For many of us, Cowboy Bebop, as it notes in its opening credits, really did become “a new genre unto itself.” It was a formative anime experience and set a standard for animated television that in many ways continues to be that against which new shows are judged. It was hugely successful and for many people, in the West at least, served as an introduction into what anime was really capable of as a storytelling medium. It was also released during the late 90’s pop culture zeitgeist when the Internet was still relatively new and concepts like media inclusivity and cultural appropriation were just beginning to gain traction in the mainstream narrative.
So how does Cowboy Bebop hold up when exposed to modern criticism? Mostly pretty well. There’s some problematic stuff, obviously, but the universe in which Bebop is set offered a lot of creative freedom and some of that was used to explore social constructs and culture. It presents a vision of the future that is incredibly diverse and where humanity is living on other worlds, but where people are still just people. While there are tropes and shortcomings, some of that vision was ahead of its time and still holds water today.
If you have somehow managed to avoid seeing it, Cowboy Bebop is the story of a team of space bounty hunters in a not too distant future (2070’s) where Earth’s surface was rendered mostly uninhabitable and a majority of humanity now lives elsewhere in the solar system; mainly on Mars and the moons of Jupiter. While that technically makes it a post-apocalyptic setting and provides some of the narrative freedom that usually entails, the narrative universe of Bebop is one where civilization is fully rebuilt complete with planetary governments instead of nations, a system-wide equivalent to Interpol, massive interplanetary corporations, and mafia and yakuza groups. The background lore of Bebop gives it a setting both where far out sci-fi concepts can be explored and where the timeless nature of humanity and its social structures can be deconstructed and examined critically.
Perhaps the most prominent aspect of civilization Bebop explores in this way is the idea of cultural heritage in highly multicultural environments. While nations like Japan and the United States have not existed for generations, the cultures those nations once enshrined have persisted and evolved. We see this as early as the first episode, “Asteroid Blues”. While most of the episodes take place on other worlds, Spike even remarking that “there’s nothing good on Earth,” this one is set in Tijuana. We see that the architectural and aesthetic style of modern day Mexico has been maintained, but signs in Japanese, Mandarin, English, and Russian are everywhere. The projected future of the global village has made multicultural cities more dramatically integrated. While that is already the case in many cities (Tokyo for example), a sense of “that’s just how it’s always been” is conveyed in Bebop that gives the impression that the tensions between cultures often present in densely packed urban environments has mostly evaporated as humanity rebuilt.
What’s crucial to note is that the setting shows that even though massive cultural integration has taken place, those cultures have not ceased to exist. The setting of this episode is Tijuana, which is implied to be one of the few cities on Earth where it is safe to live above ground since most of Earth is bombarded with lunar debris on a regular basis. The sudden transformation of almost everyone into refugees has led to national borders being rendered entirely moot, especially given most people don’t even live on Earth. But while there is a “culture of Earth”, there is not an obliteration of those old Earth cultures: this is the salad bowl, not the melting pot. As the series progresses we see this on almost every planet. Ganymede, for example, is shown to have strong “native” cultural, political, and economic aspects unique to their world, but they also still have aspects of many Earth cultures evenly spread through most areas we see in the series.
Aside from these national identities, non-national identities are explored as well. For one thing, we see this with corporations, particularly the Gate Corporation. In the episode “Bohemian Rhapsody,” we learn that the Gate Corporation charter dates back to old Earth but that they basically operate at the level of a government. The gate network is responsible for all interplanetary travel, which makes a trip possible in hours or days where once it would take decades. The corporation is directly responsible for a public service upon which billions of lives depend. In this episode we also learn that they have been hiding an unfixable flaw in the gate’s central program that could spell disaster. Since a failed gate test was responsible for the explosion that destroyed the moon and messed up Earth, that alone is bad enough; but the loss of access to the network could cripple or even kill entire colonies.
In the end, Jet Black, one of the main characters, decides to keep the Gate corporation’s secret. As it can’t be fixed and the gates can’t be shut down, there’s nothing that can actually be done and thus no reason to reveal it; he trades his silence for a guarantee that the corporation will stop sending assassins and bounty hunters after the old man who revealed the secret to them. But the culture of that corporation is treated as comparable to that of a government and talking to its CEO is like talking to a President or even a Secretary General. That vision of the future, along with the massive inequality it brings, is one that still rings true. Many of the episodes deal with extreme class divide between worlds and the nature of how the gates tie in to that. In this, too, Bebop seems to recognize the impact of multinational (multiplanetary?) corporations on human culture at so massive a scale.
The other non-national identities we see a lot of are those of various organized criminal groups. We are shown examples of semi-generic Western mafia type organizations and of eastern yakuza and triad type organizations, but the primary example we see again and again is that of Spike’s “family”. Spike Spiegel, the ostensible protagonist, is from a yakuza style mafia family and is strongly implied to have been the son of a top boss and next in line for the “boss of all bosses” type role. We see the history of his days as a soldier and his interactions with current members, and as a result, we get an example of how the formalized social structures and cultural rituals of that type of group persist. These identities, be they yakuza or Cosa Nostra, all predate the nations they are based in and bind members through shared crimes and spoils; it is logical that those identities would survive over time and persist in that multicultural future as well. Given the widely disparate distribution of wealth we’ve seen with the Bebop universe, the prevalence of powerful mafia groups also seems to hold up as a vision of the potential realities of that future.
Aside from its depiction of multiculturalism in the face of mass scale capitalism and a species wide diaspora, I can’t help but want to look at gender politics. To be specific, I want to talk about Faye Valentine.
Faye’s appearance throughout the course of the series is often highly sexualized. Her normal outfit, while quite stylish and a cosplay staple, seems designed to lend itself to voyeurism in the way they frame her shots; often leaving characters leering at her. In many ways the look of the character is “hot anime girl” and it can be tempting to see her in that light, particularly given how often we see Faye in various states of undress relative to the other characters.
Our introduction to Faye, however, is drastically different. She’s portrayed as a badass mercenary type who is able to take out a mafia hit squad. But as we get to know Faye, it becomes increasingly clear that she is quite deep. She was born before the gate accident on Earth and was in cryostasis when it happened. On top of that, due to an accident, her memories were erased and she has no idea who she is; she only has vague flashes of an Earth from before the Moon blew up. So after waking up with no idea who she is in a world she doesn’t understand, the first thing she finds out is that she is 300,000,000 woolongs (about 3 million USD) in debt to the hospital that eventually woke and cured her. The caseworker assigned to her was kind and helped her find her bearings, even developing what appeared to be a budding romantic relationship, before faking his own death and leaving her to inherit his estate… which turned out to be more debt.
Like many people, in both the time Bebop was made and still today, Faye is essentially financially ruined for life due to debt incurred from a lifesaving medical treatment. While the circumstances surrounding Faye’s particular case are certainly unique, the notion of people choosing between eternal debt and death is one that still holds up as contemporary social commentary. It should also be noted that, while she doesn’t remember it, Faye is implied to be from an incredibly wealthy (potentially mafia) family and was only able to get the cryostats in the first place due to extreme wealth; in this too the connection between wealth and survival is all too relatable.
Faye’s response to waking up in an unrecognizable world with amnesia and massive debt, then being betrayed so soon after, is to essentially run off and start taking any jobs that come along, legal or otherwise. While we have no direct evidence of this from before her time with the Bebop’s crew, her skills in combat and espionage seem to indicate she was basically a mercenary. She knows she’s considered incredibly attractive and revels in it, knowing full well that it can give her a strategic advantage. Over the few years that Faye remembers, she has been on the run trying to get as much money as she can, eventually ending up caught by the mafia after cheating their casino and from there getting caught by Spike and Jet. The first time we really interact with the three of them together, she is handcuffed to a toilet. The power dynamic is obvious and arguably hints at hentai bondage tropes; at one point Faye even asks “you aren’t having weird thoughts, are you?” implying she thinks they might rape her. While this is quickly dispelled, it seems to cast her in the subservient role for their future interactions. At least it does until she breaks out, pulls off some ridiculously badass shit, and escapes both the mafia and the Bebop crew. They keep crossing paths and eventually she’s just like “okay, I’m a bounty hunter and I live here now” and they kinda have no choice but to roll with it.
While Faye is continually used for exploitation visually, she is usually complex and independent thematically and through dialogue. She is a con artist, after all; being able to seduce people seems like an invaluable skill when you’re trying to hustle three mil and get the cops off your back. In most scenes, Faye seems to don the same detached zenlike approach to life as Spike; however, she is presented as vulnerable and human in situations where he is more of a stoic and even fatalistic archetype. Ultimately, while many of her scenes don’t meet the Bechdel Test and she does often need literal rescuing, I think Faye does generally still hit most of the emotional notes I want to see from a “strong female protagonist” when she takes center stage in a Bebop episode.
The other female character, Ed, also needs some attention while I’m on the subject of gender. Ed. otherwise known as Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV or “Radical Edward”, is thirteen, a super hacker, and has a bounty on her head. When I say “super hacker”, I mean “can crack military encryption in seconds and can take direct control of a police ship through an RC helicopter controller”. In exchange for helping them track down a much bigger bounty they are chasing, Faye promises Ed can join the crew. When they try to ditch her, she hacks the ship with her controller and makes them come back for her. It is only at this point that they realize she’s a girl, at which she laughs. Ed is called a tomboy at one point but is presented as being some form of nonbinary and/or genderqueer (though the pronoun “she” is the only one used in the show). There is also some subtle implication that she may be gay or asexual but, as she’s thirteen, that is thankfully not explored in any detail. Having been exposed to the glory that is Stevonnie, this almost seems like little more than window dressing, but the fact that a young “tomboy” named Edward is a real member of the crew still holds up, particularly given that Cowboy Bebop predates Steven Universe by decades.
In addition to the gender identity stuff that Ed brings up, she is also likely neuroatypical in some way, with possibly either a form of ASD or ADHD. While she is often quite goofy and used as comic relief, the jokes are never at her expense. Her father is presented as having similar characteristics, literally forgetting he had a kid while moving their research base and abandoning her in the process. The crew all think she’s really weird and they all dislike being around kids, but they pretty quickly come to accept her and treat her like a real person and a member of their misfit family.
And that, I think, gets to the heart of why Bebop often feels so timeless. The characters and their relationships all feel genuine. Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed, and even Ein the (secretly hyperintelligent) corgi all become friends and, like the similarly beloved Firefly that came a few years later, they are people you genuinely come to care about. Yes, the “main plot” is about Spike, but really they’re all “main characters”. And while Bebop may not always hold up to modern standards (Cowboy Funk took on a whole new meaning, huh?) it did show us a future that is both fairly diverse and believable. It presents a view of diversity that, as its namesake musical style implies, is somewhat chaotic at times but innately human and deeply cool.
…See you, space cowboy.