Cowboy Bebop: The Existential Self and Becoming-What-One-Is

Shinichiro Watanabe’s acclaimed anime series “Cowboy Bebop” is a postmodern narrative at its core. The main characters are bounty hunters who travel through space from planet to planet to eke out a living. Episodes and action cycle between influences as diverse as the Western genre, Film Noir, and hardboiled martial arts films. Unlike most postmodern mass media works, Cowboy Bebop contains substance alongside its sleek style. 

The three main characters of Cowboy Bebop (Spike, Jet Black, and Faye) live and die on their ability to track and capture criminals. They don’t live on any particular planet, and as such, are only subject to the laws of those planets while there. Further, as bounty hunters, they can get away with much more while on mission than an average citizen. In space, they are subject to even fewer laws.

Bounty hunters do the job of police officers when a criminal moves outside of one’s bureaucratic district. They are outside of the politics of the law, but are considered part of it due to the unique niche they fill in their specific social context. Their necessity manifests itself through laxed laws in regards to their actions.

Not only are they outside, but inside the law; they must also enter communities to function appropriately while being technically outside of those community structures. They must understand the social dictums that define a society to work within it effectively and inconspicuously. They serve a social function (collecting criminals) and gain a social reward (a bounty).

All the same, the existential reality for Faye, Spike, and Jet Black is one of exile from society. Whenever a bounty hunter shows up into town, there is sure to be some form of social disruption. Due to this unfortunate state of affairs, a bounty hunter is unwanted. Further, bounties are not always guaranteed. So much of the their time is spent wandering space- typically alone.

This is what makes Cowboy Bebop unique: that Faye, Jet Black, and Spike attempt to move beyond their malaise and their loneliness by occupying the ship together. This is why Spike and Jet Black display sadness when Faye leaves to discover her past. Likewise, Faye and Jet Black will try, and ultimately fail, to dissuade Spike from facing his past.

Faye has no memory of her past. She searches the stars to find some information about it, to incite some memory into being. Her self lies in the past, or so so she believes. all the while, we see the real Faye undisclosed and developing in her relationship with Spike and Jet. When she regains her memories, she realizes the futility of trying to live as she was and decides to stay on Jet’s ship: to become other than what she was. A decision she could not have made without first understanding her past and her underlying self.

Jet Black left his home after the woman he loved left. There was nothing left for him in that past. So he moved into the future, recreating himself as a bounty hunter. However, where Faye searches for herself (Platonic self-discovery) and realizes her future lies in the self she has created, Jet creates himself anew (Nietzschian self-creation) and realizes he can never fully escape his past.

Spike came from a criminal background. He was at the top tier of the strongest illegal organization on his home planet. But he decided to leave, to forsake worldly riches, to live peacefully with the woman he loved. This striking out is another form of self-creation. When Julia decides not to leave with Spike, he doubles back and forsakes the peaceful vision of life he had nearly embrace, instead opting for the uncertain and dangerous life of the bounty hunter. Whereas Faye unwilling creates herself anew, and Jet Black does so volitionally, Spike fails. He never steps outside of his violent upbringing.

The crew of the Bebop didn’t try (Faye), tried (Jet Black), and failed (Spike) to shake their city blues. It’s tough out there. They became new people whose selves both did and did not reflect the social conditions in which they were born. Can you move outside yourself? Can you even really try? Do or do not, your’e bound to be unsatisfied.

See you space cowboy.

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3 responses to “Cowboy Bebop: The Existential Self and Becoming-What-One-Is”

  1. Sarah Kay Moll says :

    I like this interpretation a lot. Cowboy Bebop always struck me as fundamentally melancholy. But there’s always Edward, with her complete lack of concern for the society they are separate from and her gleeful embrace of the outcast status. She always made me smile.

    • theboronheist says :

      Edward and Ein, plus the fun filler episodes really keep it from dragging the viewers down too deep into the abyss. I think humor is definitely necessary when discussing dark thematic material- kinda like in Ingmar Bergman’s movie “The Seventh Seal” or Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot”

  2. zeanime says :

    Reblogged this on ZeAnime | News, reviews and other stuff all in one place and commented:
    Pretty good concepts discussed about the story of Cowboy Bebop. If you liked the show you should give it a look 🙂

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