Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, Neon Genesis Evangelion — these are the kind of titles that might ring a bell even if you have no particular interest in futuristic Japanese animated television shows. But how about Cowboy Bebop? That evocatively Western name itself, not an awkward English translation of a Japanese title but English in the original, hints that the series stands apart from all the dimension fortresses, mobile suits, and neon geneses out there. And indeed, when it first aired in 1997, viewers the world over took quick note of the distinctive sensibility of its stories of a shipful of bounty hunters drifting through outer space in the year 2071.
"On paper, Cowboy Bebop, the legendary cult anime series from Shinichirō Watanabe" — recently director of one of Blade Runner 2049's short prequels — "reads like something John Wayne, Elmore Leonard, and Philip K. Dick came up with during a wild, all-night whiskey bender." So writes the Atlantic's Alex Suskind in a piece on the show's lasting legacy. "Everyone speaks like they’re background extras in Chinatown. The show ultimately features so many cross-ranging influences and nods to other famous works it’s almost impossible to keep track. It’s Sergio Leone in a spacesuit. It’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with automatic weapons."
And yet Cowboy Bebop remains, thoroughly, a work of Japanese imagination, and like many of the most respected of the form, it has serious philosophical inclinations. Channel Criswell creator Lewis Bond examines those in "The Meaning of Nothing," his video essay on the series. "Can we as humans find something in nothing, find purpose beyond survival?" Bond asks. "These ontological thoughts that plague us make up the same existential drift our characters repeatedly find themselves in, and it's what is most significant to the journey of Cowboy Bebop." He looks past the cooler-than-cool style, snappy dialogue, witty gags, and rich, unexpected mixture of aesthetic influences to which fans have thrilled to find "a metaphysical expression of how people overcome their lives, particularly the lingering grief that comes with them."
Taken as a whole, the show resolves into a presentation of life as "less of a linear path towards a goal, more of a haze that we must venture through without any guidance, because the sad reality of Bebop's story is that our cast of characters are lost in the cosmos without any justification for why they live, other than to exist." The series came to a famously ambiguous end after 26 episodes, but this past summer we heard that it may return, rebooted as a live-action series. Whatever its medium, the world of Cowboy Bebop — with its spacecraft, its interplanetary cops and robbers, and its superintelligent corgi — amounts to nothing less than the human condition, a place we have no choice but to revisit. Might as well do it in style.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.