The Existential Philosophy of Cowboy Bebop, the Cult Japanese Anime Series, Explored in a Thoughtful Video Essay

Super Dimen­sion Fortress MacrossMobile Suit Gun­dam WingNeon 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.

The com­plete Cow­boy Bebop series can be bought on blu-ray, or if you’re a sub­scriber, you can watch the episodes on Hulu.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the New Ani­me Pre­quel to Blade Run­ner 2049, by Famed Japan­ese Ani­ma­tor Shinichi­ro Watan­abe

The Phi­los­o­phy, Sto­ry­telling & Visu­al Cre­ativ­i­ty of Ghost in the Shell, the Acclaimed Ani­me Film, Explained in Video Essays

How the Films of Hayao Miyaza­ki Work Their Ani­mat­ed Mag­ic, Explained in 4 Video Essays

Ear­ly Japan­ese Ani­ma­tions: The Ori­gins of Ani­me (1917–1931)

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.