If you ever want to start a geek war, and for the money its a great form of entertainment, just drop on a random group of geeks the question, “What is the best anime series?” Then just sit back and watch the carnage. Still, after all the fires are been put out and the pocky crumbs vacuumed up, very likely only a few series will be at the top. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood will likely be one of them, and in many fan’s minds, including my own, it is the top anime series of all time. But there will be some worthy rivals. Very likely, one of those rivals will be Cowboy Bebop, and those who think Bebop is the best do have very good reasons for their opinions.
Cowboy Bebop was not a series I watched straight through, or watched quickly. It wasn’t always the easiest for me to watch, because it does push some limits that I don’t like pushed, especially when it comes to fan service. And the episodic nature of the series made the overall story feel loose-jointed, introducing characters who seem to be a part of the story only for the sake of one or two actions that help or hinder the main characters in some way, but that’s about it.
But after finishing it and noting the apparent flaws and things that I wish had been better, I also have to say even as it is, flaws and all, it’s still very good, certainly worthy of its place in any discussion of the best.
Bebop is an older series, going back to the late 1990s. Unlike a lot of modern series, it’s not about students. Of the four main human characters, Spike, Jet, and Faye are adults. The adults are bounty hunters, which is something like a real job, though they were something different in their pasts before coming together to mostly unsuccessfully hunt down criminals: Jet was a cop, Spike was a gangster, and Faye was a gambler, to badly oversimplify things for each of them.
The story focusing on older people does give the story a different, more mature feel, with the good and the bad that comes with it. I’ve already said a bit about the bad, the fan service, so I’ll stick more with the good.
While there is no shortage of humor spread throughout the series, that doesn’t take away from or overrun an overall tone of seriousness and weight. This isn’t the kind of story where bad guys are defeated through the power of friendship; if anything, there are times when the show puts friendship and comradeship to the test, and the results aren’t always all that good. The pieced-together family of the Bebop is not much like the more happy-go-lucky crew of main characters in One Piece; if anything, by the time the series ends this patchwork family is frayed and even already fallen apart. Finally, the strong desire for something doesn’t mean the character will get what he or see desires; if anything, reality tends to mercilessly shoot down the desired place or person.
So, yes, this isn’t a happy, feel-good story, not even in a Your Lie In April or Violet Evergarden type of way. Watching the last three episodes is to watch the main adult characters have the things they value wrenched away from them, without any numbing agent, except eggs, to help ease their pain. Their pain, or ours as viewers.
Cowboy Bebop is a series with weight in it, and as it says at the last, we’re gonna carry that weight.
Perhaps it would be closer to reality to say, we’re already carrying that weight, and Bebop reminds us of that.
At one point, if I had been asked what I thought the theme of Cowboy Bebop would be, I’d probably have said something like, “You can’t go back”. That idea does appear in many of the episodes, and even appears in some unusual ways. In the episode Gateway Shuffle, for example, the Bebop crew comes up against a group of environmental terrorist who want to stop people from damaging the environment by de-evolving people by turning them into monkeys. The return to the past takes another form in Speak Like A Child, as Jet and Spike have to literally dig into the past to find, and fail to find, a certain piece of technology they need to view a primitive video tape.
But a few times, “You can’t go back” just doesn’t work. In Asteroid Blues, the first episode, the story isn’t about a character trying to return to her past; instead, she wants to get away from her past, to get to a better place, a place she thinks will give her a better life and a brighter future.
So, I don’t think I can now say that “You can’t go back” is the show’s theme, though it may point to the theme. Perhaps the show in some way stated its theme in its final words, “You’re gonna carry that weight”. I think I can see how “You’re gonna carry that weight” is shown in the main characters. With Faye, for example, as she learns more about a far-distant past that she had forgotten, we are shown these images of her as a happy, carefree child, a child almost unrecognizable from the jaded woman she is in the story’s now. You’ll likely see few scenes that more mercilessly show “You’re gonna carry that weight” then the scene where Faye has finally remembered where to find her family’s home, and she’s running toward it, and when she finds it all she sees in a ruin, a desolation, what little remains of a once large and fine house is shattered and broken. For Spike, it plays out more like it did in Asteroid Blues, he wants to find the woman he loved and lost, and together with her move forward, but that’s not how things happened.
No, we can’t go back. But also, no, we can’t go forward, either. We’re left only with the weight we’re carrying.
If I were forced to answer the question, “What is your favorite book of the Bible?”, I think I’d have to answer, “Ecclesiastes.” There’s something very down-to-earth about Ecclesiastes. The author views reality through very untinted glasses.
In Ecclesiastes 2, the author gives us a bit of a rundown of all the things he did:
4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.
And after all that, his conclusion was:
11Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
This grim view of things is found repeatedly throughout Ecclesiastes:
18I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.
Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. 2 And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: 2 a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil.
11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.
This is the reality we live with, the weight we carry. Life isn’t fair. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. Do your best, and you will very likely still lose. Even if you win, the satisfaction you feel will last only a moment. And, finally, we’re all gonna die, and when that happens, we’re gonna lose what we’ve worked so hard for, because ain’t none of it coming with us.
I don’t think I’m wrong if I see the well-known phrase from Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, as being very close in meaning to “You’re gonna carry that weight”.
Yet this weight of futility is not the last word.
7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
II Timothy 4
6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
40 “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. 41 The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”
The seeming pessimism of Ecclesiastes must be seen within what is called “the full counsel of the word of God”, so we can see that while the pessimism is very real, it is not the full story. It is right to see our efforts as small and weak, but we must also see our God as great and strong, and yet he sees even our weak efforts and our small works. Our good works are not done in vain, if they are done in faith, if they are not done to win God’s approval but because through Christ we who believe already have God’s approval. Even our smallest works, even if all we can do is give a small bit of refreshment to one of God’s little children, is seen by God and will be rewarded.
Let me give a few more passages, ones that serve, I think, as both encouragement and warning.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not u prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is one well worth pondering on. The Pharisee’s prayer was really little more than the man bragging on himself and his good works, while the tax collector’s prayer was him begging God for mercy because he was a sinful man. As the passage tell us, the Pharisee was a man who trusted in himself, he considered himself righteous because of his own good works. Yet Jesus tells us it was the tax collector, the man whose prayer was filled with humility and repentance, that left the temple justified.
This is shown even more strongly in the brief story about the judgment in Matthew 7. Jesus says that many people will try to point to the great works they did when they lived here on earth, as if those works somehow have earned them a place in the kingdom of heaven. But their great works were actually works of lawlessness, and Jesus will send them away.
At the risk of becoming trite, I can see how Jesus’ words “Depart from me” are another echo of “You’re gonna carry that weight”, perhaps even the final and ultimate echo of those words. The people sent away are left forever under the weight of their sins, their great deeds shown to be futile, all their efforts judged worthless. They had put their faith in their good works, not in Christ. They had believed in their own works to make them righteous, not in Christ from whom righteousness is a gift.
Yet that need not be true for any of us. To be like the tax collector, to know that we are sinners, to know that we have nothing to brag about, to know that we need God’s mercy, to humble ourselves before God, is to be justified. To believe in Jesus is to please the Father. To do these things is to at the least begin to have this weight of futility taken from our shoulders, to start to understand that our works in the Lord are not in vain. And even the final crushing weight of death is defeated, losing its sting, because in Christ death is defeated.