Twenty-five years ago, the critically acclaimed anime series Cowboy Bebop directed by Hajime Yatate and written by Keiko Nobumoto, graced television. In my opinion, it is an absolute work of art meant to be experienced rather than simply consumed. Sentimental feelings aside, the show is a timeless masterpiece, addressing serious topics such as honour, responsibility, living with personal traumas, and the inability to escape one’s past. Through a thoughtful, fun, and action-packed lens, the show conveys what it means to lead a meaningful life in a desolate future where corruption and bureaucracy are omnipresent background forces.
Set in 2071, the show follows the adventures of a ragtag team of space-faring bounty hunters as they travel the solar system in their spaceship, the “Bebop.” There’s Spike Spiegel, the too-cool-for-school cowboy and martial artist with an attitude; Jet Black, the experienced and down-to-earth former cop turned father figure; Faye Valentine, the crafty and flirtatious femme fatale; Ed, an eccentric young hacker; and Ein, the ship’s pet corgi with human-like intelligence. Though the show is initially presented as a groovy and action-packed ride through space, we soon learn about the main characters’ inner demons and turbulent pasts; Spike’s work for a nefarious crime organization, Jet’s work on an interplanetary police force, and Faye’s amnesia after being cryogenically frozen for fifty years. The characters also grapple with their responsibilities and develop deeper, more caring relationships, despite their attempts to hide their problems to project an image of independence and control. The characters’ issues all stem from how they once struggled with societal expectations when working for rigid hierarchical organizations. Cowboy Bebop explores how they attempt to leave their pasts behind to lead more libertarian lives through their freelance bounty-hunting practice.
Spike Spiegel, the show’s hyper-nonchalant protagonist, is a fascinating and nuanced character whom I’ve grown to love more and more through the years. He has a gruff and unflinching personality and an objective and mission-oriented nature. Spike used to be a hitman for the shadowy crime organization, the Red Dragon Syndicate but left this criminal life behind to work as a bounty hunter and lead a more lawful existence.
Spike’s work in the shadowy syndicate required him to follow orders without questioning the morals of the authority who issued them. After suffering much emotional manipulation, Spike longs for human connection, which he finds with a woman named Julia. Julia offers him love and understanding, so Spike has an affair with her, even though she is already in a relationship with his merciless colleague, Vicious. The affair culminates in Spike faking his own death to leave the syndicate and begin life anew with Julia. Unfortunately for Spike, the affair did not have a happy ending, as Julia failed to arrive at their designated meeting spot in order to protect Spike after she was blackmailed.
Following these traumatic events, Spike decides to live life on his own terms and begins his bounty-hunting partnership. Throughout his endeavours, he is fundamentally torn between the need to appear strong, in control, and self-sufficient while secretly yearning for peace and human connection. His desire to appear resilient is apparent by his frequently uttered phrase: “Whatever happens, happens.” However, his contradictory needs become obvious at various moments throughout the show. For example, despite trying to project detachment from his past work with the Red Dragon Syndicate, the moment Faye has been captured by Vicious (with intentions of luring Spike to his location to kill him), Spike boldly goes out to rescue her, seeking retribution for his past. Furthermore, in the two-part episode “Jupiter Jazz,” Spike once again rushes out to blindly confront Vicious in a one-on-one duel, demonstrating his desire to be tough and confrontational. However, following this dramatic confrontation with his past, Spike returns to the Bebop, seeking companionship from his friend Jet, showing his inner vulnerability. Though on the surface he might appear stoic and detached, Spike is in fact deeply troubled by his past and obsessed with achieving closure. Spike’s character is thus more than a simple one-dimensional “calm and collected” martial artist.
Jet, Spike’s senior bounty-hunting partner, also struggles with personal traumas and internal demons. He was suddenly abandoned by a former girlfriend and lost his left arm when a colleague on the Inter-Solar System Police (ISSP) task force betrayed him. Like Spike, the rigid and systematic work in the ISSP task force left Jet struggling with personal issues and longing for freedom, individuality, and human connection.
As the eldest member of the Bebop, Jet also feels a certain responsibility to remain strong and steadfast to serve as an example for his crew, whom he cares deeply for, despite trying to hide his feelings. For example, in Spike’s first confrontation with Vicious, Jet initially attempts to appear very disappointed in Spike, stating: “He can do whatever the hell he wants!” However, despite his attempts to forget about Spike, Jet finds himself distracted from his hobby of bonsai gardening, and ultimately submits to his feelings and goes out to rescue him. Furthermore, when Spike leaves the Bebop seeking revenge against Vicious in “Jupiter Jazz,” Jet angrily bids him good riddance, trying to project disappointment in Spike’s fixation on his past. However, by the end of the story arc, when Spike returns to the ship seeking shelter, Jet warmly welcomes him back. Jet, therefore, is torn between trying to project the confidence and experience of a leader, as well as a certain indifference to his crew, while secretly depending on his younger colleagues for comfort and companionship. Despite his gruff demeanour, Jet still likes his bounty-hunting partners and cares deeply about them. Cowboy Bebop’s portrayal of Jet as a wise and deeply caring father figure ultimately adds to its appeal as a timeless classic.
Similarly, Faye is at the mercy of a cryogenic freezing company, which continuously harasses her for payment. After being cryogenically frozen for fifty years, Faye was unfairly thrust into a chaotic world with no recollection of who she is. Saddled with a vast amount of debt, she’s resorted to a hard life of crime and gambling to pay it all off. Much like the other characters in Cowboy Bebop, Faye is confronted by the ghosts of her past. She gets into a run-in with a former lover who schemed to inherit her debt, and despite desperately trying to interrogate him for answers, she fails to uncover her true identity, leaving her melancholic and confused. Despite her countless troubles, much like Spike and Jet, Faye tries to portray himself as a cool and collected femme fatale.
Ultimately, in the last episode of the series, Faye does in fact regain her memories. However, she soon realizes no good came from retrieving them, as she desperately tries to prevent Spike from once again leaving the Bebop to confront Vicious in a dramatic final duel. The show thus demonstrates how fundamentally torn its characters are. They all attempt to portray themselves as cold and indifferent, yet secretly, they yearn for human connection and friendship, as Faye does with Spike. Cowboy Bebop thus conveys a timeless message: how one’s past traumas are never fully forgotten as one moves through life. Despite this sad reality, Cowboy Bebop shows how even when times are at their bleakest, ultimately, having strong relationships and friendships makes life worth living. This powerful and relevant message is passionately interwoven through Cowboy Bebop’s nuanced and exceptionally likable characters.
25 years after its release, Cowboy Bebop is as wonderfully crafted and engaging as ever. Throughout the years, it has served as a monumental gateway anime, inspiring viewers both new and old and bringing people together to embrace a beautiful and unique genre-bleeding sci-fi tradition. Its wonderful characters are very well-written and likable, and their emotional and spiritual journeys are particularly relevant to real-life issues concerning survival, well-being, individuality, and overcoming trauma. So, consider this my thank you letter to the creators of Cowboy Bebop for delivering such a thoughtful and empathetic story and gracing the world with this timeless creation. It has truly touched my life personally, and the lives of many others around the world, both old and young. See you, Space Cowboy.