This essay was written by TJ Martinell.
I watched Cowboy Bebop for the first time last year, and I regret not doing so earlier. It is easily the best anime series out there, but also one of the best TV shows ever produced. If you haven’t seen it, add it to your list of things to do amid the Nova 6 outbreak.
While rewatching it a few months ago I noticed several life lessons or important takeaway messages within character story arcs that can serve a man well as he goes through life.
Jet – Sometimes It’s Not You – It’s Them
Jet is the ship’s even-keeled and sensible captain, a former law enforcement officer whose girlfriend Alisa years abandoned him one day, leaving only a note that says "farewell" and a pocket watch.
Only after becoming a bounty hunter does Jet come across her again while investigating her utterly loser boyfriend to whom she is very loyal. When he finally arrests the boyfriend, Alisa admits that she left him because she felt he was too controlling and she wanted to make her own decisions, even if they were bad ones – obviously that turned out to be the case.
Jet of course has spent the entire episode trying to figure out what he did wrong, but the reality is that the problem wasn’t him. People can point fingers at Jet for his tendency to treat everyone like he’s their father, but it wasn’t as though Alisha pointed this out and only left following a dispute in which he refused to change. She left without warning because that flaw was merely a pretext; she wanted to make stupid choices and ruin her life. Perhaps she even wanted to be the controlling one in the relationship, judging by the pathetic man she replaced Jet with.
Regardless, you’ll come across situations like this in life where someone you care about severs ties and makes terrible life decisions that you’re tempted to believe you could have stopped if you had done something different. You'll have relationships fall apart despite your best efforts to keep them intact.
It’s in those moments you got to remember that it’s not you – it’s them.
Edward – Some Relationships Are Circumstantial
Edward is the goofy, zany androgynous female hacker whose antics provide annoyance to Aaron Clarey – I mean Spike Spiegel - and the rest of Bebop’s crew. She joins them after an encounter on Earth, since her only family was her father who left her at an orphanage. A seemingly carefree goofball, she stays with the crew almost until the end of the series when she encounters her father again. Even though he can’t remember her name or whether she’s a girl or not, she ends up leaving Bebop crew, which has always been loyal and true to her, to join her absentee father.
You’ll have people (not exactly) like Edward in your life. They will come and stay for a while, but they won’t be there forever. What brought you together was circumstance, and when those change you will part companies. It’s important to grasp this, because people often develop unspoken and unrealistic expectations; they see a lifelong companionship with someone who doesn’t reciprocate. When that person finally leaves, there’s anger and disappointment.
Enjoy their presence while it lasts, but don’t expect it to last forever.
Faye – Home Is Where You Belong
Whereas others in the show are running from their past, Faye spends the entire season trying to discover hers. After being cryogenically frozen for 70 years, Faye wakes up and has no memory of who she is or where she comes from. Much of her story arc is about tracking down whatever she can find that might reveal clues about it. Eventually she gets her memory back, and in the final episode she admits that there’s nothing to go back to. Even prior, she had left Bebop only to return when she realizes it’s the only place she has.
That’s because home is where you belong, and only on the Bebop does Faye have a sense of belonging. The term “make yourself at home” means “make yourself feel like you belong here.” Faye doesn't have to explain herself to them, nor does she feel as though there's something wrong with her.
Elsewhere in the galaxy Faye is useful or even desired. But she doesn’t belong there. Home may not be the greatest place in the world. It may be all bell peppers and no beef, but that sense of belonging overrides all other shortcomings.
Home may not be where you were born or even be a specific, fixed position. Wherever you belong is home, and nothing can replace it.
Spike - Don't Let Your Past Define You
Before he became a bounty hunter, Spike was a hitman for the the Red Dragon Syndicate. He falls in love with a fellow gangmember's girlfriend Julia and plans to marry her and run off together. The plan falls apart and ultimately he fakes his death and parts ways with Julia, joining Jet on the Bebop.
The problem is that through all that time, Spike never let go of the past. Regardless of his adventures with the Bebop crew, he is still tied to Julia. His unwillingness to let go of the past draws him back into what he knows is tragedy. When that tragedy occurs, he goes on a suicidal vendetta against his former comrades.
The series finale is ambiguous about whether Spike survives the confrontation, and the show's producers say that was the intent. My take is that Spike didn't get up off that stairway alive, and that's the only appropriate ending for his character. Spike was simply too fatalistic, too resigned. He had too much of a death wish to come out and rejoin the Bebop. His hope in life was connected to a woman who represented a life that could have been but never would be. If he had cared that much about living, he wouldn't have left in the first place.
The moral of the story, as I see it, is pretty clear. Let get of the past, or it will define you forever.