Cowboy Bebop Wasn't Afraid To Let Its Heroes Fail

1998’s classic anime Cowboy Bebop is well known for its fusion of jazz confidence and Eastern melodrama. While it’s easy to remember the characters’ stylistic flair, what really allowed the series to endure was how often it showed its core cast to making mistakes and failing spectacularly.

Cowboy Bebop follows two bounty hunters, Spike Spiegel and Jet Black, in an alternate universe depiction of the last 21st century. They chase down marks and try to outrun their past, and along the way, they add the rogue hacker Edward and seductive con artist Faye Valentine to their crew. Most of the show’s 26 episodes split the difference between a crime procedural and comedy of errors.

For instance, an early bounty hunt of a thief who stole a dog from a science lab balloons into a city-wide chase, during which the technicians seeking the dog activate an experimental dog whistle.

Instead of capturing his mark, who just so happens to crash directly into a police station, Spike begrudgingly takes in the dog. The scientifically engineered pooch is worth a fortune, but our broke, hungry heroes never figure that out.

This pattern of failures is characteristic to the series; Spike and the others only rarely capture their bounties. They’re often left drifting in space with next to no money, eating “bell peppers and beef” that has no beef as their ship crumbles into disrepair.

It’s a status quo antithetical to the escapist structures of most anime and popular media, but it’s a large part of Bebop’s charm. Spike is an expert pilot, a crack shot, and Jeet Kune Do master, but he still bitches when the air conditioning doesn’t work. The crew of the Bebop is stylish but they’re also a bunch of losers.

Bebop’s success goes beyond tossing some scrappy folks in a ship and watching them struggle. The show depicts them as broken people who don’t know how to function together; sometimes that ineptitude is played for laughs but the undercurrent of failure at the core of the show also results in more revealing moments.

Spike’s a risk-taker, as prone to anger as he is capable of heroics, and as the series explores his criminal past, it becomes clear that he’s self-destructive and perhaps even suicidal. His risks are bold and sometimes pay off, but he takes them because he can’t accept the world as it is. He’s living in a “bad dream [he’ll] never wake up from.”

Meanwhile, Faye can’t commit to new relationships. When she leaves the crew in “Jupiter Jazz Part 1,” a musician she meets at a bar notes: “You were just afraid they’d abandon you, so you abandoned them.”

These deeply rooted flaws affect the cast’s dynamic. They’re not temporary states that create conflict for one episode. Spike and the others fail because they are so broken.

When my coworkers gathered to chat about the series earlier this year, they also noticed the series tendency to balance out the sillier moments with incredibly human motivations.

That humanity is both the beauty and tragedy of Cowboy Bebop. Even as series concludes and characters grow—Faye learning how to connect with the people she has now, Ed leaving with their father, Jet no longer dogged by guilt for past mistakes—Spike can’t quite make the leap. Instead, following the death of his lover Julia, he makes a bold attack on a crime syndicate’s headquarters and kills his rival.

The last we see of him, Spike is wounded and near death. He falls and doesn’t appear to get up. He could not escape his past, could not let go of the things he loved. He’s stubborn until the end. Arguably, that’s what kills him.

The show doesn’t paint stubbornness, and its theme of failure, as shameful. Cowboy Bebop is also about being authentic to yourself. Some characters change and grow, some fall into their own righteous anger, but each of their moments are honestly motivated.

Spike could walk away, but he doesn’t, because that’s not who Spike is. In much the same way, the Bebop isn’t the Bebop if it isn’t falling apart. Cowboy Bebop is about being yourself, even if you’re a failure. No matter what the consequences.


Comments

    Probably my favourite anime of all time. Closely followed by Macross Plus.

      Omg Macross Plus!! So good. I think my top three is Cowboy Beebop, Macross Plus and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. In no particular order.

      Last edited 19/09/18 12:45 pm

    One of the reasons anime caught my attention as a kid (back before I even knew what "anime" was in the days of Astro Boy, Voltron, Battle of the Planets, etc.) was because it wasn't afraid to let its heroes fail or be beaten up. Western Cartoons had that too to a certain extent but it was almost always treated comically and you always knew the villain wouldn't succeed. With these "different" cartoons (as they were to me at the time) I wouldn't always have that feeling of surety that the hero would get back up and win.

    Now that I've had a much broader exposure to anime it's really only cemented that cultural difference between the two styles of storytelling for me.

    I don't know if I'd call it antithetical to most anime / popular media. A vast majority of anime, manga, popular TV are about lovable losers making ends meet and missing their mark while something stumbling their way to their destinies.

    Cowboy Bebop did it with a hell of a lot more style and heartfelt emotion than other series, that's for sure.

    Here's a bit of an uncommon opinion: The show wasn't afraid to let the characters fail because the series was, mostly, a sitcom. That may have been a more controversial argument back in its day, when most sitcoms were defined by happening around a couch, a kitchen counter or inside a bar, but the comparison is more appropriated with today's more sophisticated sitcoms such as the Good Place or P&R. Once you pull aside the sci-fi and bounty-hunting trappings you're left with the goofballs-interaction based "comedy of errors" that heather describes.

    Now, the mastery of Bebop is that it manages to thread brief and seldom but powerful moments of drama, action or suspense into the whole thing without any sort of whiplash or genre misalignment, but then, the moment passes and it's back to shake our collective heads at these lovable losers and their interpersonal antics.

    As an bit of an aside note, writing this, I notice that this is the reason why I didn't love the movie. It was a good movie, it had an interesting story and it was beautifully produced. But it was an honest-to-goodness thriller. It was a different genre than the rest of the series.

    Great, now I'm gonna have Space Lion in my head for the rest of the day.

    There’s so many reasons this anime is one of the best ever, this article brings out one of them, but also the fact it’s still loved and being talked about 20 years after it came out is a testament to its greatness. Even though I can’t do the last episode when I re-watch it because Spike’s death still guts me. Hell he doesn’t even end up with Faye like a lot of us thought he should. See you round space cowboy...

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