How Cowboy Bebop Shows Us That We Can’t Run From Our Problems
When someone who has never watched anime asks what they should watch to start getting into the medium, many will answer with shows like Dragon Ball, Mobile Suit Gundam, Death Note, and Cowboy Bebop. But why Bebop? What makes that show so special? Well, in short, it’s a show about running away, but doing it in style.
Following Spike Spiegel and his partner and friend Jet Black, these two bounty hunters galivant across the cosmos just trying to make enough money to get to the next meal; but at least they do it with some flair considering their missions rarely go as planned. As the show progresses, we are introduced to the beautiful but deadly Faye Valentine, the quirky tech guru Ed and the hyper intelligent and adorable corgi, Ein. Much like shows like Seinfeld, it’s a series about nothing. An anthology series that has a beginning, middle, and end for each episode. This is profoundly important for the topic as it plays out best for our main focus of this write-up, Spike Spiegel.
It goes without saying that each main character of the series has an arc. A problem, mystery, or journey they have to solve and reach their respective conclusions not only changed but freed. The only one who can’t seem to deal with his issues is Spike. Now he, as a person, doesn’t seem to let much get to him, at one point even accepting death with a cigarette saying something to the effect of “whatever happens happens.” Spike has no qualms with dying, and the show does a great job of making it seem like its because he has nothing to lose…that, however, isn’t true; I believe it is because he is tired. Tired of the constant running and avoidance of his problems.
With its episodic structure, Spike joins us as an audience to these other side stories that serve no overall relevance to the main plot of the series (technically because there isn’t really a plot per se… it’s a show of filler, but more on that later). Each situation he is in reaches its resolution, and for half of the series, we knew next to nothing about him. That is until a blonde-haired woman from his past, named Julia, comes back asking for help. This is our first glimpse at the story of Spike Spiegel. Having a criminal past and relationship with Julia, we learn that Julia was already in a relationship with his friend turned enemy, Vicious. Due to this love triangle, Spike is forced to abandon his love and his life before his time on his ship, the Bebop. Before the two-part episode ends, Spike is almost killed for his past choices, and at that moment, we understand why Spike runs from his problems and why he is so tired of the endless race against fate.
Cowboy Bebop has also been praised for its musical choices and, with no surprise, also plays a large part in each episode’s overall narratives. With Spike and Julia’s episodes, a particular scene greets us with a beautiful yet dreamy choir song titled “Green Bird” as Spike falls to his potential death. Perhaps this mirrors the fact that everything that has happened in the show may as well had been a dream, and as he wakes up to the reality of his actions but sadly, it’s a little too late to fix it.
After his recovery, we are met with another collection of amazing episodes that have Spike taking the audience seat, yet again, to everyone else’s story but his own. He thinks that he can continue running from his past for a while, but as Faye, Ed, and Jet finally reach their own conclusions and come out better for it, Spike knows that the time for running from his mistakes is over. Leading up to this moment, I always felt it was fear that drove Spike, fear to own up to his missteps and fear of facing an unknown fate. For the longest time, Spike has always had at least some control of how his story goes (maybe that’s why he became a bounty hunter), and the moment he goes back to his past, things become turbulent again.
In a series about side characters that we meet for only one or two episodes, Cowboy Bebop has been described as a filler series. While filler can be connotated as a form of padding to any TV show, I feel that in this case, the filler is there because the plot of the show is more metaphorical than tangible. Cowboy Bebop’s plot, if there even is one, is about a person growing up and facing up to the sins of his past, and for someone as stubborn as Spike, it takes about 26 episodes for him to learn this lesson. But along the way, he meets people who care for him and would do anything for him (even if they don’t act like it), and that is why Spike decides enough is enough. To keep running is to live a half-life and risks anyone close to him suffering an even worse fate.
The final episode of the series is a final stand in many rights. For so long, we have been watching a series about life lessons and tragic stories revolving around random people without any understanding of the main character before us, and just when you think your time may have been wasted, Spike charges in, guns blazing, to make up for his lost time and in a way ours as well. The irony of the final episode plays out to the very last frame. With everything being solved so quickly, it’s almost hilarious that it took so long for Spike to resolve his problems in the first place; however, by the time the curtain drops on the show, we are left with ambiguity. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil the ending here, but I will say that there is only one logical conclusion while it is left open.
So how far can we run from our past? The things that haunt us or hold us back? That is a question that can’t have one definitive answer since we all are so different. Maybe that is why we run away from them, to the next adventure and the next and so on, much like Spike. While it is easier to run and drown out our problems or responsibilities, they will always be there, and I think that is what makes Cowboy Bebop such a fascinating look at the human condition. Much like Spike, we all have the ability to make the right choices; while it may take some longer to get there than others, the idea of owning up to our own demons rather than running can be summed up in one phrase: You can either go out with a whimper or go out with a Bang.