Welcome to an interplanetary Wild West, where space is quite literally the sociocultural final frontier. Nihilism is the order of the day, and criminal activity is so prolific that bounty hunting has a pop culture of its own. Gunfights could break out anywhere, at any time of the day, and most people wouldn’t bat an eye. This is the world of Cowboy Bebop – a world where, truly, anything goes.
Of course, the lives must also come and go. But don’t worry, Cowboy Bebop doesn’t milk for pathos using the kind of wanton destruction that is downright exploitative. It shoots past the realm of gratuity into normality. Perhaps epitomised by its episodic nature, this show doesn’t indulge in the melodrama of death. You only have the ending theme (but a fantastic one at that) to grieve the passing of a beloved character. Once the next episode rolls around, we don’t hear of them ever again.
This world, however, is candidly brutal. No matter who you are or what your dreams, you could die at any moment, for no good reason. While this doesn’t give us the right to take the lives of others, it does tell us to get off our high horses. Unlike real life (or more accurately, life in the developed world), Cowboy Bebop doesn’t feed us the narrative that our lives are inherently sacrosanct, or that it is a tragedy when people die in unnatural ways that they don’t ‘deserve’. Rather, death is something that simply happens. It is inevitable, it is the way of life, so why sweat it? Better to take it slow and steady, nice and cool, with jazz hands.
Therein lies the conundrum. Why would anyone want to live in a world that is dictated by luck? Where honesty, hard work and a good attitude almost never pay off? How could anyone bear to struggle and persevere? Get too attached to your life, and you’ll be paralysed by the fear of losing it. By then, you might as well be dead.
Cowboy Bebop gives us a good idea of the lives of animals in the wild – what PETA regards as the animal utopia. No human contact whatsoever, not even as pets. No protection from predators, no guarantee of food. Since we can’t be sure that animals benefit from the social contracts we force on them, it’s better to leave them alone, even if this means a life in the harsh jungles, where predators abound and you won’t know when your time is up until you have only 5 seconds left.
Hold up. How could wild animals be happy in such an environment? Surely an animal that is prepared to die at any moment doesn’t truly appreciate its life? Surely this means that human lives are inherently more valuable than animal lives? What’s wrong with being cruel if cruelty is the norm? What’s wrong with taking animal lives if animals do it all the time?
Cowboy Bebop is all about living meaningfully in the ‘wild’. Yes, it will involve a lot of hedonism (I suppose this explains everyone smokes so much – the average person won’t live long enough suffer its repercussions – and why animals have such crazy sex drives), but pleasure isn’t everything. Pleasure doesn’t tell us why we matter, and it won’t satisfy us in the face of death.
To this end, Cowboy Bebop is a catalogue of people who have been victimised by the unforgiving wild in various ways. Jet probably harboured dreams of fighting crime and upholding justice when he was young, but lost all faith after working in the ISSP. He is forced to rely on bounty hunting to fulfil his idealism of the past, though he is now burdened by the newfound calculativeness of having to make ends meet, and the concession that some criminal cases are simply out of his hands. Faye, denied of her past, takes ‘living in the moment’ to the extreme because she reasons that life has no continuity anyway. The Scratch cult touches on the idea of religion being an opiate of the masses, but ironically winds up being a comatose boy’s attempt to rationalise the fact that life has been unfair to him. Spike, in contrast to Faye, has been locked out from a past that he cannot forget – the only time in which he felt truly alive – and believes that he will never feel that way again.
However, Cowboy Bebop is also a catalogue of people who have managed to find meaning in an uncaring world, from VT’s hippie trucker culture, to Appledelhi’s quixotic antics with MacIntire, to Ed’s interactions with MPU and Ein. The trend we notice is that these people are never alone. The message, then, is we live for our relationships with others. Indeed, Wen and Pierrot are both granted the gift of immortality, but at the cost of the one thing that makes life worth living: the ability to form relationships with others. We cannot help but pity them.
According to Cowboy Bebop, the ability to enjoy life doesn’t depend on abstract philosophy, intelligence or ambition. It’s as simple as the bonds we share. Unsurprisingly, the development of the relationships between Spike, Jet, Faye and Ed is the undercurrent that unconditionally ties all episodes together.
In that case, perhaps the best reason we have to respect the lives of animals is that they too enjoy complex and meaningful relationships. They too have families, friends and loved ones. This makes locking them up in farming units, where they either live a life of solitude or all their relationships are necessarily dysfunctional, all the more unacceptable.
Still, we must wonder: why would anyone want to form relationships in a world where you could lose a loved one with the snap of a finger? Perhaps we’re actually looking at it the wrong way round – it’s precisely because the lives come and go that we need to treasure what we have while we still have it. Even if the entire series is one big foreshadowing of Spike’s preordained death, we can’t help but fall in love with the adventures of our favourite bebop crew.