Elon Musk may have sent a copy of Foundation into space as an homage to Isaac Asimov's vision of the far future, but in retrospect, a box set of Cowboy Bebop might have been more appropriate. None of us are going to see the rise of a Galactic Empire in our lifetimes, but between NASA's new National Space Exploration Campaign and SpaceX's own plans to make humanity a "multiplanetary species" within the next few years, Bebop's portrayal of a solar system dotted by high-tech human space colonies looks like it's already on its way to becoming a reality.
SYFY WIRE got the chance to sit down with some of the key creative minds behind Cowboy Bebop at New York Comic-Con, including series writer Keiko Nobumoto, character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, writer/set designer Dai Sato, and mechanical designer Kimitoshi Yamane. The trio recalled tales from the show's development, its depiction of the not-so-distant year 2071, as well as their thoughts on real-life space travel and colonization.
So without further ado… let's jam.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
If you thought the Cowboy Bebop team rolled into a TV executive's office with some slick concept art and a plan to shake up the entire anime genre on Day 1, you'd be dead wrong. According to Dai Sato, the team was originally approached to create a show that featured spaceships…so Bandai Namco could make a new line of toys out of it.
With that assignment, the team had to think up reasons why people needed spaceships. They decided to make the Earth uninhabitable, so people would be forced to settle Mars. And because it would take years to travel to the Red Planet with conventional spacecraft, they created the "Astral Gates" to get people there fast. In time, however, the toy people lost interest in the project, which gave the team more freedom to do what they wanted with the show.
According to Sato, the idea to make the main cast bounty hunters came about because of the vastness of space. "Because people have extended their living space into space, the police can't reach everywhere," Sato said, likening the decision to Director Shinichiro Watanabe's knowledge that America is so big, "they need bounty hunters to help [catch criminals]."
Still, spacecraft were a passion for Kimitoshi Yamane, who designed all the show's ships, including the Bebop and Swordfish. During the interview, he pointed out that the Bebop wasn't quite scientifically accurate: "[In real life], you have to use a booster rocket to shoot [the ship] up into space," he said. "I had an idea to put a booster on all the spaceships, [but it was rejected]." According to Yamane, booster rockets just didn't fit the sci-fi aesthetic.
"During the Space Shuttle launches, I thought the booster rocket design was uncool," he said, laughing. "As a child, I thought 'Why do they have the boosters?'"
PREDICTING THE FUTURE
When creating the show's universe and technology, the team tried to strike a balance between portraying a fantastical sci-fi future and a setting similar to the present day. According to them, the idea was "Let's make the story far enough into the future, but not too far, so that it's more relatable."
Despite not being counted among the ranks of hard sci-fi, Bebop had an uncanny ability to predict the look and feel of technology that was still, at the time, twenty years in the future: there are smaller, more compact versions of cell phones, artificial intelligences, automated delivery drones, and an analog to the Internet, which was still in its infancy when the show came out. There's an organization called "SCRATCH" that advocates for the digitization of human consciousness, similar to Ray Kurzweil's vision of the Singularity, and the Alfa Catch device, which can read human brainwaves, isn't too far off.
As for the science behind the show's Astral Gates, Nobumoto said the concept of "spatial alternation dynamics" was all the work of writer/designer Shoji Kawamori, who came up with the idea after looking at the black spaces between individual frames of film and imagining spaceships being able to 'jump' through a thinner, liminal space between two locations. Now, scientists are exploring whether we can do something similar with wormholes.
THE FUTURE OF SPACE
In Bebop, humanity is spread across multiple planets and moons, including the craters of Mars and terraformed versions of Ganymede and Venus. With this in mind, one of my questions to the group was how they thought settling other planets might change people — or society as a whole.
"In Gundam, [that's when] the wars start," mentioned Yamane, who's worked as a mecha designer on series like Mobile Suit Gundam SEED. "Colonizing may start wars. There was no war [like that] in Bebop."
Space travel proponents like Virgin Galactic, however, see the dawn of the new space age as a turning point for humanity, due in part to the "overview effect," a phenomenon in which viewing the Earth from space causes astronauts to see everyone on our little blue marble as one, unified species. However, the opposite sentiment seems to define Cowboy Bebop, where space travel is characterized by loneliness and isolation.
"We never really thought about it this way," said Nobumoto. "Throughout the story, characters meet other characters, [they] become a family unit, then break apart…But when they break apart, it's not that they become lonely again. They gain strength so they can be on their own."
Yamane, though, had a different perspective. "Maybe it's the same as travelling on the highway by yourself at high speed, alone in the car…" he said. "In America, there is a lot of blank land, so when you travel places like that, you feel loneliness. Cowboy Bebop has a type of road trip vibe, and that's reflected in the show."
The announcement that SpaceX will be sending Yusaku Maezawa, a billionaire art collector, on the first space tourism trip around the Moon raised some eyebrows last month. When asked whether they thought space might end up in the control of the wealthy, the four of them laughed a little nervously.
"I think so," said Sato. "It certainly looks like that."
"In other words," said Kawamoto, "if you have money, you can go to space. For us, when you see movies like The Right Stuff, we grew up with that. But when you see people with money, with no training [going to space]… it's something to think about."
When asked about the prospect settling Mars (one of the recurring settings in the show), the Cowboy Bebop creators gave a wide and thoughtful range of answers.
"It's not for me," said Nobumoto. "I don't want to go! I just want to bury my bones on Earth."
"I feel like [AIs] may be the ones that would go out and inhabit planets like Mars," said Sato. "In that way, we'd be sending our children…out to those planets."
Looking a little pensive, Yamane said simply "It may be our destiny to go out there."