By Sean Aitchison
It’s kind of odd to think that a sci-fi anime set in 2071 about four interplanetary bounty hunters taking on dangerous jobs to make ends meet, while their pasts come to haunt them, is relatable to a young adult generation in 2020.
Spike and the other bounty hunters aboard the Bebop have no full-time job, and their income is a bit staggered from sudden bounty hunting gigs that often go wrong, barely cover costs, or come with a mountain of stress. But this is the experience and reality of countless gig workers, especially millennials—from ride share and food delivery drivers to freelance writers and artists, myself included.
With Cowboy Bebop the critical darling it is, it’s no surprise it’s a favorite for American anime fans and billed the “perfect getaway anime.” Like others, I was hooked through late-night anime TV and the series’ undeniable coolness, but four years into my own gig work, I understand and resonate with this series even more.
2020 2071 gig economy
I’m not the first to make this analysis—Matt Kim originally wrote of Bebop’s prediction of the millennial experience for Inverse in 2016—and others have pointed out that the Bebop crew are gig workers going through the same experience as present-day gig workers—just, you know, with spaceships.
I’ve written before about what initially enticed me about Cowboy Bebop: its in-your-face jazz soundtrack, the sense of cool it has from start to finish, the day-to-day misadventures of hapless bounty hunters—it all works together to make a series that is cool as hell and keeps you interested.
So I took to one of my favorites with a new lens, now with years under my belt (and a brief stint in app-based delivery), and I found a new love and understanding for it. Being a freelancer and experiencing an era of advanced tech (that has both opened up a world of jobs and simultaneously not changed much at all) has put me into the shoes of Spike Spiegel.
For myself and many others, this series takes on a new meaning.
Freelance space cowboy
The often unreliable, fast-paced and competitive world of bounty hunting is, almost painfully, an accurate depiction of freelancing in 2020.
From a sudden piling of different gigs to the stress of burnout or payment, Spike and the rest of the crew live the life of a gig worker. Their work is risky, takes a lot of time and sometimes won’t even cover the cost of their expenses.
Heck, even the fictional in-universe Big Shot bounty hunter intel-dispensing TV show feels like it could be a stand-in for today’s gig worker apps, job postings and social media—where everyone sees the same information and all fight to get the work. The job might not be worth the time or risk, but you gotta eat!
I could go on and on, like how the fact that the crew of the Bebop all live on the same ship being a metaphor for “all being in the same boat” or living with roommates in a similar spot, but the point is clear: Cowboy Bebop takes place in a gig economy.
The ability to see myself in a prediction of the future, though possibly depressing, is also sort of comforting. This isn’t to say I dislike freelancing or don’t enjoy the work I do, but learning that there’s more to my love of Cowboy Bebop outside of “it’s cool” makes the series all the more impactful.
Whatever happens, happens
Arguably the most concise aspect of Cowboy Bebop’s gig worker narrative is its use of existentialism, specifically existential ennui.
Perhaps the specifics of the modern gig economy were not what Watanabe had specifically in mind while making his used-future world, but with a modern lens of analysis, it’s what we get out of Cowboy Bebop.
Existentialism is, in simple terms, the idea that we are free to live as we wish because there is no meaning in the constraints the world has placed upon us; there is no fate or destiny or governing power that can truly control us. And existential ennui is the boredom, dread and apathy that results from existentialism’s idea of freedom—we are burdened with freedom, with the idea that our actions do not matter.
Though not an overbearing philosophy in Cowboy Bebop, existentialism is ever-present: Spike’s famous line of “Whatever happens, happens” is evidence of this, as is the character’s lackadaisical and often reckless approach to bounty hunting. This ties into the gig economy narrative, at least in my own personal experience, in that being overburdened by too much work or too little pay leaves us burnt out or too busy to care or do anything about it.
Additionally, the “free” in “freelance” is, in true existentialism fashion, a burden—we are not chained by the restrictions of a job, but this “freedom” means we are burdened by the risks of instability.
All this to say, while a simplified analysis, I saw this series in a new light. And at 27, deep into my freelance career in a generation of gig workers and so much risk, there’s a depiction here that keeps me grounded, and further cements Cowboy Bebop as one of the most poignant anime series of all time.