Most “Cowboy Bebop” episodes start out more or less the same.
The crew is typically going through financial dire straits of some kind, barely able to scrounge up enough food to make “bell peppers and beef” or eating instant noodles for the umpteenth time in a row. Their lives as bounty hunters aboard the titular Bebop tends to be difficult as their hunts typically don’t seem to yield lucrative prizes and thus have to scrape by in the cold void of space between Earth and as far as Jupiter.
They eventually pick up the trail on a large bounty head and the episode kicks off from there with the hopes that their catch will finally yield them the kind of reward to lift them out of economic insecurity but then a funny thing happens. The financial incentive of their hunt goes out the window as a much more important reason keeps them engaged with their target. They start to care. They start to care beyond their own well-being and security and often form empathy for their intended target or the dire situation that typically arises from them.
The series makes a point consistently that the crew is barely getting by and yet we rarely see them actually make off with that big payday from their hunts that they are so desperate for, why is that? Because “Cowboy Bebop” beyond its dazzling cyberpunk aesthetics, hip jazz soundtrack, and sci-fi noire action is a series about anti-social edgelords who learn how to give a damn in an extremely cynical world.
The crew of the Bebop are a collection of castaways be it from society’s criminal underbelly like our main hero Spike Spiegel, authority with Jet Black being an ex-cop, or time itself in Faye Valentine. Ed, well, that’s a little more confusing. They put on a tough face in each episode typically just going with the flow or in the case of Spike “whatever happens, happens” and it’s often just to show to the viewer, on the surface, that these characters are just too cool for school so to speak. They hand wave off concerns about hunts going wrong, or playfully nag each other over something else not being their problem and it often feels like a defense mechanism because it is.
The crew of the Bebop are a very sad group of people. I don’t mean that they are pathetic or lowly human beings, but they are all clearly so depressed to the point that they try actively to shut themselves off from their own feelings and from each other. Their only purpose is their singular drive to get to the next day, their next meal, or next big job.
The world we live in puts us into a similar cycle of just trying to get by and survive. We may not be bounty hunters looking to chase down a wanted criminal for a big reward but with the continual growth of exploitative gig economy jobs and other “independent contractor” roles where your next meal depends on how hard you work and how much your next appointment nets you it’s not that far off either. Financially it becomes a never-ending grind where the only drive-in life is just to make money and survive under the crushing weight of society.
The series in many ways becomes about the melancholy induced by our day-to-day lives and the thoughts of a better more fulfilling past that can never be returned to or was never there to begin with. Life is kind of sad and fucked up and “Cowboy Bebop” does a very good job of simulating the painful longing for a world long gone from our youth and imaginations.
It’s easy to become cynical because of this; if your life just becomes a numbers game it becomes just that much colder to get through. Thoughts of life outside the rat race and dreams of a better life take a back seat as the only thing you have time to care about is to make money to afford rent and your next meal. The crew of the Bebop is stuck in this endless cycle of laboring just to survive too, their previous lives as members of crime syndicates, law enforcement, or being weary hormonal teenagers are more or less over and all that’s left is just their job. They don’t really have anything else except each other.
Caring becomes a chore, becomes something they don’t have time for, we don’t have time for, and we just put our heads down and grind our way to the finish line whether it’s the dangerous job of bounty hunting or simply putting up with the 9-5 life it’s all the same and pretty depressing.
“Well today sucked but what are you going to do about it?…” ~ Spike more or less every episode.
But again, this is how episodes of “Cowboy Bebop” typically begin and by the end our “heroes” remember something important about themselves; their capacity to care and be human. The crew run into all kinds of bounty heads in the series; a drug trafficker trying to escape with his girlfriend to the safe haven of Mars, an exiled gateway engineer trying to seek revenge on the company that fired him, an experimental superhuman on a murderous rampage, or a harmonica player who can’t die. What they all have in common is they are all also people who are victims of the world they all live in, outcasts in their own way from more pleasant folk, or in the case of another bounty head in another episode just trying to deliver medicine to their sick younger sister.
Our heroes are initially driven by just the need to get the job done and take care of themselves in each episode but by the end find themselves either helping their bounty head targets get what they need or finding at the very least sympathy for their plight and existence instead. Spike, Jet, even Faye can’t help it because at the end of the day as much as they try to be edgy and put on a face, they are still human.
The anime reveals these moments in big ways for our main characters often. Jet finds the will to care about his ex in one episode instead of robotically completing his job which pushed her away in the first place. Faye, despite being robbed by an ex-lover, can’t help but not hold a grudge toward him because of what they went through together not long ago. And Spike despite his playful, nonchalant attitude, always finds a reason to humanize the people he often has to hunt down and even kill by the end of each episode.
Again, just another gut-wrenching episode…
Despite their tough guy/woman exteriors they inevitably can’t help but give a damn when faced with a similar brutal reality in their bounty hunts that often reflects back their own misery at the world. Because, whether they want to admit it or not, their targets aren’t all that different from themselves that often. They are humans too, just trying to live.
In the world we live in, its easy to just shut yourself off and just go through the motions of day-to-day life. “Life is unfair” is a common retort thrown around to mostly cope with a difficult existence that most if not all of us will never escape from. Caring becomes a luxury most cannot afford quite literally and its often on purpose by the system we have in place that we all live by.
Sometimes caring becomes something people treat with contempt because of it as terminally online trolls will chide people for being “too sensitive” about a social subject or accuse others of being “overly PC” about another. It becomes a joke to many to the point that not caring, not giving a damn, and actively harassing people who do becomes a virtue for these jokers. Many fans of the show, in fact, misinterpret the cool guy exterior of someone like Spike as a way of life rather than a cautionary tale.
To a certain extent it’s understandable to have this mentality; society by and large is too cut off from one another, too bought in by self-determination propaganda, and not to mention a total lack of class consciousness to mobilize together to make a better world or at least coexist more within one. To care about anything ends up being a painfully lonely and isolating experience because no one else seems to want to give a fuck themselves.
The cold void of space that the crew of the Bebop largely reside in in the series is not just an aesthetic choice its also a narrative one for what could be more isolating than floating hundreds of millions of miles between planets? The crew is often left to ponder their own meaninglessness in the grand scheme of things and the strange and often fucked up world they live in while floating through this void. They pretend not to care about it and talk more often about their next big hunt, but clearly, especially, by the series’ end they are shown that no matter how tough, strong, and apathetic they appear to be they are still human beings who desire a more just world and care about one another.
“Cowboy Bebop” is about a lot of things. Its episodic nature gives viewers a chance to see and process a lot of different stories and themes and its part of why it still is considered by many to be the greatest anime of all-time. It talks about depression, longing, government exploitation and espionage, the monstrous nature of the world we live in but what it also says to viewers is not to forget your humanity in the middle of all this bull shit.
It’s understandable, once again, to be cynical in this world we live in. There isn’t much help, at least from the top, coming to aid us anytime soon (2020 put that in very clear terms…). It’s easy to shut yourself off from the rest of the world and from your fellow man when it seems like no one cares or wants to care about one another. But you got to allow yourself to give a damn about the world despite all of this because we all have to live in it together no matter how much we try to be tough about it. At the end of the day, we all occupy the same world/solar system together and properly coexisting together will require empathy instead of cynicism. If we can start there at least, maybe the world can start to become more pleasant, maybe we can form solidarity with one another and find ways to build a better world and dismantle the one that is causing us all misery.
It all begins, as silly as it sounds, with caring about each other and not seeing other people as potential enemies, targets, or more cynically money bags to line our pockets. We got to allow ourselves the capacity to care and be empathetic more often because the world doesn’t have to be this difficult to coexist in. The world has enough irony-pilled edgelords, you don’t have to be one of them. It doesn’t have to be such a lonely existence just to survive day-to-day just to make ends meet. It can be a better, more consistently pleasant world if we actually work toward dismantling the old one but it begins with giving a damn about other people besides yourself.
Otherwise, if we don’t do this, if we don’t try to at least find empathy and solidarity in our struggles with one another, well…