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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