Cowboy Bebop: The French (New Wave) Connection

Exploring some of the pieces from French New Wave cinema referenced in Bebop directly and a few others which may be referenced by the show. The point of diving deep into these references is to try and understand what the creators’ headspace may have been while creating this story and its characters. You can read more about the other influences, Easter eggs and homages in Bebop here.

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Imagine the last scene of Asteroid Blues. It’s common understanding for us that this episode is a reference to Desperado and it is, with all the evocation of Mexico strewn throughout it and the bounty heads modelled after the protagonists in the film, but there is another very popular film which the ending reminds me of. The last scene where Katerina and Asimov are riddled with bullets is very similar to the last scenes of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Incidentally, a flock of birds flies away as the protagonists are about to meet their end in B & C. I know the doves in the scene where Julia is shot are a John Woo connection but I do wonder if the ending of Asteroid Blues is an ode to the end of Bonnie & Clyde.

Bonnie and Clyde (the film, not the outlaws) was an iconic noir film and had drawn some inspirations from a very popular French film À bout de souffle (which I will call Breathless from here on out because this is a pain to type each time and also because Breathless is the name it is commonly known as in the English-speaking world.) This film essentially kicked off the French New Wave cinema movement.

It is common knowledge that Watanabe is a fan of French New Wave cinema and it was a significant influence for him while making Cowboy Bebop. The overall nihilistic atmosphere of Spike’s past is extremely reminiscent of the generally bleak storylines of sweeping romances, heartbreak, death, infidelity, pathos etc. which were a common theme in French New Wave films of the 50s and 60s and also in American cinema of the same time. I won’t go into details on the New Wave movement since those are just a Google search away but will talk about some specific filmmakers and their works which seem to get references in the show.

Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard (kinda looks like Decker too doesn’t he?), the creator of Breathless, is one of most prominent names of French New Wave cinema, who is also paid an homage in two of the episode names of CB. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and ‘Pierrot Le Fou’ are both films created by Godard. In Bebop, both of these episodes have protagonists who are conceptual opposites of each other….Wen is an old man in a child’s body versus Pierrot, who is a child in an old man’s body. With such a direct homage, it begs for one to delve deeper into these two works and into Godard’s films overall. Sympathy for the Devil is largely a documentary about The Rolling Stones, whose songs are referenced heavily throughout the show, but it doesn’t seem too tied into the story of Bebop.

But ‘Pierrot Le Fou’ is another story. Along with this, although not directly referenced, there is another film by Godard which seems also reflected in CB. This is, once again, Breathless. Though I don’t think it is referenced anywhere directly but some aspects of it seem similar. The protagonist is Michel, who seeks refuge in the apartment of his lover Patricia while on the run after killing a policeman. She takes him in and he tries to persuade her to run away to Italy with him. As they stay together, it becomes clear that Patricia wants a more eloquent, romantic relationship while Michel wants a more physical, baser one. They are lovers but on two different pages and hence not able to love the other in the way most meaningful to them. Eventually, Patricia finds out about Michel being on the run and ends up betraying him to the police, who then kill him.

The reason why I feel Watanabe might be referencing this film is that it is a seminal piece of work which began the era and style of cinema he loved. Spike ending up in Julia’s apartment, trying to convince her to run away with him, her feeling a disconnect between what they each want from the relationship, pressured to do something she does not wish to, leading to her eventually running away…can be taken as a loose parallel. There are a lot of quotations about being free as well in the film, which sound very Bebop-esque. The film was also a mish-mash of genres like Bebop is, made heavy use of jazz, and focuses on the role of media and its influence in our lives, how it controls the way people behave and interact, something which is also a running theme in the session Brain Scratch.

The character of Michel also has this cavalier kind of attitude toward death, like he is expecting it and is not too bothered by it. He feels it will catch up to him eventually and philosophises on this. Sound familiar?

The next film, which I’ve already mentioned, is referenced directly in the anime-Pierrot Le Fou. I feel this film and the New Wave influences overall led to the color choices for the characters in the show. The color scheme of Bebop’s main characters, playing with primary colors, is very reminiscent of the colors used by Godard in some of his films. Blue is the color we relate to Spike, Red with Julia (rose, umbrella, car), and yellow with Faye. Blue and yellow are also the colors associated with the Bebop itself, with its blue interiors and yellow couch. I’ll come to what these signify in Godard’s context in a bit.

The film starts with Pierrot reading a line to his daughter meant to be about the Spanish painter Diego Velazquez but which could, just as easily, apply to him as well. “The world he lived in was a sad one: a degenerate king, sickly infants, idiots, dwarfs, cripples, clownish freaks dressed as princes whose job it was to laugh at themselves…” I find the beginning of the CB movie fairly reminiscent of this. It begins with Spike’s voiceover saying lines which seem to be about Vincent but are also true for himself. “It’s just that he was all alone. Always by himself. Never anyone to share the game. A man who lived in dreams — that’s who he was.”

In the French movie, Ferdinand or ‘Pierrot’ (meaning Sad Clown in French) decides to ditch his wife and kids and his comfortable, bourgeois life to run away with an ex-girlfriend Marianne, seeking adventure. Marianne goes on the run from gangsters after a corpse turns up at her apartment and Pierrot accompanies her on a crime spree ending in their settling in the French Riviera. Here, as they get some stability, once again the theme of differences surfaces, similar to Breathless. We have two people who are supposed to be in love but are unable to understand each other. They need different things from a relationship and cannot provide what the other needs.

Pierrot goes through hell and high water for Marianne but eventually is betrayed by her, realizing she was just using him. She turns up with her real boyfriend Fred and runs away with money Pierrot stole. There is a sequence where he shoots or imagines shooting Marianne and Fred. Due to his deteriorating state of mind and inability to tell reality from hallucinations, it is unclear if he actually does it or dreams it. Anyway, finally he paints his face blue, drapes his head with red and yellow dynamite and blows himself up.

Pierrot painting his face blue is taken to indicate that he longs to return to the bourgeois life he had before but cannot. The illusory life he imagined building with Marianne is what kills him in the end. Yellow dynamite is the inner layer and red is the outer layer.

The third film which may be referenced is Le Mepris in which a red convertible features prominently in the inciting incident. I do mention this in the other post that Julia’s look may be inspired from the character of Camille during this sequence, a woman caught between two men. She feels betrayed by her husband, believing him to want to use her to further his ends. She eventually leaves him for this other man but they both die.

Now, there are a few distinct themes which emerge from these references:

1. People who are supposed to be in love but who want different things, who are unable to understand each other. They think they are in love but, once they spend some time together, realize they are very different people. During the excitement of getting together or being on the road, in Pierrot’s case, they feel they are compatible but as they get to know each other more they realize they are not. There is a sense of being runaways to both films.

2. Betrayal. The men in these stories are betrayed by women they believe love them and are their true soulmates. Patricia’s sense of loss of control over her own future leads to her betrayal. Marianne had a different plan all along. She pretends to love Ferdinand but, in truth, was colluding with another man all along. Camille betrays her husband since she feels betrayed by him first, like she is being used as an object of barter in the equation between these two men.

3. Colors and what they signify. Blue is the color which relates to Ferdinand’s life at home while red relates to the “other life” which he seeks with Marianne and which eventually ends up being his doom. Red is also the color most associated with Marianne in the film, one we see her wearing a lot, and is also the color of their getaway vehicles for most part, including a red convertible.

Three colors are mainly used by Godard-red, yellow, and blue. These colors also feature prominently in the context of three main characters on Bebop.

The way I interpret it, since blue and yellow are the colors of the Bebop, they may be intended to relate to “home”…Spike’s new life, freedom, and a place of belonging, one where he is safe and cared for. We never see him wearing this outfit in his past. The color red associated with Julia might be intended to represent the life he wanted to have but which, if we go by these parallels, would have ended up in the eventual realization that they were two very different people and also, most likely, further betrayal. Since we continue to see this color being associated with her even when we finally see her in the present, I am also kind of pulled into another theory that the betrayal from her end may not quite be over yet at this point.

The color yellow is a neutral color in Godard’s films generally, used less than red and blue, featuring more as an accent or a “middle-ground.” In the context of Bebop, I consider the color yellow being used for Faye is to identify an emotional trifecta. Faye is the only member of the crew who gets pulled into Spike’s story and vice versa. Associating the third color with her establishes her as an important player in the story, albeit a neutral one-someone not out to sabotage Spike or with whom his association does not automatically spell doom. It’s also a way of showing her as someone who offsets the story of Julia and Spike by appearing as a character foil to Julia with parallels being drawn between the two women. Yellow is also the colour of his shirt, which may further indicate that she is a significant and perhaps even an intimate part of his new life since no other crew member features these parallels.

Spike in his new life himself wears blue, same as the color of the Bebop’s interior. In the images from his past life, he is not shown in the same outfit and whenever he goes back to his past he covers up the blue with a trench coat, indicating him slipping back into his past persona as a Syndicate operative. The exception is when he meets Julia in the graveyard at the end. She is a part of his past but he meets her without the trench coat (and please don’t tell me it was logistics since he literally picks up a rose lying conveniently on the ground-it’s all symbolic). It can indicate that he meets her as the person he is now and not as his past persona. He is cold to her so perhaps it indicates that the persona he had as her lover no longer exists. He is shown picking up the rose, a symbol of his love for her, but never shown giving it to her. He holds it in his hand juxtaposed against her holding a gun in hers.

Post his final battle with Vicious, the song played is also called ‘Blue’ which is all about his being free now, associating this color with a lighter, liberated Spike. The colors blue and yellow are also associated to the Bebop’s interiors, to the new “home” situation in the life which he finds after leaving the Syndicate. The ship’s walls are mostly blue and accents are mostly yellow but quite significant amongst them is the couch. This is where we see the crew most of the time, the place they end up huddling back to during their bounty chases, or where we see them go about their daily lives, a symbol of co-existence and companionship. It’s also where we see Spike mostly in tame circumstances, either sleeping or reading or whatever.

The color red is associated with both Julia as well as the Syndicate. If we go by the analogy of Pierrot, it can be taken to represent the things which weigh Spike down, things which are harmful for him, which actively lead to his destruction. It’s the color of deceit, associated with the woman who is one thing but turns out to be something completely different. Julia drives a car similar to what we see Pierrot and Marianne in-a red convertible. It’s also similar to the one which begins the chaos in Camille’s life. And that really makes me question what we are supposed to take away about Julia’s character. We know the Syndicate is actively out to destroy Spike but is there something we have missed about her?

There is another director from the French New Wave who I feel may be somewhat referenced in Bebop as well-Francois Truffaut. Ed is named Francoise. At the age of 18, Truffaut joined the army and served for two years, which ended in him being incarcerated in military prison (albeit in his case it was because he kept trying to defect). He was freed and then took up a creative career as a filmmaker. Sounds kind of like Gren. Lastly, his movie Tirez sur le pianiste or ‘Shoot the Piano Player’ features a man who leaves life as a concert pianist and starts playing in a bar after his wife kills herself post a fairly devastating confession. The theme there is someone leaving their destroyed life, one where they held prominence, to rebuild a new one of ignominy, doing the only thing they know how to do, while being unable to escape from the past. Um….do we know someone like that? About yay high? Green hair?

Anyway, there are other pieces of cinema, literature, and music also referenced throughout the show and figuring out what goes where is interesting but also takes a while. The French cinema connection is something I felt was really worth exploring though I may have missed a lot or made extra connections… I might do a deeper dive on the whole colors thing, just to explore what they may indicate about the main characters, but will do that as a separate piece since it might go into head canon territory.

I found an interesting article also talking about the cinema influences of Bebop. The link is below.

https://www.crunchyroll.com/anime-feature/2021/11/29/feature-the-cowboy-bebop-anime-shows-love-for-classic-movie-genres

For more Cowboy Bebop essays, please click here

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PlutoMango

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7 thoughts on “Cowboy Bebop: The French (New Wave) Connection”

  1. Yes Godard definitely bears a resemblance to Decker! I think you’re extremely adept at noticing all the homages and the subtle (or blatant) references and I am so here for it! It’s always so much fun extrapolating what a creator/writers intended – and with Bebop it’s so easy because all the writers put so much into every episode…so much of the things that inspired them, influenced them, etc. When they made Cowboy Bebop they made something new and wonderful, yes, but also something that when you dig deeper brings you to so many other incredible movies and music and whatnot. The entirety of Bebop is a love story or at least a way to acknowledge the things that moved them and going down all those rabbit holes gives us an enriched understanding of Bebop but also of everything that went into it. In this era of instant gratification and streaming platforms it’s often all about what’s new what’s next but really we could be looking back at all the majesty that came before. Growing up most everyone knew of or had seen Casablanca for example (and I adore that movie) but it’s not like it was the only film worth viewing yet so many other films of that era fell into the void of existing without much of the world being aware and that’s a shame. But that’s also what Bebop rectifies just by throwing out tidbits and morsels here and there that make us delve deeper and subsequently explore all there is out there. You’re drawing attention to it in a more direct way than the anime and that’s necessary for folks these days because often we need to be led by hand to these discoveries, so thank you so much for illustrating how important the influences are, whether folks want to take it that far or not is up to them but it’s sure handy having a resource like your works as a jumping off point.

    1. Thanks! Very well said. There are so many references and anyone’s guess what they indicate. For some reason, I feel there may be more to the story than we generally take away so deep diving into these references is kind of like trying to get in the creators’ shoes, try to understand why they chose to show something a certain way.

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