At the time of its 1999 release in the United States, Cowboy Bebop had already aired and completely wrapped in Japan. Back then, director Shinichiro Watanabe and his colleagues would have been familiar with the Gulf War when they created the “War on Titan” within the anime, a traumatic military conflict on a desert-like planet with no discernible purpose that continues to haunt characters well into the present day. But they had no idea about the prolonged Iraq War that was to follow.
Nor could Watanabe’s team have known about the attack on the World Trade Center, occurring just nine days after the show first premiered on September 2, 2001 on Adult Swim, when they conceived of the “Astral Gate accident,” the devastating destruction of a feat of engineering and accomplishment that would have global ramifications for years to come.
Yet the sole anime series in Adult Swim’s inaugural lineup has become timeless in the 20 years since its first debut in Japan on April 3, 1998. With an increasingly American police state, where elections are hacked, and cities that have red or blue political leanings might literally be worlds apart, Cowboy Bebop isn’t just a landmark series in 2018. It’s a prophetic one.
Bebop follows Spike Spiegel and Jet Black, two bounty hunting “cowboys” who take on assignments to make enough money to eat and fuel the Bebop, their interplanetary ship. Spike used to work for the mob and Jet is a former cop, but they’re old friends and do well enough to get by. Things become complicated when they’re joined by Faye Valentine, an opportunistic hustler (and bounty head) who first attempts to rob the duo before deciding to partner with them; a girl named Ed, an eccentric, 13-year old hacker prodigy who makes herself at home aboard their ship; and Ein, a genetically enhanced “data dog” stolen from a research facility that gave it heightened intelligence and perception (but whose purpose or mission is never revealed on the series). The arrival of all three is received by disapproval and dismay from the men but in time, all learn to work together as a somewhat functional family.
On the surface, the show works as a procedural crime drama, with most episodes revolving around the team attempting to capture a particular bounty. The pilot episode, “Asteroid Blues,” follows two wanted lovers up against a drug cartel on the asteroid Tijuana (resembling the present-day city), a nod to Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado. “Toys in the Attic,” where a mysterious life form infiltrates the Bebop and begins incapacitating the crew, plays out as a cross between space alien and survival horror films like Alien and Predator. “Mushroom Samba” is an homage to 1970s blaxploitation films and spaghetti westerns, complete with a badass Pam Grier-lookalike bounty hunter named Coffee and one of the “Shaft” brothers, who drags a coffin around with him, a move straight out of Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 film Django. Memorable music was designed to fit each episode by famed Japanese composer Yoko Kanno, who helped give life to an animated series through music in a way not seen since Vince Guaraldi brought jazz to American households in 1965 with A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Like each episode, each character has their own connection to the past—Jet is haunted by his previous life as a police officer; Faye can’t remember her real identity and is saddled with debt; meanwhile, Ed’s father forgot her at daycare (Dad, seriously?); while Ein is the lost product of a scientific lab experiment. We’re never explicitly given Spike’s full backstory, despite him being the main character, but it involves growing up in the slums of Mars, working his way up in the Triad/Yakuza-inspired Red Dragon Crime Syndicate with another up-and-coming mafia enforcer, Vicious, and making an escape with Vicious’s girlfriend while the former fights as a soldier in the Titan War. In a later episode, Spike explains how his right eye is a prosthetic, forcing him to move through life simultaneously with one eye on the present and the other on the proverbial past, haunted by previous tragedies.
This is but one example of how the show’s sense of backstory envisions a rapidly encroaching future. By 2071, humanity has spread to the stars—from the floating forest settlements of Venus to terraformed cities on Mars to frigid penal colonies on Pluto. But the diaspora of human beings from Earth has taken a physical toll: the loss of nearly five billion lives following an engineering disaster that shattered the Moon 50 years before the start of the series and rained lunar debris across the planet. The only seeming connection between the diverse populations and cultures now scattered about the solar system is a vast criminal presence and the subsequent bounty system that emerged as a way to supplement an overtaxed interstellar police force.
Over the course of the series, Spike and company pursue bounties and watch as people fight and kill one another, sacrifice their lives completely, or throw themselves headlong into pursuing their dreams, righting a wrong, or seeking revenge. The desert War on Titan produced some of Bebop’s biggest villains, including Vicious and Vincent Volaju, a former soldier abandoned and apparently killed, only to resurface and become a larger and more ruthless threat in the present—not unlike how America’s efforts to combat Al-Qaeda in Iraq have resulted in the emergence of ISIS. Both ISIS and Volaju wage war using surprise bombings to achieve their goals, believing in bringing about the end of the world and a final Day of Judgment.
Volaju, like ISIS, has seduced hundreds of followers through ideals of empowerment. “I owe you big time for making this happen,” says Lee Sampson, a teenage hacker who serves as Volaju’s accomplice. “Seriously, I had to try it out just once. Being a real terrorist, I mean.”
Director Shinichiro Watanabe has said that while he doesn’t make films to convey a particular message, they “naturally reflect the way we feel at the time.” When interviewed about why the 2001 Bebop film, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, has an "Arabesque" atmosphere in the imagery and the music, he replied that “I had more of a flavor, or gut instinct if you like […] I just felt this piece should be Arabic.”
Throughout the course of the show, the crew of the Bebop later encounter technologically-modified superhuman clowns, religious cult movement leaders, “children” who are really decades-old killers, lonely artificial intelligence spy satellites, and eco-terrorists wielding genetic-altering viruses. But few scenarios are so revealing about Cowboy Bebop as that pilot episode, “Asteroid Blues,” wherein Spike and Jet pursue a couple on the lam after stealing a cache of drugs from a crime syndicate. Realizing the futility of continuing to run, the woman shoots her boyfriend and goes out in a blaze of glory as her ship is shot to pieces by police, as Spike watches.
In a story that’s relatively tame compared to the crew’s future ordeals, “Asteroid Blues” serves two purposes. First, it directly mirrors the final episode of Bebop and foreshadows how the series will end. Second, we watch Spike and Jet’s neutral reaction to the deaths of random strangers. This is likely just one of a thousand disasters they’ve witnessed in their line of work. When every week yields a shooting or an incident with police or terrorist bombing, we’re reminded how numbing tragedy in the news becomes. In 2018, the tragedies keep coming.
It takes the entire run of the show to galvanize Spike and company into recognizing and coming to terms with the past. We watch the team as they watch, and learn, from bounty heads that either face their demons or are subsequently consumed by them. The closing title card at the end of most episodes through the series reads, “SEE YOU SPACE COWBOY,” a nod to the notion that the audience would tune in again later; similar to the send-off that “James Bond will return” at the end of every 007 film.
In the last episode though, after Spike fights Vicious for the final time, the end title card instead borrows from a Beatles lyric: “YOU’RE GONNA CARRY THAT WEIGHT.” It’s a message to the viewer; having seen the characters of Cowboy Bebop face up to the past, will we learn to confront the troubling legacies of our own? There’s no showdown with the mob for us to face, but plenty of issues to take on, from the consequences of allowing easy access to guns, to military veterans that have gone neglected, to ignoring growing environmental dangers. Cowboy Bebop was a show shaped by the culture—and the challenges—of the 20th century. The result was a forward-thinking anime that offered a glimpse of what tomorrow might look like. We’re still more than 50 years away from Cowboy Bebop’s year 2071, but in 2018, that future has never seemed closer.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow James Charisma on Instagram.