Cowboy Bebop is a show, much like any show, which has concrete plots and characters that can analyzed and talked about at length.
But, from a personal perspective, if I were talk about the show’s impact, I wouldn’t exactly be telling you what the show is actually “about”. None of that will actually communicate the encompassing feelings of failure, loneliness, and melancholia the show so artfully explores.
I could have you listen to a few of my favorite tracks from the beautiful and transcendental soundtrack; ranging from bombastic, groovy fight themes, to ethereal, atmospherically ambient soundscapes, and that would possibly make you understand what I mean just a little more.
However, beyond that, Cowboy Bebop is a show that has personal meaning to me, the expression of which takes precedent to anything else here.
Strange News from Another Star
My humble introduction to Cowboy Bebop was in the mid-2000s, during my formative years. It was during these years that a lot of my interests in the arts were realized, mostly all through the power of “piracy”.
After the awful few years of Napster, Kazaa and Limewire, where files of all kinds would be shared, mislabeled, unorganized, and often falsified (yeah, sorry to break it to you, but that clip of Darth Vader prank calls wasn’t by Weird Al), a new breed emerged.
Blogs and forums decorated with Rapidshare and Mega Upload links, broken into parts when needed, often carefully organized with love and attention, started to appear. It was in this scene, as I was first discovering the depths of my interests, that I came across bands, albums, films, comics, and everything else that I would not have otherwise even heard of or had access to in the third-world bubble in which I had existed.
My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless changed how I perceived music and became a cornerstone of everything I would want to feel in music almost immediately after my first listen. I spent a long time fixing subtitles and piecing together missing bits for a somewhat shoddy upload of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, a film that made me identify cinema as having the potential to be something more than just things moving on screen.
I spent the vast majority of my teenage life indoors, by myself. During the summer, I would stay up all night, and at times all morning until the afternoon, consuming all of this emotional, strange news from another star. This was perhaps the most optimal circumstance for me to come across Cowboy Bebop, shared on some Spanish forum, fan-subbed in English (thank goodness for that!) in a quality that was unusually good for video files at the time.
I remember watching about one episode per night, late at night, and knowing that this was something different. That these were memories and bonds being formed that would last forever.
“Easy Come, Easy Go”
For most of the characters in Cowboy Bebop, there is a slow-crawling and unavoidable sense of fate that spells out an impending doom. You can catch onto this from the very first episode (or session, as the show likes to call them). There is an existential awareness that nothing lasts forever, that life is being lived on borrowed time. I remember this as my first takeaway from watching the show.
The setting even reflects this. Humans live in a wild west in the solar system, brought on by economic hardship in a post-colonized-space age, after a major destructive incident on Earth left the majority of the planet inhabitable. In the mostly empty stretches of space, crime is rampant, and resources are too thin for authorities to police all of it. Thus, bounty hunters are very much a thing.
Spike Spiegel, more so than any of the other characters, is perhaps the best exhibit of this sealed fate. His presence in the show, borrowed from heroes of noir cop-crime dramas as well as Western revenge stories, is that of a ghost mingling with mortals until his predestined return to fulfill a task. His zen-like philosophy of “whatever happens, happens” is both equally peaceful and unrequited, as a man at times delaying what he knows to be inevitable.
On the other hand (insert robotic arm joke here), Jet Black is plagued by similar turmoil, but with an approach that’s a lot more realistic to viewers than Spike’s more romantic dance with death. Jet is willing to move on, leave the past in the past, let bygones be bygones. This difference is often a source of conflict between the two personalities and represents a conflict within everyone really.
The two loners eventually cross paths and form a begrudging ensemble (of loners) with a genetically-modified and super smart corgi named Ein, a mysterious runaway criminal and thief in an imaginative yellow outfit going by Faye Valentine, and to cap it off, a sprite-like feral child hacker whose reputation has given her the title of Radical Ed. All these characters have baggage and muddy waters to trudge through on their own, but its their formation of a disjointed, unwilling family that speaks out the most.
Though, in the case of Ed, this family is very much a real thing; unwittingly becoming the child that glues them together, until the time of the impending doom.
”…not an Ordinary Star”
Cowboy Bebop is often described as “anime for people who don’t like anime”. While I can’t agree with this statement fully, I can agree with it in reference to the fact that it’s a perfect example of how a medium of communication should not become the sole defining aspect of a piece. I’m troubled by categorizing things in such a way, and Cowboy Bebop helps with that trouble.
Episodes such as “Pierrot le Fou” and “Hard Luck Woman” reach both heights and depths that, as a child, I never expected something within the medium of moving, drawn art to ever even attempt. Shortly after, I stopped looking at art in segmented forms like that.
This is often why I find attempts to re-capture Cowboy Bebop in the form of some live-action movie completely misguided, and an obvious result of someone simply not getting it.
Yes, Cowboy Bebop is a beautifully drawn and animated show, but it’s more importantly a series of stories told in a unique, uncompromising style. That’s irreplaceable.