Untangled: What Religion Does Cowboy Bebop Convey?

Perhaps the most important aspect of this blog is connecting with you.  And as such, we encourage you to send us questions and comments through the “Ask the Staff” tab along the site menu.  One such response we received was the following, from reader Res:

So, I’m a huge Cowboy Bebop fan. So, my curiosity is what religion does the show represent. You can interpret that as what religions do the characters practice or what religion does the show convey?

Thanks for the question, Res!

When I first read the question, my answer was immediate: the people of Cowboy Bebop probably practice the same religions that we practice today.  The show occurs in 2071, a mere 73 years after the series first aired.  So, it’s like asking, “Were there Christians way back in 1941?”

Of course, the answer, and Res’ suggestions of how to answer it, are more complicated than that.

Art by 半三行
Art by 半三行

Religion in Cowboy Bebop

We never learn the specific religions (if any) of the show’s main characters.  However, religion does find its way into the plot, if minimally.  If you connect geomancy to religion, “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui” might count.  But certainly more significant is episode 23, “Brain Scratch.”  The group seeks a bounty on a cult leader (Londes) meant to resemble Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate (though Simon Abrams rather finds a connection to a group more familiar to Japanese audiences – Aum Shinrikyo).  Ghostlighning explains Londes’ philosophy:

First is the very creepy Scratch cult, which is founded on a doctrine of transcending the dirty, physical body; the source of sin and suffering. This is because the body has needs, and therefore desires. As long as there are desires, there will be suffering. The members of Scratch are disciples of God sent to free our souls from our disgusting bodies to join the Infinite Sea of Electrons.

While, if I remember correctly, Heaven’s Gate was a cult revisioning of Christianity, Trazor saw Buddhist principles in Londes’ ideas:

Being a Japanese animation, and considering the influence Buddhism has had on Japanese society, it’s easy to see some carry over. Notice the reference to “human ego” in the opening statement by Londes. Portraying desire as flaws. While the latter is not exclusively Buddhist, the idea of an unchanging ego mostly is. Buddhism holds that an unchanging ego (Ātman) is a direct result of ignorance. Ignorance is, in turn, a source of suffering. An enlightened person, one who’s ego or self is highly developed, is no longer at the mercy of desire; desire being another root cause of suffering.

Abrams finds similar parallels:

We find out through the group’s rhetoric what its general philosophy is: As in Buddhism, suffering is inherently connected with physical sensations. According to Londes, the body, “is an existence all too impure to store the gods within us called souls.” The human body is therefore a scapegoat for the many passions that lead people astray. “As long as there is a body, desire will be born,” Londes solemnly intones. “As long as there is desire, human ego will not disappear. Humans will continue to fight to fulfill their bodies’ desire, and it will never end.” Scratch is thus “an electronic transcendence group” that seeks to “free your soul from your body and lead you to the infinite sea of electrons.”

Not unexpectedly, the religious themes of the series run deeper than one episode.  I’ve already mentioned Buddhist ideas in the show, but others, like those emphasizing suffering, can be scene in specific episodes and in larger arcs involving the main characters, particularly in Spike’s involvement with Julia and Vicious. The same is true of Faye Valentine, again as noted by Ghostlighning.

Perhaps even more strongly indicated are Daoist principles, particularly in the film, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”  Raymond Fwu produced a terrific video identifying these themes in the movie:

And so, there’s little question that eastern religions have a presence in the masterpiece anime.  But does Christianity have a place as well?  Well, perhaps not explicitly, but we as keen viewers can take away nuggets of wisdom that certain episodes may suggest to us, particularly in the guise of Faye Valentine.   In one of my first posts on this site, I noted how her treatment of Spike just before he leaves to pursue Julia and Vicious give us some lessons about the nature of love.  More recently, I suggested her attitudes in the series often reflect our own in how we approach God’s grace.

In a future world imagined by Watanabe as corrupt and dangerous, and perhaps to some extent devoid of hope after the death of much of humanity, religion appears to be lacking.  But even when not spoken, the invisible world remains a significant part.  And if you look closely enough, you can even find traces of the invisible God, even in a place where the animators never intended to be.


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