From Mythical Fishermen to Space Cowboys: Tracing the Evolution of Japanese Science Fiction in “Urashima Tarō” and “Cowboy Bebop

Kaguya-hime returning to the Moon in The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

The early Japanese tale of “Urashima Tarō” involves traveling forwards in time to a distant future,[14] and was first described in the Nihongi (written in 720).[15] It was about a young fisherman named Urashima Tarō who visits an undersea palace and stays there for three days. After returning home to his village, he finds himself 300 years in the future, where he is long forgotten, his house is in ruins, and his family long dead.[14] The 10th-century Japanese narrative The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter may also be considered proto-science fiction. The protagonist of the story, Kaguya-hime, is a princess from the Moon who is sent to Earth for safety during a celestial war, and is found and raised by a bamboo cutter in Japan. She is later taken back to the Moon by her real extraterrestrial family. A manuscript illustration depicts a round flying machine similar to a flying saucer.[16]

Japanese literature has a rich history of fusing reality with the fantastical, and the genre of science fiction is no exception. Two exemplary works that represent the evolution of Japanese science fiction are the ancient tale of “Urashima Tarō” and the modern anime series “Cowboy Bebop.” While they were created centuries apart, both stories explore the human condition through the lens of science fiction, blending elements of myth and fantasy with futuristic technology and space travel.

The tale of “Urashima Tarō” dates back to the eighth century and tells the story of a young fisherman who saves a turtle from bullies. The turtle takes Urashima to the underwater palace of the Dragon God, where he meets the beautiful Princess Otohime and spends three years in blissful happiness. Upon his return to the surface world, he discovers that three centuries have passed, and his family and friends are long gone. This tale blends elements of the mythical with the scientific, as the concept of time dilation is explored when Urashima returns to the surface world after spending only three years in the underwater palace, while three centuries have passed in reality.

Fast forward to modern times, and we have the anime series “Cowboy Bebop,” which premiered in 1998. The show follows a group of bounty hunters traveling through space on a spaceship called the Bebop. The characters each have their own backstory, and the show explores themes of loneliness, nostalgia, and the search for meaning in a world that has lost its sense of direction. While the show takes place in a futuristic setting with advanced technology, it uses these elements as a backdrop to explore the human condition.

One of the most fascinating aspects of “Cowboy Bebop” is the way it blends genres, including science fiction, noir, western, and jazz. This combination creates a unique world that feels simultaneously futuristic and nostalgic, with nods to classic film noir and jazz music from the mid-twentieth century. The show’s creator, Shinichiro Watanabe, has stated that he wanted to create a world that was both futuristic and timeless, and he succeeded in doing so by using elements of different genres and eras.

In conclusion, the evolution of Japanese science fiction from “Urashima Tarō” to “Cowboy Bebop” demonstrates how the genre has evolved over centuries while still exploring timeless themes of the human condition. While “Urashima Tarō” blends elements of the mythical and scientific, “Cowboy Bebop” uses a blend of different genres to create a futuristic world that feels simultaneously nostalgic and timeless. Both works have left an indelible mark on Japanese literature and culture and have inspired countless writers and artists to explore the possibilities of science fiction in their own works.

Works Cited:

Anonymous. “Urashima Taro.” Japanese Fairy Tales, Kessinger Publishing, 2004, pp. 51–59.

Cowboy Bebop, created by Shinichiro Watanabe, performances by Koichi Yamadera, Unsho Ishizuka, Megumi Hayashibara, et al., Bandai Visual, 1998



One response to “From Mythical Fishermen to Space Cowboys: Tracing the Evolution of Japanese Science Fiction in “Urashima Tarō” and “Cowboy Bebop”

  1. Gwen M. Plano Avatar

    Fascinating. Thank you for explaining this intriguing Japanese story evolution.


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