Cowboy Bebop-Watching a Dream: Unreliable Reality and Dissociation

Trigger warning and disclaimer: This explores what characters in Bebop may be referring to when they talk about ‘watching a dream’ and delves deeply into talking about mental illnesses. Please avoid reading if this is a triggering factor for you. I have studied psychology and this is basis that experience but am not a psychiatrist/psychologist so please treat these as just speculations, not any formal medical diagnoses.

Dissociation from the self or dissociation from reality seems to be a running theme in Bebop. I’m not saying this is done with clinical accuracy or any kind of deep research into psychology. Not at all, but rather it’s more like the dissociative psychological state is implemented throughout the show as a recurring artistic motif. Sort of like “hey this seems cool and mysterious so let’s build it in.” Spike mentions in many places how he feels like he is watching a dream, Faye is cut off from her past due to what looks to be something quite similar to dissociative amnesia, Vincent lies somewhere between these two, unable to recall his past life due to trauma from the battlefield and also unable to distinguish between what is reality and what isn’t. In flashbacks, Julia echoes the same sentiment of feeling like she is watching a dream and her last words to Spike are along the same lines. Vicious, for all his megalomania, is extremely detached to the idea of dying when it is proposed to him at the end, at a point where he has done so much to reach the top.

Spike essentially exhibits quite a few symptoms of depersonalisation disorder, a situation which literally causes a person to feel their own life is a dream, and perhaps so does Julia. It seems indicated that the general trauma of his life and past, or one particular impactful and traumatic event, may have caused him to detach from his reality and come to view his own life as a passive viewer, like watching a dream or a character on the screen. To me, this event seems to be whatever caused him to lose his eye since he is shown waking up sweating profusely from a memory of that surgery during ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ This might mean that the whole “seeing the past in one eye” is just a fallout of this disturbed psychological state with him stuck partially in the traumatic past, unable to fully connect with anything post whatever led to the loss of his eye. He’s already in this “seeing the past in one eye” state long before leaving the Syndicate since one of his flashbacks have him telling Julia about it.

There is no sense of reality, nothing concrete. You cannot invest in a dream so he drifts meaninglessly. The two back to back flashback sequences in Jupiter Jazz of both him and Julia saying the same line, feeling like they are watching a dream, seem to indicate a shared sense of dissociation which may be hinted as a cause for their initial bonding, both disconnected from reality by similar trauma. It would also explain Julia’s decision to not run away to a better life or take arbitrary decisions throughout the series which do not serve her well.

I also feel Julia is perhaps indicated to suffer from Stockholm Syndrome as well, depicted through the “two personalities” which we see of her in flashbacks to the past, perhaps an initially-strong woman broken into a more domestic persona through involvement with a highly-abusive man (Vicious). Spike’s agreement to her that ‘yes it’s just a bad dream’ as she is dying seems empathetic reassurance resonating back to their shared bad experiences. This is also what makes me skeptical about the “true love” which their association is usually referred to as. It feels to me hinted more at two dysfunctional young people coping with a bad reality by building a bond which is actually not about their compatibility or love at-all. It’s unhealthy for all involved and hence ends in the destructive manner it does. Vicious is anyway a severely damaged character, seeking control, unable to let anything go, unable to believe in anything and to me it always seems like the intent is to show his personality drives these two to seek solace in each other, but their relationship really does not have much concrete form outside of this situation. When Spike asks Julia to leave, they are not on the same page. When she asks him at the end to run away, they are again not on the same page. It seems more like strangers trying to seek something in the other which they are incapable of providing under those circumstances.

Dissociation has different forms and largely results from trauma – amnesia, derealisation, fugue, depersonalisation, and dissociative identity/multiple personality disorder. It doesn’t have to be just one of these conditions either and may be a mix or a spectrum. Depersonalisation is something I do have first-hand experience with and it was one of the major bonding factors for me with the characters of Bebop back when I watched it first, knowing exactly what was meant by the sense of becoming completely and clinically disconnected from your own reality as a result of trauma, the feeling of being caught in a dream or a nightmare you cannot snap out of. I’m not in that state anymore and haven’t been for years but watching the episodes again, the association hit me again when I heard those dialogues.

Similar to Spike, Faye seems dissociated to her self and reality in addition to her amnesia, unable to build stable connections, unable to “put down roots” even when around those who care about her. She shows signs similar to Dissociative Amnesia which occurs generally post trauma and, while the creators may not have researched this much and the illness was likely not understood very well back in the late 90s (information on it is still scarce today), it is still indicated to us that the trauma of the accident causes her mind to wall off her past resulting in her amnesia. The personality she builds up for herself in this new life would be something her past or “original” self would be horrified by. Interestingly enough, this is another trait of someone suffering from dissociation, building a drastically “unacceptable to themselves” personality, though again I feel this is more artistic in the show than perhaps intentional, the contrast depicted to show her fall from grace and loss of innocence. This building of a contrasting persona is indicated to be fuelled by the further horrors she encounters after waking defenceless in a highly unforgiving world.

Every time we see her using her sexuality to con a bounty, we are also shown her pulling out her gun immediately. She never goes too deep with the flirtation, never actually crosses beyond a coquettish voice or a seductive posture to bring their guard down, never gets physical with anyone. Why she is shown to have chosen to go the way of appearing so sexual is left to the viewer’s guess. There is the explanation offered through Whitney’s arc but her drastic change in personality seems rooted in more than just that. We can imagine that maybe she ends up in very traumatic situations during her initial days. Maybe she falls in with criminals or suffers a sexual assault early on. Things like that can really mess up your relationship with your own body.

We see Faye spending time taking care of her body, using cosmetics etc. on it but she does not seem to truly value it, doesn’t value herself. She uses her body as a tool, seemingly disconnected from it. In the same way, Spike lets his body take on multiple wounds, working out only to hone it in martial arts (a parallel to her appearance routines) as a tool, not really caring too much about what happens to it, not acting too strongly out of self-preservation. Faye leaves hers exposed to the world, again acting contrary to self-preservation considering the kind of world she lives in. Both are dissociated with their current realities, unable to really “settle in” where they are, to build past their traumas. They feel out of place, like they have no home, nowhere to belong, and it causes them to feel out of place within their own bodies as well. This dissociation is also shown to manifest in both characters in the form of indifference to death, in Faye’s compulsive gambling, in Spike’s reckless destruction.

Vincent shows signs of a mix of derealisation and depersonalisation along with some sort of amnesia. It causes him to lose his memories selectively and build up a personality very different from whatever he may have been earlier, a person Elektra had found worthy of loving. It explains her complete bafflement at his lack of recall of her and also probably what causes him to not shoot her in the end as the cloud built in his mind gives way a bit at the recall of their past love. In an interview, Watanabe has mentioned that what happens to Vincent is a result of the trauma he faces on Titan on the battlefield, likely indicating that a theme of mental illness in the characters was intentional even if dramatised and not just philosophical imagery and metaphors.

Watching a Dream
Cowboy Bebop

Dissociation in the series is also woven in with philosophy and not all references to ‘dreams’ seem to allude just to psychological disturbance. The butterflies in the movie are a call back to the story of Zuangzhi and the Butterfly Dream in Taoism. Both Taoism and Buddhism speak of the “real” world as a mere dream. The true form of the self is pure consciousness and everything in this world is nothing but an illusion with death being the true awakening. Zuanghzhi has a dream he is a butterfly and wakes up wondering if he is Zuanghzhi dreaming he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming it was Zuangzhi. Which world is real? Vincent wonders the same thing throughout-is he a man who died on Titan or is he the person living now? Is the metaphysical world of the butterflies real or the physical world he is experiencing under it?

It’s a comment on the ultimate search of humanity for comprehension of the world we inhabit, the existential queries of who we truly are, where did we come from and where do we go once we die? Are we living in the real world?

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5 thoughts on “Cowboy Bebop-Watching a Dream: Unreliable Reality and Dissociation”

  1. Thank you for the write up!! I am not sure if I agree to all of this though because there are so many themes where they also talk about dreaming and it feels like philosophy or religious. so I don’t think all of it can be explained by just mental illnesses. spike and his seeing the world like a dream because he is dissociated i can definitely be on board with

    1. Hey! I know what you mean. I wrote another one around all of that. It’s on the main page..something along theme of Awakening, Death etc. Yeah it’s not simple to actually tell one apart from the other because they play fast and loose with it. In some places it’s because of the spiritual context, in others it is because of the psychological thing. You can go through that and I hope it gives you an answer

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