The story of Bebop is set up fairly simply in terms of character structure. You have your protagonist Spike, the antagonist Vicious, the deuteraognists Jet Black and Faye Valentine, the “romantic interest” Julia (though I have a different opinion on this matter), and sundry tertiary characters in the bounties they encounter. There is no one foil character though, and each character ends up with multiple foils in others which highlight their own qualities through contrast and comparison. For a story which does not say a whole lot and leaves the actual plot for you to fill in, these contrasts are extremely important.
The character of Jet Black is a direct homage to Blade Runner, with both Rick Deckard and Jet having the themes of police and bounty hunting to them. He is also a key player in Bebop’s overall theme of not adhering to the ideals of toxic masculinity. Men who act like pompous pricks or objectify women are generally treated with contempt in the narrative. ‘Cowboy Funk’ pokes fun at the pompous fragile masculinity of Spike through the parallel of Andy, Faye’s choice of clothing never causes either of the Bebop boys to be an idiot to her, Gren can be gay and also be a soldier, something which the militaries of this world are just barely beginning to come to terms with etc. Gender and sexuality doesn’t define a character, despite all the lines about men doing this and women doing that. These lines are stuck in purposefully without adding any resonance to them in the narrative itself to negate how ridiculous these ideas really are.
Jet Black is very “typically stereotypically masculine” in his external appearance but he is balanced with his “so-called feminine” side in the most non-caricaturised way possible. Throughout the series, we see him go about the domestic work around the ship, taking care of everyone, being emotionally far more expressive than Spike and Faye, while also being the ex-ISSP bounty hunter he is (like literal Blade Runner, no shit…Rick Deckard with an apron and laundry). He expresses his concerns about the people in his life, is a proxy father to Ed, shows understanding of Faye when Spike is clueless, is the confidante to Spike and the general voice of reason for everyone, whether the listen to him or not. And none of this is used to paint him up as a “sissy” or anything out of the ordinary. It’s just who he is. Somebody’s gotta do it so he does it.
Emotionally, Jet is the most sorted member of the Bebop. Granted, he has likely had a more well-adjusted life than the others have and therefore has the emotional bandwidth needed to ground them. He is shown as intensely sensitive and caring, watching out for his crew even when they act like jerks to him. He is the father figure to everyone and the two sequences which particularly stick out in my mind are his rescue of Faye in Jupiter Jazz, something which perhaps saves her life both physically and psychologically, and his worrying about Faye and Ed in Hard Luck Woman. It shows how Jet has a heart of just pure gold.
The hunt he goes on for the Betamax player in ‘Speak Like a Child’ always seems to me a lot more than just a hare-brained treasure hunt. I often wonder what we are to think of why Jet lets Faye stay on the ship and always feel he understands her situation better than he lets on. He likely doesn’t know the specifics but perhaps we are to understand that, having been with the police, he knows a troubled young person when he sees one. They can use the extra pair of hands of course but I get a sense Jet has insight into the desperate situation Faye is in, whether through finding out from one of his contacts or through his own experience, thus allowing her to stay on. The same thing which leads him to worry about her being alone in a dangerous sector despite her having sucked all the coolant and stolen all their money causes him to take her in when he sees her alone and in trouble two times in a row.
I’ve covered his relationship with Spike below in more detail but the other character whose relationship with Jet is particularly beautiful is Ed. Ed is as much a pet on the Bebop as Ein is by virtue of how bizarre she is. Everyone sort of takes care of her but Jet is often seen taking on the role of proxy father to her, at one point even making her pose as his daughter in what is definitely one of the funniest sequences in cinematic history. This paternal equation is shown through sequences like in ‘Speak Like a Child’ where he is depicted telling her a story while hanging up the laundry, or in Bohemian Rhapsody where he expresses the crew would not want Ed to lose her chess partner.
When Faye asks Ed to go find a place where she belongs it is interspersed with images of Jet worrying about Faye and Ed very much like a doting father. Appledelhi, her real father, has meanwhile run away chasing a meteor, forgetting her again. It’s ironic for Ed to leave following this advice, trying to find him because, even if she does, he cannot provide her the kind of stability and care Jet already gives her. Just like Faye herself realises later, the Bebop is where Ed really belongs simply because Jet is more a father to her in one day than her real one has been in seven years.
Jet Black as a Foil Character
In the story of Bebop, Jet acts as a foil to three characters majorly-Faye, Vicious, and Spike.
As a foil to Faye, his role is largely to bring attention to the recklessness of her choices and her emotional imbalance. By being more balanced in how he approaches things, he offsets her emotional turmoil and ridiculous behaviour. He also offsets her insight into Spike’s life, which the narrative builds. Jet has known Spike a lot longer than she has but she gets more well-rounded visibility to him, getting to see both aspects of him, the goofball cowboy and the former gangster.
As a foil to Vicious, Jet Black represents honor, loyalty, and letting things go. There are two significant people in Spike’s current life, a man and a woman. He had a similar set in his previous life who are opposites to each other, so Jet is the replacement for Vicious in his current existence. Where Vicious is completely out of touch with his emotions, cold and uncaring, Jet is the exact opposite. He ends up being the rationality in his crew members’ lives, showing them genuine love and concern. Where Vicious is constantly hunting Spike, trying to displace him, Jet offers him stability and belonging. Where Vicious refuses to let go of things from the past, Jet quietly forgives Spike and accepts him back after he has stormed off post some very juvenile antics in Jupiter Jazz. Where Vicious tells Spike he is the only one who can kill him, Jet patches him up and saves his life many times. These actions on Jet’s part work to establish again and again that, even though they live in a broken world, good people still exist. They offset the sheer evil and extremism in Vicious’ posturing. While Vicious claims he is the only one who can keep Spike alive, in fact it is Jet who actually does this.
Similarly, Jet acts as a very major contrast to Spike and also as a deflective element, confusing Spike’s narrative to the viewer at-times unless you look deeper. Jet has had a very different life than Spike and most of the elements which happen in Spike’s life like abandonment by a lover, confrontation with a past friend/rival also happen in Jet’s. It’s a way of pointing out just how different and desperate Spike’s background is that these elements are so much more dramatic and hold much higher stakes for him than they do for Jet.
Just like with Faye, Jet Black is the emotional contrast to Spike. He is more balanced, more rational, more in touch with his own inner workings and those of others. He is used in this case as well to establish Spike’s insight into Faye’s life by again being shown as unaware of the exactly traumatic nature of her past.
He is also used to purposefully confuse Spike’s narrative by all his talk of asking him to let go of the past. In truth, by the end Spike seems not to be holding on to the past in the way Jet thinks. Jet choosing to keep his artificial arm even when Faye is shown pointing out he can get an organic one, is him holding on to his past, even if as a lesson. Jet has the choice to hold on to the past or give it up.
It is not so in Spike’s case. Even if he lets go of it completely, Spike’s past will not let go of him. We are shown this when he is found so easily at the beginning of Real Folk Blues. Jet could have ignored the whole Udai thing, he had the choice, but Vicious having ascended to the top of the Red Dragons was simply too powerful for Spike to ignore at that point. He would have come after everything in Spike’s life. Jet speaks to Spike from his own perspective, imagining the other man is holding on to a past he has the choice to let go of. It confuses the narrative in the audiences’ minds as well but I feel what Spike does with regard to Vicious at the end is a mix of their past equation, the recent events in Spike’s life, and also a need to protect the people who have gotten dragged into the mess because of him rather than just due to false ego.
The arc with Jet’s former partner is also reminiscent and a foreshadowing of Spike and Vicious’ final showdown. There are three notable Mexican standoffs across the show and the movie which result in death. There is also a gun duel in the movie-within-a-movie which plays during Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door so if you want to count that, then there are four. All of these instances result in the death of only one of the characters involved in the showdown. If you are a firm believer that Spike dies at the end, then this might not be in line with your beliefs but I have never believed that he dies. It’s not just a hunch and I have strong reasons for it captured in a separate piece.
Anyway, the first standoff happens between Jet and Fad, where Jet shoots Fad while the other man has done a roulette sort of thing with his gun and a single bullet, so he may or may not hit Jet. He stacks the odds against himself on purpose. The second happens with Elektra and Vincent, where Vincent outright chooses to not shoot her since he finally remembers who she is. The third happens with Spike and Vicious, where again we see Vicious not land a killing blow. Spike shoots him through the heart and he could have very well stabbed Spike through the heart as well resulting in instant death but we see him choose to not do that and I always wonder at this fact. He was definitely skilled enough with the blade to do it and we see him come close to doing exactly that in Ballad of Fallen Angels.
In all three cases, the antagonist of the arc chooses to not hurt the arc’s protagonist fatally. While yes, this leaves us with an open-ended closure in Spike’s case but, going by the parallels of the other two, it always seems to me like Vicious maybe has a moment of remorse or recalls his friendship with the other man and changes his mind at the last minute, choosing to let Spike live even as he himself is released from life. Not landing a blow on Spike at this point would not be the honourable thing to do as per the Samurai code. Vicious is widely believed the be a ‘Samurai’ due to a hint the series places in the third episode where Spike walks past a screen displaying the words “Only a true Samurai can kill him like that.” Because Vicious carries a Katana, a sword typically used by the Samurai, it is easy to believe the screen indicates that he is the Samurai who can kill Spike but actually he does not really fall into the definition of a Samurai as defined by Bushido, the code of the Samurai, or pretty much any other Japanese literature which talks about the definition of a true Samurai. A Samurai needs to be honorable, loyal, and compassionate and Vicious is none of that. But Spike does fit this definition to an extent and his code of honor loosely aligns somewhat with that of a Samurai. Therefore, Vicious not landing a blow at that point would dishonour his opponent and so I feel he does injure him, keeping up the illusion of an equal fight, but decides to not kill him after all at the last minute.
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