What Cowboy Bebop Got Really Wrong

What Cowboy Bebop got really wrong is a loaded question. It’s a good show. Is it the greatest show ever? Maybe to some. Is it the greatest anime ever? Arguable, but definitely up there. It gets a lot right in ways that most other works don’t so it’s definitely very good. But it’s not perfect. It suffers from flaws both on the part of the creators and from cultural influences of the time and country (do check out Eddie’s comment on this post below talking about the influence of Japan’s ‘Lost Decade’ on the show) in which it was made.

There are also times when I am left wondering if the whole thing was created by a bunch of giggling five-year olds. Like ‘anime guide’ version and all its liberal plot holes and deus ex machina. Was God just focusing on these bozos all of 2071 that you have SO MUCH divine intervention? Anyway, here’s a quick look (hah! me and quick! but I swear I’ll try my best to keep this brief) at the stuff the show got very, very wrong/politically incorrect. This is not an exhaustive list and there are a bunch of other things as well but these are the ones which gave me real pause.

Treatment of Homosexuality and Cross-dressing

Admittedly, there is not a whole lot of this going on in the show but wherever it does appear, it’s pretty juvenile and often just unforgivable. The story was created in the late 90s in Japan, still a fairly conservative country even today, and themes like this were not common to see. Bebop does show them during ‘Waltz for Venus’ with the gay couple having sex and through drag queens in ‘Jupiter Jazz’ and the movie but all are done as bad, disrespectful caricatures.

Gren is the only exception here and falls on the opposite end of the spectrum, very far from being a caricature, but Faye’s reaction to his body does raise some eyebrows nowadays. I don’t think that was meant as disrespect but rather was just something the creators were more used to in their context at that time. I’m Asian and I know how annoyingly politically incorrect our entire continent in general can often be about such stuff. But yeah, that’s one scene I would go back and change if I got to pick and make her reaction more respectful.

Fanservice

I don’t mind sexual characters but this went really unnecessarily crass in places. Do Katerina’s boobs really need to hang out so much in the bar scene? Why does Judy’s outfit look like that? Do we need to see Faye’s assets bouncing around quite so much? Not really. Her sexuality is a big part of her character and the way she dresses symbolises her state of absolute desperation and sheer fall from grace compared to her pre-cryo self so I get the outfit though honestly it would have still been “sexy” with a bit more fabric on it or without being drawn quite so lewdly and disrespectfully most of the time.

I’m also not a big fan of picking out female characters and force-fitting shower scenes where they don’t need to be shown nude, adding close-ups of breasts in an extremely-vulnerable medical scenario, or adding stupid shots of them bending unnecessarily made just to pander to incels in the audience. Using human beings to sell something and calling it “fanservice” is not ok under any circumstances. Period.

There is a scene in the CB Movie with Vincent cutting open Faye’s top which, while I understand is depicted to show the extent of departure Vincent has made from being a decent human being, still makes me extremely uncomfortable. This departure could have been depicted through a hundred different motifs and showing gratuitous sexual violence is not justifiable under any circumstances. The forced kiss is bad enough but to actually show him cutting open her clothing and then, a million times worse, using images of her with her top cut open on the movie posters just to “sell” the film is beyond disgusting and unforgivable.

Casual jokes about that scene on online forums are disgusting for me because it is just not something you can joke about. Period. Just because she dresses a certain way does not mean she is “asking for it” or ripping her clothing open is a casual matter. The symbolism they tried to drive could have been done through other motifs too and is anyway lost on most people with misogynistic takes like this one emerging where someone has actually been pathetic enough to refer to Faye as just a little sexual snack for Spike/Vincent (no that’s not what the symbolism is there-how can you even believe it depicts something like that and still continue to like the show?). I’m all for the metaphors and symbolisms within Bebop but you need to do them responsibly. I also find it very irresponsible to depict Faye just brushing off the whole thing and moving on like it’s nothing. It’s not nothing-an experience like that could damage a person irreparably so just dealing with it so flippantly is not ok. Watanabe has mentioned in interviews also that he had to do this to sell the show but I don’t respect that one bit.

Cultural Tone-deafness

Mushroom Samba….Blaxploitation….watermelons….really? I’ll just leave this here. No way am I diving into this landmine but what was Watanabe thinking putting that in? Google it if you don’t get it…

There’s also criticism which is put on the show for the character of Laughing Bull since he is a generic “Medicine Man” trope. This is again likely something lost in translation. I’m not saying anyone feeling offended here is not justified because such sentiments come from long histories of cultural disrespect so if you are offended then you know it best but I feel they probably did not have enough of an understanding of this. Bull is based on the Lakota Chief Sitting Bull and talks about Wakan Tanka who is a Lakota spirit. He is positioned as Spike’s spiritual guide, the “wise monk” of Asian stories, so I don’t think true disrespect was intended here. They probably saw cowboy movies with similar characters and went with it. But yeah, this is another controversial topic here and they could have researched a motif from another culture better before adding it in.

Ed’s Presence

I get super concerned and uncomfortable sometimes with the kind of things I see Ed exposed to in the show. I mean, Zen symbolism and all apart, she’s a kid and the sort of things which happen on that ship…she has no business being there. There are softer moments between her and the adult characters definitely but the fact that there is no room for innocence in that universe is sometimes driven through her, which can result in very difficult and sad scenarios.

She’s survived in this world so she goes along with whatever happens and knows how to brush it off but a child should not have to. The people she lives with are emotionally damaged individuals who do care for her and try to do what they can though sometimes their actions toward her are very misguided. They are all victims of their circumstances and Ed is more like a homeless child who grew up on the streets, for whom having anyone care for her at-all is good, but I do sometimes get uncomfortable with the presence of a child in a story like that and the kind of things which are said to her/around her. It’s realistic definitely and many kids in this world live that way but I do feel a child should not have to.

Glorification of a Very Toxic Romantic Relationship

Do you really need me to explain this?

Ok, this deals mostly with the commonly-known ‘canon’ version of the story. That’s the version described in the anime guides of CB and was what I believed all my life. Unfortunately the guides are a bit suspect in their content and authority on the material so while doing all these analyses I did stumble on another version which works if you look deeper at the show. I have deep-dived over months to explain why CB has a second layer of storytelling to it but the fact is the commonly believed ‘anime guides’ version is what most of us will know. You won’t get to the second layer if you don’t spend an insane amount of time and effort to analyse the whole show (I’m brain-drained and really, really tired over here by now people). And you don’t have to get to it either if it doesn’t make sense to you.

Anyway, the ‘anime guides’ version, as I like to call the ‘canon’ version of CB, and which is what most viewers will get out of the story, does glorify a severely toxic relationship between Spike and Julia. Both seem to be on different pages, get involved in a doomed romance, and then take arbitrary paths to deal with it’s consequences. That’s not a romance-that’s a mental illness. I’ve written two essays on this already so no point going further into it here. But in short, there is almost zero character development and Spike mopes over one woman the entire series to a very unhealthy extent, to the exclusion of all else. She on her part takes a random decision and shows up at the end to lead them both to their deaths. He is specifically shown disrespecting and not valuing people who genuinely care for him because of this obsession with her.

I’m yet to find an individual who is a big fan of this equation and manages to pull it off without severe toxicity (not saying there’s no one like that out there but I’ve not met any yet). Julia is a character in the story who is designed to be despised by the viewer because you spend 24 episodes investing yourself with these characters who seem pretty great and then that one guy who is your lead character abandons everyone, treats them badly, and goes off to die because of his ex who needs classes in decision-making and timing. It’s not the kind of story or character you should glorify. These days I see some people jumping down your throat the moment you criticise this character as if she is a goddess and you are blaspheming against the show or something by criticising her but the fact is Julia is not my next-door neighbour who steals eggs from under my chickens every morning that I would have something personal against her. She is a fictional character in a story and I view her as such. I analyse her from the lens of the role she is intended to play in the narrative, not because she stole my imaginary boyfriend Spike (grow up, seriously!). If you don’t like that character, trust me it’s perfectly ok. You are not supposed to like her.

Glorification of Bad Emotional Hygiene

So many here. Again, as per the ‘alternate lens’ I came across a different take on Spike’s relationship with Faye (though I’m not saying that’s perfect romance either but it is definitely sweeter and more wholesome than the dumpster fire we just discussed above) but going by the ‘anime guides’ version again we would assume he stays hung up on Julia the entire time he’s around Faye. There is definitely UST between them and his characters does its part in giving us that impression. In that case, he is kind of an emotional fuckboi and I cannot respect or root for a character like that. In that context, his dialogue asking Faye to come rescue him with Pierrot, even as a joke, is just him callously playing with her feelings. Him walking away at the end when she is at her most vulnerable because he doesn’t care and is only bothered about avenging the dead lady he loves, not her or Jet, is just cruel. You can take a minute and console the girl. In that version of the story, I am truly happy when the man dies because the character of Faye would have space to move on finally. In that version, he is also quite a bit of an ass to Jet so I’m happy for Jet as well. Vicious’ death honestly feels like the real loss there because man got cheated on by both his best friend and his girlfriend so he’s the real victim there.

Apart from this also, and this goes for both the ‘anime guide’ and the other version, (I’m copy pasting something I wrote on social media here because it captured what I want to say and because I’m tired) I don’t think the mental health situation of these characters gets discussed enough. The overarching label of “cool” overshadows and unfairly glorifies legitimately damaged personalities. The series was aware of this and actually never portrays them as “perfect” or individuals to be emulated. Even Jet, arguably the most “well-adjusted” character has his own issues with control (Alisa’s arc) and projection (all the advice he gives Spike works for Jet since for him revisiting his past is optional while Spike’s won’t leave him alone even if he drops it). Faye’s half-baked, femme fatale act, compulsive gambling, Vicious’ unhealthy obsessive and abusive behaviour, Julia’s indecisiveness and avoidance, Spike’s refusal to deal with things he should’ve addressed long ago, constantly getting into self-destructive situations etc. Dysfunction is a theme out here. Mental disorders are woven in deeply with motifs from philosophy to build that whole atmosphere of ambiguity and dissociation.

What I have a problem here is that the show is well-liked and what it ends up doing is getting many impressionable people who like it thinking that this is how you should be. I’ve even seen questions asked on Reddit where young people wonder what parts of these characters’ lives and personalities they can take up and the answer is absolutely nothing. They are cautionary tales, not people you should emulate. They are packaged in a way that it seems like it would be “cool” to be like them but trust me, not so. Not at-all. It’s a show and you should take it as just that.

For instance, despite all the drinking and chain-smoking that most of the characters in the show are shown doing, most of the production team did neither. They did it for aesthetics, because that’s what fit in with the movies they were trying to copy, but that doesn’t mean they wanted you to act this way. So don’t.

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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.

15 thoughts on “What Cowboy Bebop Got Really Wrong”

  1. Yes, these people are good examples of bad examples, lol. Cautionary tales for sure. Even if there’s a cure for cancer or liver damage from drinking in the future, those bozos wouldn’t be able to afford it anyway, and since we certainly don’t have those medicinal advances we should absolutely not emulate them. And all of the characters would 100% benefit from therapy so people should take that into consideration as well. Glorification of emotional dissonance and apathy is… Perhaps a way to accept it in ourselves if that’s what we’re dealing with personally but it’s not really healthy. Besides, while these characters might sympathize with our own plights…they can’t talk to us, fix us, heal us, and we shouldn’t look to them as an answer. And yes those other elements touched upon in the show – while arguably done well for the political correctness of the time (except the gratuitous titty bits) – could certainly be updated in a more respectful and understanding way.

    1. Hahaha!!! I laughed so hard reading that. ‘Even if there’s a cure for cancer or liver damage from drinking in the future, those bozos wouldn’t be able to afford it anyway.’
      That is so true. I mean it’s so juvenile of this creative team to add in stuff they don’t do themselves just to make it look cool. Like where are you getting your ideas from even? They actually did manage to get a lot of stuff from other culture right too but this was them copying the movies and characters they admired so they added these bad habits liberally. And yes, so true. We definitely do not have the tech for spare organs.
      I am not too averse to watching characters with bad lifestyles but when people want to be them it gets alarming.

  2. Hey it’s the anon Ed from your Tumblr blog. I understand why you would moderate comments especially if you had to deal with some pro-Julia person commenting God only knows what to you. I’ll comment on here since I can leave longer comments compared to on Tumblr.

    I think that the politically incorrect nature of Cowboy Bebop is a product of the 1990s Japan and as you said as well, Japan was and still is a conservative country. (Don’t get me started on the issues with contemporary Japan and their downplaying of their own colonial past lol).

    I mentioned this to either Alderan on A03 or to Luck_Kazajian but Bebop aired in the late 1990s and this was during a time of the Lost Decade and is in a way a product of the Lost Decade that befell on Japan following the asset bubble price bursting. Though its more appropriate to call it the lost decades since economic stagnation in Japan continued afterwards.

    I’m inclined to agree with you that there are things that a child such as Ed shouldn’t have to be exposed but as you told me on your Tumblr page, bad things sometimes happen to both children and adults and the world isn’t going to be how you want to be all the time. Still, I agree that it doesn’t make it alright for a kid to have to go through all that even if one is resilient and resourceful like Ed. Yeah you don’t just tell a kid I might not make it back alive.

    And the glorification of these characters (except for Ed since she’s just innocent and pure of heart and is a cutie lol ;)) I also agree with you. The smoking and drinking are not something you should emulate. I rarely drink and I sure as hell don’t smoke. My mom used to smoke and recently quit so yeah I do not want anyone to take up smoking or binge drinking even if Spike or Faye or doing it. This ain’t the 1990s anymore people. I thought you would be taught that in school that smoking is not good for you.

    Even watching this back about a decade ago when I was in high school and rewatching it again recently off and on over the last few months, never did it pop in my head that “yeah this is healthy and cool” or that Spike is just a cool badass. Nope they are all including Ed flawed and broken characters. Just like with other characters from other franchises like Red Dead Redemption for example, these characters are cautionary tales not meant to emulate. Like Spike in Bebop, Dutch from Red Dead may be a central character and a sort of anti-villain hero but he’s also a damaged individual who justifies cold blood murder in the defense of a dying way of life, the Wild West of the 1800s America. In reality he’s a cold-blooded killer who degenerates into a maniacal egoistical man. (Sorry if that went off the rails for a bit)

    Overall I agree with what you said in this post on the issues or flaws (gasp) that this anime series has.

    Keep up the good work and once again love your analysis and your drawings as well. 🙂

    1. Hey there! I’m so glad WordPress did not eat your comment this time. 🙂 Oh and you are so absolutely spot-on about the Lost Decade. Faye’s debt is a very clear connection to that. It’s so funny because I am writing something on the world-building of the show and the influences it took from real life and was looking at the whole Lost Decade thing and how it can be seen as an influence here. I’ll edit this post to point people to your comment so they can read it too.
      And yes, the colonial past/WWII is all kind of swept under the rug. I feel anime kind of over-compensates for that most of the time by being very black and white in its approach to good and evil and associating way too hard with the “good.” Like saying….’that’s who we have been always’ when the opposite is true.
      And yeah these are all grey characters and am really glad you were able to tell the difference between what’s good for you and what’s not. Media will show what it wants to or needs to in order to tell a particular story but at the end of the day what we take away from it is up to us. We really cannot expect it not to but the choice to treat it as a role model or not is ours.
      I really enjoyed reading your reply and the other comments on Tumblr! Glad to know you have liked these writings. I’ll share the world building one this week hopefully-would be cool to know what you think on that.

      1. I’m glad it did not get eaten this time lol. Btw I also read your other article on the importance of Ernest Hemmingway and other aspects of Bebop that are overlooked. The only thing I might disagree with you on is whether or not there is a connection between the human experimentations that are depicted in Cowboy Bebop, and they are somehow Watanabe’s commentary of Japan’s own dark colonial past in Manchuria and in Korea.

        And I could be misinterpreting what you said so forgive me for that but I’m not sure if Watanabe was thinking of Unit 731 when he was making Cowboy Bebop and the movie. Sure, there’s some similarities just as how you can find other instances of human experimentations happening throughout human history. I just see these examples in Bebop as an example of even in the future there will still be these types of messed up things happening, it’s not going away even when humanity colonizes other planets in our Milky Way.

        I still think it’s a very interesting interpretation I just don’t know if Shinichiro Watanabe was thinking of Japan’s own past colonial atrocities as inspiration for the scenes in Bebop. I can certainly see him being possibly inspired by Aum Shinrikyo that cult that was famous for carrying out that sarin gas attack at the Toyko Metro in 1995 as well as Heaven’s Gate for that SCRATCH cult which I think he did base the SCRATCH cult off of Heaven’s Gate.

        On a sort of off topic side note with regard to Bebop, I’m not sure if you’re going to mention this in any upcoming article analyzing more of Cowboy Bebop but did you know that the fictional currency in the Bebop universe, the Woolong is based off the 1990s Japanese Yen and its symbol is the Won which is used by both North Korea and South Korea. In the DPRK it’s called the In-won or the Korean People’s Won kind of like how China’s Renminbi is translated as the “People’s Currency”. While in South Korea it’s the Korean Republic Won (Daehanminguk won).

        I also can’t wait for you to address the Lost Decade and how it might have played a role when creating Cowboy Bebop in the late 1990s.

        Overall, very good. 🙂

      2. Hey again! So the Won thing I did know though it happened in reverse. In my job I work with folks in Korea so I know what their currency looks like. When I was watching Bebop again this time around I noticed it. And yes considering how devalued the Woolong is the connection to Yen is right there. Getting a million woolong is definitely not the same as getting a million dollars and that’s why these folk are so poor. If I’m purchasing anything which involves a Yen exchange rate I always get taken aback by the sheer amount it will be in Yens. It was interesting to read about the differences between Wons which you shared. Thanks for that!
        And yes SCRATCH was both Aum Shinrikyo and Heaven’s Gate. There’s Jet’s fake ID of ‘Marshall Banana’ which is a reference to Marshall Applewhite. Even if you look at the images of Londes with the wide eyes, he looks very similar to Marshall. There’s a podcast episode of ‘Bebop Beats’ available on Spotify that deals with this Bebop Session which I’d recommend checking out if you haven’t. Lots of good stuff there.
        Curious to know why you feel the experimentation reference is not to the Japanese past. I do have a perspective to that which I’ve covered in the WIP piece I spoke about earlier but I’m always open to learning more because you can’t know everything.

      3. Oh and I also keep wondering if Woolong is a homage to John Woo kind of mixed in with a reference to Oolong tea. Weird mix to do. Thanks so much for all the information you shared. You really know your stuff and it’s a great conversation!

      4. That’s weird for some reason I can reply to the rest of your new comments you posted to me. So, I guess I’ll just reply to this one again.

        Sorry for not getting back to you until now. I was at work all day.

        I’m a huge history geek and I love to research history of East Asia especially the history of Korea mostly with regard to North Korea. I was joking with someone on A03 that it would be funny if someone in the Bebop universe found some Won currency from Best Korea and confused it for the Woolong because the symbol on the banknote.

        And that’s cool you work in Korea, is it in Best Korea or South Korea? 😉 I’m just kidding. That’s really cool either way.

        Oh yes, the Japanese Yen is a very weak currency even today and that’s really thanks to the end of World War Two where the Japanese currency was essentially defunct. Japan is a strange enigma its currency is weak and yet they are regarded as very technologically advanced and clean country, but it still faces economic stagnation and other problems most noteworthy the population crisis and the demographic decline as the result of an aging population in the country.

        I guess the reason why I sort of disagree with you with how the experimentation thing is supposed to be a nod to Japan’s past is because we don’t know fully what Watanabe’s feelings are on the matter. It’s entirely possible that Watanabe hearing stories about the older generation and what they witnessed in Korea and Manchuria talked to him or his family about it and decided to include that in Cowboy Bebop as a commentary about how bad Imperial Japan was to Asia during the 1930s and 1940s, but it might be speculation just because we don’t have an interview that I’m fully aware where he discusses where he got the human experimentation thing from.

        I’m not knocking you for that, I think it’s an interesting observation and an interesting theory as well and I wouldn’t be surprised that Watanabe and the writers of Cowboy Bebop read up once on Nazi/Japanese and even US human experimentations and decided to include that in CB.

        And you’re welcome! I’ve been enjoying this back-and-forth exchange as well. I can’t say I know everything with regard to the history of Japan and Asia but if you give me something to look at such as the real-life lore that Bebop was inspired by, I do get interested in that type of stuff.

      5. Hey! I don’t work in Korea but it’s one of the markets I engage with 🙂
        Also this is why I keep encouraging people to let me know their views. When you write in a flow, you may make some errors. No I didn’t mean to imply the reference definitely was to Unit 731. The references never really are one thing and may not even be intentional sometimes. I was musing on exactly that in my last post. When I wrote that line in the Hemingway article I missed adding the “may be” which was there in my mind. Have gone back and revised it so thanks for bringing that up. Considering the very limited definitive information available to us from the creators I really keep disclaiming every few steps that this is just my take.
        Since you seemed quite vehemently sure that it’s definitely not that I thought let me check if there’s something I’ve missed. Otherwise I don’t think they have spoken on specific references anywhere so most of us will end up speculating connections. I’ll cover what exactly it was that led me to pick up this connection at all.

      6. Oh, I’m sorry for assuming that you were working in Korea. Where are you from by the way if you don’t mind me asking you? I’m just curious that’s all. But cool either way you have clients in Korea that you engage with. A friend of mind that I just got off the phone with, he has a friend from Korea that lives in Tennessee.

        And I understand now. It was my mistake for assuming that you were intending to imply that the creators were referencing Unit 731. I get it now. It can remind the viewer though of that. I see. In that case I guess I don’t really disagree with you anymore on that matter lol.

        As I said to you early on, that’s the beauty of Bebop it doesn’t have to be set in stone. It’s not meant to take itself seriously all the time which is why the creator isn’t very anal on people when they give their own interpretations from what I can gather.

        Speaking of possible interpretations, this isn’t something like groundbreaking or original that I thought up by myself, but you mentioned as well in your Zen Symbolism with regard to Radical Edward that she’s beyond this world unimpacted by everything. You also mentioned of her being considered autistic.

        This has been milked to death at least in Tumblr in my opinion so I hope you or anyone else doesn’t crucify me because I think deep down, she’s supposed to be as you said like a Zen Master who has learned to move on from the past, but I think she does have those autistic vibes. I’ve seen this floated around by Tumblr so don’t shoot the messenger lol

        I say this based on how I’ve seen people with autism act and yeah if this came out in the present day she would probably be on the spectrum. I highly doubt that the creators had this mind since she’s based on Yoko Kanno. But I could be wrong.

      7. Hey Eddie. Your questions have been so helpful in understanding the blind spots in my own writing and I truly appreciate them. The article on Ed was due for a rewrite because I’ve actually received a few queries on it in different spaces since which I have gone back and brought out in more context and detail now including the bit on autism. None of these characters are just one thing and the metaphor can be very broad. Maybe if you get sometime you can reread the article and let me know if it makes more sense to you now. 🙂

  3. Hey hey!! Here I thought you were done writing. Damn I knew about the watermelon thing but not about Bull…it’s so important to criticise something you love because nothing is perfect. I respect you writing something like this about a series which clearly is important to you. I was such a hater of that whole toxic romance situation…loved all those essays about your different takes on it. It does need to be looked at with a deeper view otherwise it’s really very bad behaviour.
    The thing about Ed…I feel she’s important to that story and her being so innocent and still being around these adults who are trying their best gives the show a lot of depth. But then yeah a kid should not be around so much smoking forget everything else.

    1. Hi there! I thought I’d lost all my regular readers. Good to see you back! I was dealing with some personal commitments and just a lot of stuff took up more priority for a bit.
      And yes I do agree with you that it adds depth to the story. She brings out another side to these tough characters which we wouldn’t see otherwise but some of it is a relic of that time maybe but hasn’t aged well I guess.

  4. That scene with Vincent always bothered me too and I’m a guy. Can’t imagine how it would feel to a woman. All that nonsense about Julia and true love and not living your life is such shit too. Nice article!

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