How Cowboy Bebop Played with the Western Genre

See you, space cowboy

Long before the yee haw agenda took over and cowboys stampeded back into style in the fashion world, Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe made creative use of Western film tropes to craft compelling characters and intricate storylines. Watanabe’s directorial debut follows the adventures of a ragtag group of bounty hunters, and is lauded for its cinematic style, philosophical musings, fabulous soundtrack, dark humour, character development, and of course, its complex intertextuality. This anime series is a delightful amalgamation of pop culture references, and one of its most prominent recurring touchstones is the Wild West and “Spaghetti Westerns” in particular.

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Same as it Ever Was

Cowboy Bebop’s nostalgic structure is as obsessed with the past as its characters are, even as it immerses the viewer in futuristic settings. The story takes place in 2071, yet its locations are as gritty as Wild Western towns, and the characters still use plain old guns with bullets instead of hyper-futuristic weaponry. The main protagonist Spike Spiegel’s signature weapon is a powerful Jericho 941 which uses the same ammo as the Western film’s go-to gun: the Colt 45.

The Cowboy Bebop mercenary mission echoes the colonialist, expansionist dream of building personal wealth by “exploring the untapped wilderness.” In this universe, however, the desire to explore and colonize the frontier has backfired, and humanity is left in lawless shambles. Its rugged heroes are paid by incompetent cops to take down crime lords throughout the cosmos. The “cowboys and Indians” trope also appears through a Native American called Laughing Bull who ironically aligns more closely with the “stoic Indian” stereotype. Spike seeks wisdom and healing from him when he is injured, and Laughing Bull refers to him as “Swimming Bird” likely as a nod to his fluid movements and state of being in constant flight. In the context of Cowboy Bebop, the cowboy and the “Indian” share outsider status and inscrutability.

Spike is the dashing space cowboy, a pensive dude who makes quiet entrances to elegantly dispose of his opposition. His cowboy self-image is cemented in the show by the parodic appearance of “Big Shot: For the Bounty Hunters,” an intergalactic broadcast that helps bounty hunters track down their next major bag with caricatured hosts who commodify Spike’s solitary lifestyle. Cowboy imagery is further parodied in the “Cowboy Funk” episode, wherein a zany character called Andy the Cowboy consistently disrupts Spike’s bounty tracking efforts. Incidentally, this episode features a pastiche of Ennio Morricone’s scores from Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More.

Spike and his longtime friend and business partner Jet Black are joined aboard their Bebop ship by Faye Valentine, a femme fatale/cowgirl character who can shoot better than nearly any man she encounters; a young tech whiz called Ed; and a lab modified “data dog” named Ein. When all three parties have joined the crew in the episode “Jamming with Edward”, Spike complains of his disdain for “kids, animals, and women with attitudes.” Unlike the heroes of classic Westerns, Spike’s casual chauvinism is not offset by a desire to protect women and children.

Watanabe says of the taciturn Spike’s feelings for Faye: “I think that actually he likes her quite a bit. But he’s not a very straightforward person so he makes sure he doesn’t show it.” In the series’ emotional final episode, the typically glacial Faye confronts Spike and demands to know why he is leaving as he departs to confront his rival Vicious. She refers to the Bebop as “the only place [she] could return to”, as she has no real home. Similarly, Ed was abandoned by their father and little is known of their past. Together, these characters drift throughout the space frontier with nowhere to call their own except for their trusty steed: the Bebop.

Back to the Future

On paper, Spike’s lone cowboy character arc seems to follow a pattern of action hero tropes that were preceded by the Western film. However, his values deviate from the American hero’s priorities. He transcends nationalism as he rockets around outer space, and his crew is a stand-in for the nuclear family. Aesthetically, Spike’s everyman take on the cowboy uniform is a suave suit that is both versatile and nondescript.

“We have on one hand a man searching the frontier, but on the other we have a man who gets up every day, puts on his business suit, and does the salaryman thing,” Matthew Lefund, a graduate student who teaches classes on anime at Western University, tells me. Spike blends into the 9 to 5 crowds until he breaks out his fluid fighting movements inspired by Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do martial arts style. The series is a geyser of enthralling fight sequences that combine Lee’s techniques with elements of Western shootouts. In the Cowboy Bebop movie, Spike even mimics the gunslinger draw with a mop in lieu of a gun.

Our inscrutable protagonist also wears a sombrero and poncho in the pilot episode “Asteroid Blues” which allude to Clint Eastwood’s look in the aforementioned Dollars Trilogy of films starring him as “The Man With No Name.” Watanabe’s admiration of Eastwood is further evoked through references to Dirty Harry. A bar fight scene wherein a hungover Spike casually springs into action takes place in the classic Western dusty saloon setting with bartenders in Japanese butler getup, and is reminiscent of Harry’s bank robber takedown as he munches on a hotdog. Spike’s objectively cool and intimidating demeanor in this scene can also be compared to Eastwood’s “Stranger” character in High Plains Drifter, who is hired to defend a corrupt frontier town by its Sheriff.

As these recognizable scenes are displaced to the year 2071 and scattered throughout the universe, they become imbued with new meaning. Spike demonstrates there can be finesse within recklessness, and even when the narrative slows down to reminisce and build tension, it quickly jolts back into action. It is often only during the ending credits when the beautiful ending theme rolls in that the viewer gets a chance to emotionally process what just went down.

It’s High Noon

For the most part, Spike presents as literally the coolest guy ever. In certain moments, however, his suppressed melancholia breaks through his apathetic façade. We see this in moments of deep loneliness as he gazes into space, eats bland meals, chain smokes, and experiences flashbacks. He’s disgusted by a flirtatious drag queen hitting on him, echoing the implicit homophobia of macho heroes before him. This incident appears less than a decade before Brokeback Mountain spurred what Dr. Erika Spohrer labels “a revision of the Western genre” by queering the cowboy archetype in keeping with historical reality. Another one of Spike’s triggers is the memory of his long-time enemy, Vicious, who is the reason why Spike loses his lover Julia.

The traditional Manichean opposition of good versus evil that is found in many Westerns is blurred as Spike and his comrades serve as anti-heroes. Watanabe describes Spike as “an extension of [himself]”: the director does “not drink or fight, but [he wants] to — so Spike does.” Like the cowboy, the Bebop crew are unwelcome outsiders who swoop into a locale to rid it of a nuisance, then disappear without a trace of themselves. Spike may work for lawmen now, but he holds no stock in the lofty values of law and public service and is a former member of the Red Dragon crime syndicate.

Enter Spike’s former colleague and longtime enemy Vicious, who serves as both his white whale and a mirror to him. Much to Spike’s chagrin, some thugs mistake him for Vicious in “Jupiter Jazz”, but the vital difference between these two characters is their use of violence. Vicious kills because he can, and he states “there is nothing in this world to believe in”. Meanwhile, Spike typically applies violent force either to earn money or in self defence. Although he seems to be more rash than an upstanding citizen, he embodies the “good” side of his world’s makeshift ethical binary as compared to Vicious’ senseless evil.

Jet is a disaffected former cop who serves as a foil to Spike’s headstrong attitude. His past career with the Inter-Solar System Police (ISSP) is mentioned a few times throughout the series, and this plot point flags the vigilante characters’ distrust of authority figures. When Jet meets with a current ISSP officer named Bob to unpack an ongoing terrorism incident, Bob tells Jet they cannot investigate a suspicious medical company because of ongoing corruption within the police force.

As this discussion unfolds, Jet and Bob are watching the Gary Cooper classic High Noon, in which marshal Will Kane is left to fend off a gang of killers without help from his townspeople. In Kane’s own words, law enforcement is unrewarding work: “You risk your skin catchin’ killers, and the juries turn ’em loose so they can come back and shoot at ya again…  For what? For nothin’. For a tin star.” High Noon is about traditional moral courage and the male duty to protect women and children, whereas the heroes of Cowboy Bebop have no qualms about their financial motives and vigilante methods: in Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Spike describes their work as “strictly business.” Jet and Bob’s meeting scene closes with a shot of Kane riding into the sunset, but the future of authority figures and society in general in the Cowboy Bebop universe is far less idealistic.

You’re Gonna Carry That Weight

Bebop ponders timeless existential questions about the past, love, and violence. Just as modernist poet Ezra Pound’s “make it new!” battle cry was derived of reinvigorated historical recycling, this series taps into collective nostalgia to grapple with life’s unanswerable questions. By invoking Spaghetti Western tropes and pastiche, Watanabe complicates the idealism of past cinematic ventures by using familiar visuals to convey new portrayals of commonly discussed topics.

The show doesn’t leave the viewer with a romantic ending; the crew does not re-assemble and ride their horse-spaceship into the space desert sunset. There will be no clear-cut catharsis in real life or in entertainment. There will only be more drifting cowboys, more instability, more exploration, more melancholy, more destruction. We’re always “gonna carry that weight”, as the closing card of the last episode reminds us.

But the hopeful element of this seemingly tragic reality is the autonomy it implies: our decisions are our own, our memories are fluid, and the future is full of boundless possibility, boxed in only by the edges of the universe. Perhaps anyone can live like a cowboy if they make a conscious choice to do so. We can exist within or outside of the boundaries of society, take hold of life’s reins, and make our own way.