Nowhere Lonelier Than Space: Finding Solace in Isolation through Cowboy Bebop
For many young people, the lockdown resulting from COVID-19 signalled a return to a life stage often best left forgotten. As one meme a friend sent me succinctly put it: quarantine has forced everyone in their 20s to re-live their teenage years, staying with their parent(s), listening to the same three albums on repeat, and being angry with the world, as though it really were 2010 2.0. My life was no exception to this for the first half of the last year: I left London, moved back home with my mother and my lifestyle became almost identical to the one I lived as a fourteen year old.
Video games, binge watching anime until 2am on the daily and not leaving the flat for days – these habits were almost directly reproduced from my teenage tendencies, and I slipped back into them with a mix of relish and repulsion. These feelings were not coincidental: as I found myself enjoying former past-times, I slipped into a fraught kinship with a younger, closeted, and unhappier version of myself. Perhaps unexpectedly, I found guidance on how to make sense of this relationship through late-night hours spent with my eyes glued to a laptop screen, watching Shinichirō Watanabe’s seminal 1998 sci-fi anime Cowboy Bepop.
I was familiar with the cult-like following and reverence for the show amongst anime fans from my years of adolescent activity on Tumblr, though, for one reason or another, had never actually got around to seeing it. Stumbling across the series on All 4 one night in late March, I can now finally say I both understand and fully endorse the hype. Essentially, Cowboy Bepop is about a group of bounty hunters piecing together a life on the fringes of interplanetary society in an imagined 2071. In 2014, The Atlantic wrote that it “reads like something John Wayne, Elmore Leonard, and Philip K. Dick came up with during a wild, all-night whiskey bender”. This captures something of the show’s essence, but I think there is more to be said.
Blending myriad genres, the series is aesthetically indebted to sci-fi, western and film noir imagery. Its iconic title sequence provides a good sense of the energy that underpins the show: a lurid, rapid-fire whirlwind of combat, space ships and gyration. Do not be fooled by the upbeat jazzy score – this is not The Incredibles, but a world marred by rampant, growing inequality, and indelibly marked by corruption and vice. The earth is shattered from environmental catastrophe, various biological agents pose risks across the solar system, and ordinary people must navigate the murky waters of equally untrustworthy criminal syndicates, multiplanetary corporations, and institutions of government. Perpetually being jolted into electrified action, the show is violent and dangerous, though interjected with moments of hope, love, and community.
Considering the twenty-six episodes (“sessions”) were produced over two decades ago, the show has aged surprisingly well. For an anime that was released when the Internet was still relatively new and the hordes of Twitter critics as-yet unmarshalled, it holds up admirably to contemporary standards. I tend to anticipate cringing at homophobic and misogynistic gags with anything I watch from the 90s or 00s, but the series was unexpectedly inoffensive, for the most part. Central to the series are heartthrob and former hitman Spike, bear-like ex-cop Jet and the collection of lost souls they pick up along the way: femme fatale Faye, hacking prodigy Ed, and a genetically modified corgi called Ein.
Although I’m not sure Faye and Ed’s presence would quite qualify the show for passing the Bechdel test, both characters are well-written and provide a necessary antithesis to the more macho maleness of the initial duo. Faye simultaneously parrots and parodies all manner of stereotypes such as the ‘strong female’ or ‘hot anime girl’ as a scantily clad, gun-toting, conniving, selfish, vulnerable, witty, and, ultimately, complex woman trying to get by in the 21st century under the constraints of capitalism, the wrongdoings of men, and her own personal shortcomings. Every show needs someone you can relate to, after all.
Described at times as both a ‘boy’ and a ‘girl’, Ed is a playful and nonchalant figure of gender slippage (though described exclusively with “she” pronouns). She follows her own interests and impulses in the face of instantiated gender normativities, and marches to the beat of her own drum with gusto. Her on-screen presence is a joy to watch. This is not to say the show is perfect, and certainly its depiction of intersex and transgendered bodies in Jupiter Jazz Parts 1 and 2 was uncomfortable. It felt very much like the outcome of moralising gender panic discourse from the 1990s, one still present today in the interminable conflicts being waged over gender neutral bathrooms and the like.
At its heart, though, I couldn’t help but feel there was something in the show that spoke to a queer frame of reference. Having watched a lot of anime as a teen, the characters felt familiar, but also newly intelligible from my current point of view, having gone beyond a closeted teen to a queer young adult with a new vocabulary and new experiences to respond to art with. The series is unequivocally camp, rattling through tropes and melodrama with an ever-present knowing wink. Spike is my token hot straight softboy friend, Jet is the bear daddy of the queer clique, and Faye is the diva whose messy behaviour we all live for.
When I was growing up, I remember feeling so much shame around adoring and wanting to emulate the powerful women of anime – see Mai Valentine in Yu-Gi-Oh! (I was obsessed). This time around, it feels exciting not to be hiding anything when discussing cultural products with my contemporaries. Yes, my favourite character in the series is Faye, yes, she is a high femme gay icon goddess, and yes, I would like a pair of those tiny yellow hot-pants she wears for myself. Even writing that is its own small liberation.
The thematic co-ordinates of Cowboy Bebop are existential ennui, loneliness, and the difficulties of trying to escape from the past. It is hardly surprising then, that it makes for perfect lockdown viewing. For young people and especially queer folk, returning to one’s teenage lifestyle is almost a byword for the above. Watching the show, you might find its revelations isometric to some of your own: there is truly no running away from the past, and in some cases you might actually want or need to backtrack in order to find some kind of truth about yourself. Your chosen family, your present, and the pursuit of what makes you feel real and happy are, ultimately, the things that really matter. Sometimes when you face the past head-on, you might be surprised at the kinds of peace you can find in it. Oh, and empty out the fridge because anything left will grow mouldy, and you’ll carry the weight of that detritus with you in your own figurative space ship!
After Bebop, I look fourteen year old me in the eye. I am a little fonder of and kinder to him. I am so glad he survived and made it this far. He could never have imagined feeling so proud.
Jake is a girlboss by day and dancefloor diva by night. Some of his key interests include are Buffy the Vampire Slayer's impact on fashion, Bimini Bon-Boulash, and documenting the cultural significance of Freaky Friday. They can be found on instagram at @captain_kroegs.