20 years later, Cowboy Bebop is more relevant than ever

Contributed by
Apr 3, 2018

As big as our world is, we've done a pretty remarkable job over the last few decades of making it smaller. The internet, the genesis of the smartphone, and social media becoming integral to modern life on Earth have all created a vast network of connections bridging gaps between cities and nations alike. So why does it still, to so many of us, feel so empty?

I'm not here to be the guy telling you that your parents and Black Mirror are right, that Instagram really is making your life worse and that we were better off back in the old days. Frankly, the fact that we can check Twitter on a tiny mega-computer that fits in our pocket is a miracle of modern science. But for all of our strides towards crafting the future we were promised, we're still human. For better or worse, there are facets of who we are that no app will ever be able to fix. I think Cowboy Bebop director Shinichirō Watanabe knew this when his masterpiece hit the airwaves 20 years ago.

Three bounty hunters, a tween tech whiz, and a corgi walk onto a crummy spaceship. They go on some adventures, fix some problems, catch some bad guys, rarely save the day and often leave said day worse than how they found it. Mostly though, they drift. They float through an outer space that should, given the world they live in, feel vibrant, lively, and perpetually interconnected. It doesn't. It's a void, a boring and completely inescapable perpetual emptiness. They gaze out the windows of the titular spaceship, the Bebop, and stare into space as if they expect the thing that will fix them is somewhere out among the stars.

Cowboy Bebop was a cornerstone of Adult Swim's golden era of anime and went on to influence a myriad of media, from Firefly to Brick. That era showed American audiences that anime could mature into something more complex than simplistic beat-em-up stories, that it was an art form capable of exploration of the human condition just as aptly as Godard or Fellini. But while some of its peers from that era have aged poorly or gone on to be forgotten, Bebop remains. It more than remains, really. It feels more resonant now than it did twenty years ago.

I think this is because of what lies at the heart of the series. More than science fiction or Sergio Leone westerns, the series primarily seeks to emulate music, specifically jazz and the blues (and I don't just say this because those genres make up the bulk of the series' incredible soundtrack by Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts) These genres wordlessly convey the highs and lows of the human experience, and that they do this non-verbally is crucial. Bebop never spells it out for you. It never panders, never tells you how characters are feeling or what the moral of a story is.

Much as music so often does, Cowboy Bebop functions as a Rorschach test. Its episodes are songs, little odes to loss, love, anger, and ecstasy. They're portraits of some of the most human characters that have ever graced television. Nobody is good and few are explicitly bad. They're just human, doing whatever it takes to make it to the next day in this vast, expansive world of spaceships and six-shooters. It's hard to watch it and not at some point see your reflection.

In Cowboy Bebop, Shinchiro Watanabe posits that nothing will fix us. We could build empires into the heavens and beyond, colonize every single planet and connect them all with interstellar muscle cars and holographic communicators ripped right out of a Star Wars movie, and people will still be people. We'll still screw up. We'll still fall in and out of love, subject ourselves to self-sabotage, try fruitlessly to forget the past and stumble in forging our futures. In the year 2071, we'll still be beautifully, painfully human. Whether this is a romantic ideal or a cynical take is up to the viewer.

In 1998, the crew of the Bebop took us on a journey through the solar system and into ourselves. It showed us the view from its windows and we, with Spike, Ed, Jet, and Faye, looked past our faint reflection in the glass and into the stars outside. The world we've made for ourselves today hardly resembles the one we lived in then. Nonetheless, twenty years later we're still here. We're still human. We're still gazing into endless sky looking for answers.