What Cowboy Bebop Tells Us About the Meaning of Life
Cowboy Bebop is one of the best anime series of all time, with metaphysical flourishes slipping in to give it existential scope.
The iconic anime franchise Cowboy Bebop is set to become more famous than ever, thanks to a live-action television adaptation coming soon to Netflix. Although the series has been discontinued, with the anime film Cowboy Bebop: The Movie being released in 2001, it's exciting that new viewers will be introduced to Spike Spiegel and the rest of the Bebop gang.
As its central cast travels the universe in search of bounties and other adventurous assignments to make ends meet, the space western is definitely action-packed. Throughout its 26 episodes and film, Cowboy Bebop often weaves in metaphysical messages about existentialism, gender, and facing tragedy and mortality head-on.
Whether he's approaching opponents with a wry grin on his face, his light on his feet gait, or the crooked cigarette dangling between his lips, a lot of the charm for the series protagonist Spike Spiegel comes from how darn cool he is. Spike is a great martial artist and marksman, but the skirmishes he's drawn into always leave him seriously wounded, and there are definitely opponents that outmatch him.
There's also an aspect of relatability: in some episodes, he can barely pay the bills and is seen nursing a hangover. Spike is a devil may care everyman, but he's not quite the jazz-obsessed cosmic gunslinger that the show's concept suggests. Instead, he resembles the archetype of a wandering ronin from feudal Japan, and there's a lot to be gained from that perspective.
A ronin is a samurai without a master who wanders the countryside and works odd jobs to make ends meet while following the Bushido, the samurai code of honor. Spike is a bounty hunter who competes with some of the world's most sleazy figures for lucrative contracts, but he maintains a strong code of honor that even his closest friends, such as Faye Valentine, struggle with at times. A lot of this comes from Spike being influenced by the martial arts superstar Bruce Lee.
Spike makes clear references to Lee's teachings and philosophies, sometimes moving in battle sequences like him. Lee's combat style and philosophies were dubbed the Tao of Jeet Kune Do (the Way of the Intercepting Fist in Cantonese), which encouraged fluidity and spontaneity in the moment rather than being bound by rigid rules, traditional styles and patterns as an extension of Taoism.
This bond extends beyond fighting style to Spike's outlook, which was particularly apparent when he faced his own impending death. Spike lights a cigarette and smiles as he exhales, saying, "Whatever happens, happens." In Episode 19, Spike faces the risk of dying upon planetary reentry and simply lights a cigarette and smiles as he exhales, saying, "Whatever happens, happens." Spike is repeatedly confronted with individuals that could potentially destroy him, but he is more concerned with seeing a job through to completion than with his own mortality.
Spike's determination continues in the series finale, where he attacks a crime syndicate led by his old foe Vicious, believing he'll almost certainly die. Despite Faye's efforts to persuade him otherwise, Spike goes ahead and does it anyway because, with his love Julia gone, he has no other significant commitments that would prevent him from participating in this final showdown.
Other major characters have had their own experiences of existentialism. Throughout the season, we learn more about Spike's Bebop crew mates Faye, Jet Black, and Edward, with Jet dealing with his hardboiled past and Faye dealing with her tragic roots as someone hardened by rejection and betrayal. Even Vincent, the anime film's main antagonist, pauses to consider whether he is a man dreaming of butterflies or butterflies dreaming of becoming a man.
Cowboy Bebop appears to be a space western with noir flourishes and jazz sensibilities pulsating through its backwater towns and neon cities on the surface. Nonetheless, creator Hajime Yatate and the Sunrise Animation production team have created something more profound than a clear, straightforward tale. As Spike and his pals scour the cosmos for their next gig, one that weaves in Taoist musings on existentialism and identity. Hopefully, now that the first season of the live-action Cowboy Bebop has wrapped shooting, the adaptation will reflect these sensibilities.