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‘See you, space cowboy…’

-is what appears when credits roll at the end of a Cowboy Bebop episode. In a line, it encapsulates the essence of the Space Western. With a wink, a wave, and a shrug.

The Space Western is a genre that comprises essentially just two shows: Firefly and Cowboy Bebop. They aired within four years of each other. Both were over quickly, and both became cult classics.

Space Westerns take the wilderness of the cowboy movie and extend it infinitely, keeping the well-worn conventions of the original, while upping the stakes and strangeness of encounters. At first, I was surprised at how well cowboys and space worked together, but on reflection, it’s an obvious pairing. Lone rangers with hidden pasts band together on one spaceship as it hurtles from planet to planet. They are their own people, and belong nowhere. They must tread the line between what is illegal and what is immoral, always one dodgy job away from hunger. New worlds, corrupt authorities, desolate landscapes, passing friends and lovers: this is the life of a space cowboy.

Cowboy Bebop follows a bunch of misfits as they hunt bounties. Spike, a slouchy and action-addicted ex-hitman shares a ship with Jet, a grumpy but paternal ex-police officer. They are joined by Faye Valentine, a self professed gypsy who has woken up after fifty years of being medically preserved, and Edward, an eccentric trans teenage hacker. What Bebop can’t deliver in nostalgic reference to old Westerns, it makes up for in the fantastic, slapstick, and hyperbole that animation allows. Of course, you also get anime conventions, too. Namely, tits with more animation than faces, samurai swords, cults, and villains with better hair dos. Only half the episodes see them pulling in any bounties, so it is a genuine cause for celebration when they do.

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It contrasts to the much more grounded Firefly. Being able to see the dust and sweat gives Firefly a distinct Western flavour only possible with live action. The degraded climates of a dystopian world lend themselves to the dry and desolate landscapes of the Western. It’s more typical to the Western genre than Bebop but loses nothing from this convention.

For all of the shoot-ups and broken spaceships, the characters in this genre live to fight another day, surviving on bluster and quick thinking in a corrupt, dog-eat-dog world. That is, until the end. This is a reflection on the cowboy mentality: everything is fine until it isn’t. Life is hard, fun will be had, but the danger that we see them encounter mission after mission catches up with them. While both series oscillate between moments of levity and sincerity, the endings come abruptly, as we are forced to confront the mortality of the characters. There is beauty in this: a light that shines twice as bright burns half as long before it is engulfed by the pitch darkness of intergalactic space. No one will remember their names except us and a few people scattered across the universes.

What point am I making here? One, maybe we should take a leaf out of a space cowboy’s: do what you want, live in the present, look after your space ship. Two, we need more Space Westerns.

Image credits: quimono via Pixabay