one could have predicted the lasting impression it would have 20 years on. IMDb ranks it as the greatest anime series of all time, and with a new Netflix live-action reboot announced in November, the two-season-and-a-film series’ popularity is only set to increase.
Bebop has all the makings of a great gateway anime: bounty hunting anti-heroes, interplanetary spaceships and enough close-ups of Marlboros to power a steam engine. Oh, and ramen, a lot of ramen. Set in the not-too-distant 2071, the series follows the lives of space cowboy Spike Spiegel and his intrepid band of misfit bounty hunters, as they embark on a string of assignments to make enough money to eat, fuel their interstellar spacecraft -- the Bebop -- and run away from their pasts while they’re at it.
The anime is, in true definition of the term, a cult classic that has attracted countless tributes over the years. Artists Grimes and Lil Yachty are fans of the series -- Yachty even sampled the show’s soundtrack on 2016 track, Dipset. Its flashy animation style and bombastic score, which blends effortlessly the styles of bossa nova, blues, jazz and opera, has even birthed an entire sub-genre of chill hop on Youtube. The lo-fi Bebop-themed mix I’m listening to while writing this has nearly five million views.
At first glance, the series doesn’t seem much different to the other beloved animes on the 90s and 00s. But peel away the technologically-modified superhuman clowns, religious cult leaders, eco-terrorists wielding genetic viruses and a psychopathic killer in the body of a child, you find a group of misfits whose lives aren’t too dissimilar to our own.
Much like the spaceship they inhabit, the anti-heroes of Bebop are drifting through time and space. Here are people whose present lives are determined by their past experiences. While its manifestations are more literal in some than others -- a former member of the Inter-Solar System Police, Jet, lost his arm while chasing a powerful mafia organisation -- each individual member of the Bebop is defined by their loneliness. Spike lost his love and nearly his life to an underground crime syndicate, while the only thing Faye, a chronic amnesiac, has to remember her past by is a six-million woolong [the unit of currency in the Solar System] bounty on her head.
Watanabe’s bande à part is relatively normal. Their money struggles are painfully relatable to those who have experienced #freelancestruggles. Young and broke, the crew onboard the Bebop are self-employed -- their lives are structured around securing bounties (or jobs). To quote Jet, “when there’s no one to hunt, we have nothing”. And yet life goes on. They eat pot noodles, play pool at local bars and smoke sad-looking cigarettes. Even in between jobs, the series shows that, space cowboy or not, sometimes all you can do is whack on a face mask and drink some amusingly-named Boofeater gin.
Sometimes moving to a new city can feel like outer space, and starting life afresh can feel overwhelming, if not isolating. For me, Cowboy Bebop articulated instances in my life that I have failed see expressed authentically elsewhere -- namely, the loneliness you experience as a young adult -- navigating relationships, friendships, new jobs, paying bills, and generally looking after yourself. And what is early adult life if not learning to cope with the childhood traumas carried on from our youth? The show, essentially, is an exploration of existential angst. Its message is that, it’s okay to feel lonely sometimes and, even though no one can solve your issues but yourself, friendship and adventuring can add new, unexplored meaning to your life.
Ignoring its intergalactic setting, the characters aboard the Bebop are very human. They’re navigating the present but saddled with their pasts. Both Spike and Jet are heartbroken from their previous relationships. Spike had planned to run away with his love Julia to escape a dangerous crime syndicate which he was previously a part of, while Jet, a former member of the Inter-Solar System Police, was previously in a long-term relationship with a girl named Alisa -- both were abandoned. Despite both characters being long-time friends, they struggle to vocalise their feelings to one another, instead opting to shut off their emotions and “drink the pain away”. Considering the time of the show’s release in the late 1990s, Bebop touched on themes of men’s mental health, and the stigma attached to asking for help, long before the topic had entered into the mainstream discourse of film and TV.
In contrast, Faye’s trauma stems from her inability to remember the past. At the beginning of the show, she is awoken from a 54-year-long cryogenic sleep by a scientist (and con-artist) who tricks Faye into taking on his debts, which -- understandably -- results in a host of trust and behaviour issues, only forming relationships with others under the influence of alcohol. Living by the mantra “leave before being abandoned”, and scared of her growing attachment to Spike, Jet and the rest of the crew, she runs away from the Bebop mid-series, only to be found by Jet later on.
What’s important is that Watanabe does not sugar-coat these “adult” issues of heartbreak and abandonment, instead choosing to display them in all their stone-cold, honest glory. Our protagonists are not presented as perfect people who have their shit together, nor deeply troubled beyond redemption – they are apathetic and lazy, and spend most of their downtime lounging, watching TV or sleeping. Watanabe does not punish them for this behaviour.
By the end of the series, we see the characters begin to break down their emotional barriers. In the final episode, Spike leaves the Bebop to face his former crime syndicate the Red Dragon. He asks Jet to cook him food one last time and they laugh as he tells the story of his life as if it were a fairytale. Faye opens up to Spike, mentioning how he and Jet are her only family. The finale is admittedly bittersweet, but so is the nature of friendship. The show ends with the words, “you gotta carry this weight” – and whether Watanabe is referring to our past traumas, the importance of friendship, or just simply the legacy of the show, it is a mantra that sticks with you for a long time afterwards.