Cowboy Bebop: Reflecting on Keiko Nobumoto

I will write a somewhat more analytical piece on her work too. This is more of a somewhat sentimental love letter I wrote to her so just a heads up.

Keiko Nobumoto
Cowboy Bebop

*Trigger warning: There is mention of suicide and loss of pregnancy in the following paragraphs so if you are uncomfortable with either of these themes please skip down to the end of trigger warning. 

To understand a work of art fully, it is important to understand the artist behind it. For instance, if we are given the following image:

It’s a simple painting of a field. While yes, we can definitely draw joy from it, do we really understand its significance if we do not know the fact that, just before he took his life in a field very similar to this one, Vincent Van Gogh kept painting fields of wheat, including this image? If you look at the artwork of Frida Kahlo, you can see images which seem dramatic, depicting death, children, and other recurring motifs. But unless you know her struggle with her own body, inability to have children, and the multiple other causes of pain in her life, you cannot understand them for what they are expressing.

*End of Trigger warning*

Similarly, to understand Bebop you do need a bit of insight into the people who created it. Unfortunately, these are/were very reticent and media-shy people so there isn’t a whole lot available. The story was created largely through the joint creativity of Keiko Nobumoto and Shinichiro Watanabe, both geniuses in their own rights. Watanabe has mentioned in an interview that they did not have clearly demarcated roles as writer and director. They worked together to come up with the story we see.

Now, Watanabe is someone who, when asked about whether the Bebop movie is a dream answered that ‘To people who tell me they think it is a dream, I tell them it is not a dream. And to people who tell me they think it is not a dream, I tell them it is a dream.” This is a genius who definitely does not want to do the work for the audience. He has created his work of art and left it to the ones watching it to draw their own conclusions and interpretations. Like a puzzle. 

If you have never seen Tokyo Godfathers, please do. Its a film I’ve seen quite a few times and it made me cry each time. Both Wolf’s Rain and Macross are again incredible works. Keiko Nobumoto unfortunately did a very small body of work in the space of anime but each and every one is a masterpiece. Something which was a signature for her was the richness of the characters she wrote. These were not straightforward, uni-dimensional individuals, but were complex creatures built with great finesse, flawed but ultimately characters who stay with you, who begin to feel like friends or family members. They walk off the screen and begin to live with you. Keiko Nobumoto’s works also have in common a deep empathy toward the women she wrote, often ridiculing or calling light to the impact of the actions of men, their egos, a society created by the dominance of men, and the price women pay as a result (Cowboy Funk is one of the sessions directly written by her).

Keiko Nobumoto was the head writer for Bebop and wrote nine of the sessions herself along with the movie. There was a team which worked with her to write the other episodes but lastly it would be vetted by her to make sure all was in alignment with the overall story and who the characters were supposed to be. In Bebop, some of the most thoughtful and introspective sessions are written by her directly including Asteroid Blues, Honky Tonk Women, Sympathy for the Devil, both parts of Jupiter Jazz, My Funny Valentine and the two-part finale. The much more sensitive and emotionally heavy Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is again written by her.

The deep respect with which the character of Gren is written, creating a very rich individual with multiple facets, so much more than the stereotypes typically used in media for a gay man or for someone dealing with gender dysphoria is the same beauty with which Hana, a transgendered woman is written in Tokyo Godfathers. They are individuals first and the categories they fall in happen to be a reality in their lives but they are just so much more than these labels. The Live Action version of Bebop turning Gren into a stereotypical “man in a dress” to represent a non-binary character did us a favour in displaying just how masterful Keiko Nobumoto’s storytelling was compared to where mainstream media stands even today, over two decades later.

For me, one of the key themes in Bebop which, in line with Keiko Nobumoto’s writing of female characters in other works, is a satire on how women are viewed by society. She created two characters, one appearing as the typical demure and “respectable” woman and the other an archetype of the “cheap and easy” woman and then flipped the tables on both. Appearances and narrow mindsets can be deceiving, seems to be the message. She created a protagonist who seemed capable of seeing past these, even if the viewer is not initially. The story is intensely human, intensely subtle, and heartbreakingly beautiful.

That’s why my understanding of Bebop always felt partial. What is the commonly believed version of the story seemed too simplistic, too base, too…macho. When Spike talks about his “other half” it is very easy for us to imagine the uber-feminine Julia as the counterpart to this man who oozes “masculinity” and charm. That’s what wives are supposed to look like, dressed in aprons, smiling, and singing for you. The image of Faye Valentine is not a ready fit and most people still struggle with the idea because that is simply not how they view women. How can a woman who dresses in tiny bits of clothing, who is assertive and difficult, who is very flawed in ways real women usually are be anyone’s “other half,” much less that of a guy they look up to?

I am still not of the belief that there is one “right” way to interpret the series and feel you should hold on to the version you cherish personally. But for me, the version which has come up through these explorations lately, something very diametrically opposite to what I have believed it to be in the last 15 years, is both difficult to adapt to sometimes (due to my own conditioning of many years and the general belief I keep encountering around it) but also so tempting, beautiful, and filled with a gorgeous sense of closure which the version I have believed in so far never gave me. Therefore this is the one for me from now on, my cherished version. I often wonder if it is just wishful thinking but then I can also see that it is supported by the narrative, dialogues, and sequences. 

How much more masterful can storytelling be that you spend years with a piece of work, feeling a lack of closure, wishing there was something more which would explain it to you, assure you that things turned out ok for the characters you came to love so much, and then you revisit the work years later only to realise that the actual story lies hidden within what you have believed it to be so far? That the closure was always there and you had just not been able to see it? It would tug at the corner of your thoughts, sequences which felt intensely meaningful but then seemed at odds with everything else and went nowhere, make you feel like you’re missing something, like the picture you have is partial, but it took a while for you to come to it? Isn’t it so similar to the running thread within Bebop itself of people with lingering pasts, revisiting them to get closure finally? 

I am sure I not the only one who has seen all these motifs-a lot of us likely have, in parts or in full, and maybe in another 15-20 years we will see even more. But this makes me feel happier, more wholesome, like friends who had something bad happen to them for some time finally got the life they deserved. It feels so much more like the breathtaking canvas of emotion, beauty, and humanity which is Nobumoto-san’s work otherwise that I personally take it as a parting gift from her.   

For more Bebop Essays click here

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PlutoMango

I am a mango who lives on Pluto. I like to write, you like to read. That makes us official best friends.

7 thoughts on “Cowboy Bebop: Reflecting on Keiko Nobumoto”

  1. The many layers is so important to fleshing out characters because yes we are all so much more than easily labeled or stuffed into boxes of what others perceive us as. The depth to everyone – even the secondary characters or the folks with no speaking lines that just walk by in the background… It’s so deeply human, the world is richly drawn but it is the individuals who add so much realism to a future so bright yet bleak, so futuristic yet plain and down to earth (or whatever planet). The subtle impressions we get, how the dialogue or actions might contradict what we expect from a character… I’m often reminded of the Whitman quote “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

    1. Ah that is such a perfect way to put it. The reference from Whitman. That’s exactly what this feels like. Intentionally contradicting yourself, adding something in the narrative which makes the reader take a step back and feel is this right? It’s all those little clues. Her characters have so much dynamism, so many contradictory aspects, so much humanity. She was definitely way ahead of her time in terms of storytelling.

    2. And it’s going to sound a bit crazy but the entire time I’ve been writing I’ve kind of felt like I had someone or something prompting me to understand things I had not been able to before. Like it was coming as much from within me as from somewhere else too. Not sure if that makes sense 🙂

      1. Omg it absolutely does – literally most of the stuff I’ve written hasn’t been me writing so much as me helping get something told that isn’t even my story but is the characters story, whether fanfiction or original stuff. Like you said in that chat about being midwives!

  2. Masterpiece doesn’t even come anywhere close to even begin to describe the parting gift… You say everything so beautifully though. Thank you for sending it out and up.

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