Cowboy Bebop: Shifting the Lens on Spike’s Story

What is the ‘alternate take?’

Spike’s story within Cowboy Bebop is built a bit deceptively-it will seem one thing and then you dig deeper to realise there are multiple layers you had not even considered before. Things are shown pretty fleetingly but when you sit down and really think through the stuff that doesn’t add up, you can find it may logically point toward another interpretation of events than what you get in a cursory watch. Sometimes there are blink-and-miss scenes which change context of the narrative completely. We are not exactly told a story but rather shown it and it’s pretty much designed on Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory with high minimalism, where the most key incidents are not even shown or the thing which is most important in the story will be the most downplayed. Hemingway is also referenced in Cowboy Bebop’s last episode through his story ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’…which I take to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to how deceptive the events of the show are at that point when Spike’s arc is at its height.

Spike Spiegel

I keep reading/watching these takes on social media that Cowboy Bebop is a story of “nothing” but that’s its most surface-level self. Its creators were always very people-focused in all their works. Space, “coolness,” martial arts and spaceships are all motifs used to tell a story which is at the end of the day about people and their lives. Nobody is fighting aliens from outer space here but broken relationships, friendships, and circumstances which they found themselves in. If you see it as a story of “nothing” then you miss out what it actually is. At its core, its monomyth is very much a love story like it or not. You can’t separate it or underplay it. But the question is which is that love story truly? How does it shape the narrative? Is it the story of a stunted man who lives a pointless life with no emotional development and dies or is it the story of a man who has suffered a lot but finds healing and redemption, faces up to the past he was running away from and finds freedom at-last? I feel it’s the latter. And I also feel it is very intentionally constructed to look like the former. The series is created by a director who will rarely ever give a straight answer on it so to me it seems fitting. It’s my view of course and no one has to agree to it.

My alternate take on Cowboy Bebop is basically that the intention was for the viewer to eventually figure out a story-within-a-story for…at-least for the monomyth of Spike. And the character of Julia, more a plot-shaping device than a real character, is the key to this charade. There is a lot more to the show than just Spike’s story but his arc is the heart of it. I feel that the whole tale of Julia heroically running away to protect Spike is a false trail constructed by the creators to confuse the story, contradicting what they actually show. It’s all very clever mind play. Is Julia really the woman we create in our minds basis the few romantic-looking clues we are given or is she something else if we break it down logically?

We are shown what Spike “feels” for Julia in literally just two episodes-a very tiny aged-memory sequence at the end of Ballad of Fallen Angels but mostly it’s truly depicted in the first part of Jupiter Jazz. Everything else we construct ourselves basis that one tiny tidbit. But what about the sequences in the second part of that same arc? Spike’s flashback recalling Vicious warning him about Julia? Why do we ignore that? There are many things in the show which don’t really add up to the idea of Julia being this all-encompassing love which causes him to throw away everything at the end but this “veil of Julia” situation covers our entire calculation of the series downplaying sequences which are showing a lot more happening for him outside of just that one equation.

When Spike meets her at the end in the graveyard and the sequence in Annie’s shop, he is shown being very cold to her versus how he behaves toward others during those same episodes. His behaviour on the topic of Julia in Jupiter Jazz and in the finale are shown very differently. He’s dying to find her in JJ but bides his time in the finale, even pretending to not understand Faye when she relays her message.

Julia herself seems very keen on him not arming himself during the sequence in Annie’s shop, asking why he needs weapons if they will just run away. Don’t you need more weapons if you’re running away from a deadly Syndicate trying to kill you? There are a ridiculous amount of coincidences in both the finale and in Jupiter Jazz, which suddenly become not coincidental at-all if you plug in the perspective of Julia still being affiliated with Vicious. I mean how much Deus ex Machina can a story get away with really? I’ve covered this in my analysis of the finale.

I feel the story of her running away is actually intended as a cover she builds to get herself out of a Catch-22 situation, caught between two dangerous men. Spike is seen aware of the story of her running away to a protect him the entire time-it’s not new information revealed to him in the finale. During his flashbacks, he thinks back to Vicious’ gun to her head, her tearing up his letter etc.

But it’s pretty ridiculous if you think about it-she could not have killed him when Vicious asks her to do so, not really. I mean isn’t that kind of contradictory to what Vicious himself keeps harping “I’m the only one who can kill you.” Spike is not easy to kill and Julia is not depicted as a fighter of his caliber in the rooftop sequence in the finale so she does not seem like a real threat to him, not after he had already faced an ambush alone and faked his own death. Even if she had succeeded in killing him somehow, she would not be free. Vicious was not the kind of guy to let betrayal go. Him saying he will kill Spike with Julia’s hands is more him toying with her and planning to kill both…just think a moment on exactly how sadistic Vicious is shown. Would he really have said “Oh hey! You killed the guy! Now I totally trust you and you can be free.” I feel this story was kept so flimsy intentionally for the viewer to see through it if we think more on it. When we see Julia in the finale, she is living a very stable, even flashy life which does not align with anyone on the run.

So, I feel that instead of running away, the story actually indicates that she stays connected to Vicious, going underground and acting as his wild card in his ambition to take over the Syndicate. Spike’s decision to run away was shown as one-sided and she did not seem very onboard with it. In the sequence where he asks her to leave with him, they feel like recent lovers and not people who have had a common desire to run away together for a while. The story tells us Spike is a damaged and broken man within the Syndicate much before he gets together with Julia. His fake eye represents and was a fallout of whatever trauma caused him to begin viewing his life as a dream and both he and Julia speak of feeling like watching a dream during his flashback in Jupiter Jazz. He continues to be that way, unhealed, even after that relationship, putting himself through danger and not caring about his life for most of the series. I feel they were two very different people brought together by dire circumstances for a moment in time which benefited neither. That’s why I feel “feeling the fear of death for the first time” and wanting to live which he talks about in the CB movie to Elektra is not connected to some healing which happens for him in the Syndicate past due to Julia but a more recent shift in him. It’s covered here.

Julia’s relationship with Vicious was an abusive one so either Stockholm Syndrome, fear of him, or maybe even love for him keeps her where she is. She’s not the “mwahaha!” evil villain but in the flashbacks, she is a scared and diffident woman for whom breaking away may not be possible simply because of who she is. I mean what’s more realistic? This diffident woman lacking combat instincts to the point that she actually stands up straight in the middle of a gun fight managing to fend off the entire Syndicate for three years or her giving in to her emotional captor and getting used by him in his plans? I’m all for women’s agency but seriously?

I feel Spike realises her affiliation during the events of Jupiter Jazz or gets an understanding then which he builds on later (again the gaps and omissions of Hemingway’s Iceberg style of writing) and that’s why he’s belligerent toward her at the end. He’s not the kind of character who would do that unless he had good reason to. He only shows reaction when she is shot and that has always looked to me more like a reaction to the death of a long-term friend, even if estranged, than someone you love deeply. There are also quite a few parallels to the deaths of both Vicious and Julia, most notable being Spike looking up at the sky after each death. The show also gives Julia a coward’s death, shot through the back, barely there before she is killed. She doesn’t get the slightly more heroic death Annie has received just a little while earlier.

I feel Julia asking to meet him at the end is her trying to lure him out and covertly lead him to his death since, after killing Mao and the Van, Spike is pretty much the only one standing in the way of Vicious’ plans considering he still has loyalists within the Syndicate. He is not very easy for Vicious to kill and hence using Julia, attacking his comrades etc. helps lure him out. I even feel Spike’s exit from the Syndicate was not just him having a sudden awakening but something engineered by Vicious since he did not run away from Mao, a capo who was pure evil, but rather a mentor who loved him like a son and who was anyway taking things in a benevolent direction.

Even the way she finally gets him out through Faye. The anime guides say she knew about Faye through Shin but how was Shin able to not just track down Spike and his companions but also Julia who was on the run so hard even Vicious and Spike couldn’t track her apparently? She just happens to find Faye on that particular day just like she just happens to find Gren earlier? Why do the Syndicate ships follow Faye back to the Bebop right after meeting Julia even though they lost the tail long back? I have seen other stuff written by Nobumoto. She’s not such a bad writer. She wrote both parts of Real Folk Blues and Jupiter Jazz herself.

Why were Vicious’ people attacking Julia at the end then? If she is his wild card, there is so much going on at the end that he would not be able to go back and tell them she’s working for him so they will assume she’s a woman on the run from him and attack her just as they attack Spike. Vicious being the kind of guy he is, her life would probably not matter a whole lot to him.

I also believe there is character development for Spike in the series, again fairly surreptitiously, where the Bebop crew come to mean something to him and he moves from being in a state of indifference toward his life to having a life-wish by the end, which is also referenced to in the movie during his conversation with Elektra. That’s not him talking about the past. That’s him talking about the fear of death he feels for the first time during the events of the movie and admits to Laughing Bull in the earlier sequence after Vincent shoots him.

All the subtle equation with Faye (I did not particularly like her for a while when I first watched the show…largely because I did not understand her character…and I’m not saying this because I “ship” Spike and Faye…because I’m not 12….this just developed), both of them being built as very similar individuals by the show, their arc of saving each others’ lives/taking care of each other, being the only ones to get an understanding on the pasts and true stories of the other, is actually the “romantic” track within Cowboy Bebop which is also Spike’s movement from not caring if he lives or dies to having a reason to live by the end. I used to see it as just a friends equation but all his talk of the “woman” in his life toward the second half got me down to the romantic angle. It is a juxtaposition of immature, half-baked, destructive feelings from an equation born out of bad circumstances of the Syndicate with Julia against genuine commitment, love, and care which he comes to find in her. It’s covered in detail in the analysis on these two characters. There’s a lot there.

Like I said, his story is told like the Iceberg Theory and there are multiple incidents with him and Faye through the series which seem like something is going on but are then underplayed. In this kind of writing, the thing which is most underplayed usually is the thing which is most significant and that’s been the basis of this particular exploration. If you trace out these seemingly innocuous instances through the series, a pattern does emerge.

This equation is not perfect because both characters are badly damaged emotionally and unable to express themselves and we don’t exactly get a happily ever after at the end. But I do feel his “healing” happens through his general association with people who truly care about him versus whatever he had before. These new connections are also emotionally stunted, dysfunctional, fleeting, and he is unable to value them initially but they are important. Their resolution also seems partial, with an implied “to be continued.” For instance, Ed leaving with the captions of “someday, somewhere” seems to me more like the creative team saying goodbye to her than the actual crew. The kid can find them any day she wants to even if she has left. She is not required to stay on at the Bebop, she has her own journey, but that does not mean the people on it are no longer important to her.

Spike’s “death” at the end was never about his injuries anyway but the will to live on and that’s why I believe he does not die at the end. There’s really no reason for him to. All the things supporting his “death” like the star going out, the doves, the dual meanings of death in the show, reference to the “True Samurai,” the general motif of stars/west etc. all have second layers to them in culture, philosophy, and spirituality which negate the idea (I’m gonna publish that one pretty soon…I promise). I hear people talking about him achieving “Nirvana” at the end and becoming truly free indicated by the star going out but this is my perspective on that basis what Eastern philosophies actually mean when they speak of these concepts. Nirvana doesn’t come that easily. He is far from being free of his karmic debt at the end to just achieve Nirvana. He has just faced up to his past but there are too many unfinished threads remaining for him to just be free of it all. One phase of his life is over because he has finally faced up to his past but there is a lot more left for him to do. Death in the show does not mean death of the body. Looking at the kind of philosophy incorporated in the show and the movie otherwise I don’t think its creators were unfamiliar with these ideas. He speaks of his leaving the Syndicate as dying too. The cat story was never about Julia (as per me) so that doesn’t point toward death either. Vicious is as much of a Samurai as I am Madonna. He shows zero traits of Bushido-just having a Katana doesn’t make you a samurai. So he’s not the “true Samurai” who can kills Spike either.

I believe Spike’s motivation for attacking the Syndicate at the end is because Vicious has succeeded in becoming very powerful by then and if he does not stop the man now, he will definitely come after Spike and the others in his life. We have been shown Vicious targeting them to reach Spike already. Have covered that and Vicious’ general Syndicate takeover arc/motivations in this analysis of Ballad of Fallen Angels. Spike’s motivation then is not revenge at-all, though it’s the conclusion we usually draw but to protect people he got into the mess and finally face up to the past/unresolved Karma from his Syndicate days which he has been running away from (tying into the theme of the show being his Karma as stated by Watanabe). This is also shown to us in advance through the metaphorical episode Toys in the Attic.

There is also a “veil” of Julia which is built up basis the few and deceptive clues we are given about her and her false positioning as Spike’s prime priority which completely confuses the narrative and builds his character up as an emotionally-stunted man, causing us to actually ignore the true story which is being shown to us. The moment you take that aside, you get clarity into his true relationships with and importance of the new people in his life.

I genuinely believe that the intention of the creators was never to downplay the importance of our main characters, the Bebop crew themselves, within the narrative or to Spike either. Jet is a huge influence in his life, someone he moves from rebelling against like a teenager to respecting like a mentor and father by the end, prioritising him when things start to go bad. Faye is a companion whom he gets an insight into which no one else does and who also gets to understand both aspects of him. A lot happens between those two characters on subtle levels to just brush the equation off as nothing. I also don’t think the show glorifies emotionally unhealthy behaviour but rather satirises and critiques it. There is a lot of poignance, intelligence, and beauty in how it is written and developed and you really cannot take it at just face value. You need to look deeper, question and doubt what you are told till you find a narrative which actually adds up. This is not a story which you can interpret just with cold logic-you need a mix of both logic and emotions to understand it fully.

I did not pull anything out of thin air but just analysed the narrative and what is depicted on screen. I used to believe the popular ‘canon’ version for years too though was never completely satisfied with it, found it too simplistic, and when I looked at it this way, I found sense in it. It’s not as nihilistic as the usual version but is still quite complex in a very different way. This article is a summary of my insights based on multiple analyses (key ones related to Spike’s story linked below) built from the sequences of the show itself and actual ideas from the philosophy and cultural references within it. It just requires dissection and rethinking because it can actually be quite deceptive. This is what I believe in but I’m not saying anyone else has to.

The Essays which make up this Analysis

There are three essays which trace out critical episodes dealing with Spike’s past. These can be supplemented with the analysis on Ballad of Fallen Angels, though that is neutral and can exist outside of the ‘alternate take’ as well.

This is not a “shipping” war, just an analysis

Since some random person on the internet, who apparently worships the character of Julia, took this piece of work as a source of personal offence and an excuse to be rude to me, another random stranger on the internet, I thought let me clarify the intent here. The opinion of someone like that means little to me but it did reflect a mirror to me on how this work can be perceived so here goes. 

My intention behind writing this was not to get into some sort of “shipping” war over why one fictional woman is better for a fictional man over another. If you are like me and have no clue what the term “shipping” means, since I heard it for the first time like a month ago too, it is the act of rooting for a fictional romance. I can understand why me writing essays proving one character is an antagonist and then spending four long posts on tracing the romance of two other people would seem like I’m trying to enter a “shipping” war but no. That’s not it. Trust me, if I had to get into a “shipping” war, I’d fight to death over why Spike should’ve married Jet cause that’s such a wholesome equation, but anyway… 

Literary analysis is a thing. I did not start off with the intent of writing these essays-I wrote speculations and other stuff which gave me an idea that the story may be different from how I have always perceived it and then this happened as an exploration. I’m noting down two key points below on why this analysis got structured the way it did. 

  1. I did not start off trying to prove Jules was an antagonist. Spiko definitely seems really off and rude toward her at the end so I was trying to reason out why and initially figured maybe his view of her evolved post seeing other people’s relationships/behaviour. But then there were so many coincidences in the finale that those, coupled with his coldness, gave a reflection that something deeper may be wrong. Then I went back and re-analyzed Jupiter Jazz and that threw up more alternate interpretations. 
  2. I had no intention to trace out any romances but Spaiku is still going on about some lady at the end even as he shows up to meet Julia looking like he wants to shoot her. So I thought let me revisit all that UST (Unresolved Sexual Tension) we are shown between him and Faye. I found patterns so I wrote them down and holy crap there is so much. 

To me, all the characters in the series were very important and great in their execution. I love what we are told and what is left out because that leaves scope for individuals to fill in aspects to the characters which are meaningful to them and therefore connect to the story more personally. The scarcity in presence of certain characters defines the story as much as the constant presence of others. It’s a monomyth but covered up by a meandering melange of equally-important stories. My purpose was just to spend some time with it and explore it further. I wrote these and then moved on to writing about the characters/philosophy/spirituality etc.

I like this particular version because it makes sense to me and is a more positive take on the series. I’m not floating pamphlets on social media trying to convince anyone to this view and don’t plan to do that ever. I wrote this independently and not to try and disprove anyone else’s views cause I don’t got time for all that. Believe what you want to, what makes sense to you. Try to be respectful of divergent views if you can. If you can’t…well, you do you boo. 

How we got here…

The reason behind exploring the possibility of Julia as an antagonist in Cowboy Bebop was all the different plot points and seeming loopholes in the story which have not made sense/added up over the years. Don’t get me wrong-I’m not saying the show is not perfection as it is but, I’ve known this story for the better part of two decades now and there were always things which I questioned, where 2+2 does not equal 4…or even anything in the general dynasty of 4. Yes, there is artistic liberty and suspension of disbelief (fall from a 4-5 story window and survive? Duh! suspension of disbelief!) but for something written and created by extremely brilliant people, I feel it can’t all be randomly disconnected and highly coincidental material either, especially during critical, serious episodes.

Cowboy Bebop
Spike Julia
Spike's story

“The best things a writer can do is to not write something the viewers will expect.” This is a line from Mish Mash Blues, the “extra” episode of Cowboy Bebop which you can watch here. So, with Cowboy Bebop I’ve learned by now that you need to look deeper, and question what your first perception of something is.

The whole idea of ‘color association’ which I’ve covered here and the depiction of the color red in the context of Spike’s past, including Julia, got me started down this path. It’s like saying the same color which belongs to the Red Dragon Syndicate and Red Eye, a chief motif representing evil in the story, is still coloring her as well…though, of course, it could just be due to all the love. On the topic of colors, it is also interesting that toward the end of the series, the director wanted both Julia and Vicious drawn in similar shades of dark colors, using a lot of black. It’s mentioned in Toshihiro Kawamoto’s commentary in the artbook ‘The Wind.’ I’ve also seen people draw a parallel between the red umbrella carried by Julia, Shinu (Samurai Champloo) and Scarlett (Space Dandy) but all three are unfulfilled romances….and Shinichiro Watanabe did not direct Space Dandy directly so not sure how involved he was in the umbrella motif there. He has multiple other works which feature love tracks but no umbrellas.

There is also the reference to Pierrot Le Fou in the show which is again covered in detail here. It’s a French New Wave film, a genre of cinema Watanabe has mentioned in interviews was one of the influences behind Bebop, and he has directly paid homage to this film through an episode title. In the French film, Marianne, the woman our protagonist Pierrot falls for and is seen in love with the entire film, turns out to actually be working with another man, presumably her real lover, at the end. She works with him to betray Pierrot, who then kills both. Both Marianne and Julia are associated with the color red. Julia is also apparently named after a song about Yoko Ono…which seems a weird association to give a protagonist. The end card of the last episode ‘You’re gonna carry that weight’ is also a Beatles reference to a song often considered connected to Ono and the general breakup of the Beatles. You can read more about the other Easter eggs in Cowboy Bebop linking Julia to Ono here.

All of this could be random associations too, of course, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt it was worth exploring if the creators had maybe intended Julia as an antagonist and the narrative got misunderstood over time, or they intentionally left it ambiguous for people to figure out some day. They never spoke much on the story or clarified anything, remaining largely media-shy or giving only very ambiguous snippets of information in interviews.

A Ridiculous amount of coincidences

There are quite a few things which we are supposed to assume as “coincidences” in the serious episodes dealing with Spike’s past that don’t really add up. But we are too distracted by the sweeping, tragic romance of Spike Spiegel and the elusive Julia to focus much there. Logical discrepancies are swept under the carpet as just divine hand or fate in the lives of two lovers. But, the romance doesn’t answer questions like why is he pretty much apathetic, detached, and downright rude to Julia when he finally meets her? How does Julia run completely accidentally into Faye at the very time that Vicious starts his coup and she needs to reach Spike? How does she even know who Faye is? If Shin is her ‘informant’ who told her Spike is a Bounty Hunter now and Faye is one of his companions, then how did he locate her when Vicious could not? If Vicious does not trust Shin then how did Shin get this information in the first place to be able to inform Julia? Why do the Syndicate ships follow Faye back to the Bebop right after her meeting with Julia? How does everybody run into Gren? etc. There are some vague, loose explanations offered in the anime guides but those books are just all over the place so I am very skeptical of what they say. And honestly, I’d be ok with accepting all that divine intervention too if just tweaking perspectives on Julia did not mean the events fall into place a lot better.

What’s up with Spike at the end?

For a man who grew so anguished at the mere mention of Julia’s name in Jupiter Jazz, who dreams of her while waking up in Ballad of Fallen Angels and gets annoyed to find Faye humming instead of her, Spike’s reaction shown when he finally gets to meet her makes no sense. Yes it could be that he knows their situation is bleak, maybe he is a little angry with her by then but honestly some tenderness, some affection, something is bound to come through if you love that person. It is not shown though, not even after she offers her explanation of why she didn’t meet him in the graveyard three years ago. Also, from the fact that we see pieces of this explanation like the gun to her forehead, her tearing up his letter etc. in his flashbacks, we can assume he was already aware of this.

This is an animated show, not a live action thing where wrong acting by an individual can give things a completely different meaning. We are deliberately shown Spike’s anguished reaction to Julia’s name earlier to establish what that looks like and then not shown the same thing again when the most pressing time for it comes. Jet was shown zipping around in his Zipcraft during Real Folk Blues to visit Laughing Bull so he could’ve survived on his own or Spike could’ve stowed him and the Bebop at some safe location and set off to find Julia the same way he did in Jupiter Jazz but nope. Doesn’t happen. He starts to head toward Tharsis but taking his sweet time, in no seeming hurry to leave, leaving the Bebop only after both Jet and Faye are accounted for. When he meets Julia, he is pretty cold to her. During the sequences in Annie’s shop he pretty much ignores Julia while still showing warmth toward the dead Annie. Who is the “woman” he talks about with Jet then? Well, I got a theory on that too…a detailed one, based on a breakdown of events spanning the entire series. You can read that here.

Talking about the below still of Spike and Julia in the graveyard, which was released separately but is aligned to the timeline of their meeting in the anime, the illustrator wanted to draw Spike with a lot of emotion befitting his reunion with his lost beloved but the Director asked him to not do so and draw him in the stoic manner he is shown.

The Real Folk Blues Part 1
cowboy bebop

They are back to back, him with a rose in hand and her with a gun. Does this really give the sense of two people in love? Since the Director of this series is also someone who did not bother to inform his team they were creating a show with the sole purpose of selling Bandai toys to the point that Bandai pulled their funding because it was so different from what they wanted, one has to wonder what else he did not tell them…perhaps the true intent behind the scene? Or maybe Kawamoto knew perfectly well what he was doing (likelier option) and just gave vague commentary exactly like literally everyone else on the creative team.

There is also the fact that our boy has three flashbacks in the entire narrative when he is coming back to consciousness, two during the series and one during the film. Julia is a part of both flashbacks in the series but is mysteriously missing from the one in the movie, which occurs later in the timeline. In fact, the earlier flashbacks are all about his past while this one is only images from the present. Where did she go?

What’s up with Julia at the end?

I’ve covered it in more detail in the analysis of The Real Folk Blues linked below but how is the lady living in a home in Tharsis of all places and driving a bright red convertible if she is on the run from the Syndicate? When they are fighting in Annie’s shop, she actually stands up on the rooftop in the middle of a gunfight and is dazed pretty easily. I’m no trained fighter but even I know that’s a dumb idea. She is not depicted as someone strong in combat instinct/skills…how would she stay ahead of the entire Syndicate for three years then? Also, why does she not want Spike to carry any weapons even if they are running away? Do they not need protection? Why is she shown insisting he stay sparsely armed?

Sketchiness of the Anime Guides

I know that the anime guides do not support any of this but honestly the anime guide really don’t do a whole lot. I wrote a short about this on Tumblr and might do a longer take here (will check on if copyright laws allow it here.) Reading them is like watching the show again, giving vague narrations which just describe exactly what is happening on the screen. They are also factually incorrect and downright absurd in multiple places. The only additional information in them are the characters’ stats like height and birthday and other random information of the kind. So we can send them cards and knit them sweaters I guess. Also, the English translations of the guides seems to have not been done very accurately or perhaps the base material itself got things wrong.

The guides were not written with direct involvement from the creative team of the show either and were written at the Publisher’s end based on interviews and production material. When you read them, the guides answer zero questions and actually almost consistently keep speculating key plot points themselves, thus not giving me much confidence on their content.

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Cowboy Bebop: The Pivot of Jupiter Jazz

I’m using the original Japanese subs of Jupiter Jazz here since the dub seems to have made some changes which really give a very different meaning to the scenes. This is a part of the “Alternate Take” universe I ended up exploring.


I always feel Bebop is a lot like a Japanese Noh play, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Unlike drama in the Western world where everything is told to the audience clearly, Noh players tell their tale through subtle actions and visual representations. The plays are short with limited dialogue and themes are evoked which will be already familiar to the audience to help them understand the narrative. Noh makes as much use of the audience’s imagination and their familiarity with the subject matter which is being evoked as it does of the players on the stage.

For instance, the only “set” ever used in Noh is a single tree in the background. The rest of the scenery you imagine basis what is happening on stage. The mask worn by a particular player tells as much about the scene as what they are doing or saying. The feelings and recalls of familiar aspects invoked in the audience are very important. Bebop similarly shows us stories but the narrative is not told blatantly. It flows in hints and glimpses into the characters’ lives and often leaves it to us to build two and two together. Fleeting shots, individual dialogues which flash by quickly, are critical to the story. It evokes familiar images from the world we know to tell the tale of a world unknown to us. We fill in a lot ourselves. However, being used to the more dramatic and blatant way of storytelling, expecting to be told what is happening rather than catching hints from fleeting shots, can sometimes mean we miss out on things which hold deeper meaning and are telling the story as much as what is being told to us up-front. The idea of this analysis is built on a similar principal.

I’ve re-watched Jupiter Jazz multiple times trying to understand what exactly pivots in those two episodes. In the context of his past, we see a very different Spike in this episode versus who we see during the two finale sessions and this contrast is very deliberately built by the series. In this, he is anguished as all hell to hear Julia’s name and we see him set out on a single-minded search for her the moment he hears ‘Code Name Julia’ which likely may hold some significance for him from their Syndicate days. He brushes Faye very deliberately off as not a priority, gets into a fight with Jet.

We have no further episodes pertaining to Julia or Vicious till we get to the finale and there he meets Julia like he would an old enemy, expressionless and cold, and continues to be that way till her death gets a reaction out of him. The only time we see him react to her truly is when she is shot, which is a natural reaction to have toward the death of someone you knew a long time and cared for deeply. Back on the ship he again talks about her to Jet in the same cold manner. Yes it could be that he is emotionally shut off due to the grief or overflow of emotion she triggers but it all seems oddly disconnected to me. The cold behaviour is shown to go on way too consistently, the facade never breaking, contrasting starkly with how he shows more warmth toward Annie during the same sequences. I’ve written a whole long analysis detailing why I started to feel Julia was actually intended as an antagonist in the series, which covers The Real Folk Blues and a few other aspects in detail but this one goes deep into just Jupiter Jazz.

The more I watch the episode, I feel we are given clues to put together an understanding that he reaches some sort of realization about Julia and Vicious. The intention of the episodes seems to be to build a doubt in the audience’s mind at the same time it begins to build in Spike’s mind. It’s not depicted with the typical widening of eyes and dropping of things we are used to seeing during epiphanies on screen but it’s there running through the sequences in a subtle manner. It’s just that we are not used to stories being told this way. We are used to being confided in, being shown what a character is feeling, rather than being given slight clues, being left to interpret flitting sequences. When asked what was the best part of the show, Yoko Kanno has mentioned its “gaps” and I feel that fits both in the context that you can fill these gaps as you please and you also need to look deeper to understand what is the sub-text hiding beneath gaps based on the information you are given.

His reaction in the finale episodes does not correlate directly to just a suspicion though. He is very definitively detached and cold toward Julia by then, and he is not the kind of character to be this way based on just a hunch. So, perhaps we are to assume that whatever he learns during this session is definitive enough or he receives some further understanding off-screen to confirm his doubts. I like to believe the idea of him reaching a definitive solution after getting more information off-screen since this also loosely ties in with Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory style of writing which Bebop can be seen to be influenced by which is based on omission.

Julia is named after the Beatles song of the same name, which is considered a reference to Yoko Ono. I found this choice of name and the parallel with the story of Bebop rather fascinating. Lennon’s obsession with Ono took him away from a lot of important things in his life and she is known to have been self-serving and destructive to him in that relationship. Vicious’ voice coming back during a flashback in Jupiter Jazz to warn Spike to be careful when he is with Julia seems oddly reminiscent of what is known to have happened within the Beatles themselves as the band was not comfortable or too trusting of Lennon’s relationship with Ono. In Lennon’s eyes Ono could do no wrong so he lost others close to him, unable to see her through their eyes, without the tint of hopeless love.

Similarly, Spike was distanced from the life he always knew post his association with Julia, something which she did not even follow him through in. Granted, leaving a crime Syndicate is not a bad thing but we do see later that he left people who genuinely cared about him and needed him behind as well. Annie and Mao’s deaths cement this fact-if he was around, they would not have died. I also find it odd that we are shown Mao had people looking out for Spike, not to pursue him in the same way as deserters are pursued, but because he cared for Spike. It was a very paternal and fond act. So what exactly are we to assume convinced Spike to just run away leaving a respected mentor behind with no one left to challenge Vicious? We never see him abandon people who are depending on him otherwise so I always wonder what we are to think created the communication gaps for him.

We do get to see a demo of this ourselves briefly though. In Jupiter Jazz, we see him get into a full-on fight with Jet, who is like a substitute Mao, for the first time, due to his obsession with Julia. They nearly end up parting ways as well till Spike sees reason and swallows his pride to come back. I also found it interesting to find out that, toward the end of the series, the director wanted both Julia and Vicious drawn with similar shades of dark colors, using a lot of black.

There is also the fact that there are three sequences of Spike “resurfacing to consciousness with flashbacks” throughout the series. The first is during Ballad of Fallen Angels, mostly wordless with ‘Green Bird’ playing across the sequences. The images are fairly benign, nostalgic, and sad. He wakes up on a fond memory of asking Julia to sing for him. The second happens during Jupiter Jazz immediately after Vicious has informed him he is aware Julia was in Blue Crow, which I’ll cover below, and the third happens during the movie which is supposed to be set between Episodes 22 and 23, where we no longer see Julia or anything from the Syndicate at-all. While we assume Spike is still stuck on his past by the end of the series, there was a deliberate absence of Julia nostalgia in his flashback here. Yes the events of the film don’t deal with her but an absence of the past here is significant.

Anyway, in the context of Spike in this episode, it starts off with him hearing ‘Code Name Julia’ which seems to hold meaning for him and we see him go batshit nuts.

Jet points out to him that it’s a common name for women, picking up that this name has some significance for him, but he doesn’t listen and gets into a fight with Jet to leave and find her. We could have been shown Spike’s departure in a more cordial manner and less dramatic context as well, but we are deliberately shown that this name has caused him to lose reason and abandon those closest to him to drive the contrast when the same does not happen at the end of the series.

I always get the feeling the whole phrase ‘Code Name Julia’ may have had significance for him, perhaps something we are to understand was used by Julia as a signature in the past. Since that’s just conjecture, let’s assume it’s because of just hearing the name Julia itself.

We see Spike running around Callisto trying to look for Julia, which changes into looking for Vicious as he gets to know his rival will be here. The flashback sequence in Jupiter Jazz happens as a result of Spike’s interaction with Vicious. Spike shows up to mock Vicious asking if he is seeing Julia behind Spike’s back. This is kind of ridiculous on his part since it reflects his insecurity at not knowing where Julia is or what she is up to. He further goads Vicious telling him he feels sorry for her since her name is being used this way.

Vicious calls him out on having been the one leaving others out of the loop, which may refer back to Spike’s plan of leaving the Syndicate. They get ready to settle their old score but Lin intervenes and Vicious mentions to Spike that Julia was in that town.

Now this could definitely just be Vicious being a stalky creep but the way he says it here comes across as taunting. The whole sequence again gives me a very “Beatles and Yoko Ono” vibe. Spike’s reaction is anger, asking Lin to move out of the way so he can shoot Vicious, a reaction of ego. He has been asserting that Julia is his and taunting Vicious but the other man shares information about her Spike himself does not have. Lin shoots Spike with a tranquilizer and Vicious leaves, not too focused on killing Spike at the moment for some reason. It seems like he has other priorities.

Post this sequence, as Spike is coming back to consciousness in Episode 13, there are a couple of scenes in his flashback which seem additional to the “pure” love story we see during Session 5, first being the below said in Vicious’ voice:

The second is Julia’s voice saying ‘Women are all liars.’ There is another sequence earlier in the same flashback which shows a vial of Red-eye in Julia’s home indicating that Vicious, or even Julia herself, may have been a user.

It is re-established that Julia was someone Vicious also had at-least a physical relationship with at some point and we get to know for the first time about Spike’s eyes and their significance plus the fact that he asked Julia to leave with him but she did not show up.

What Julia informs him later in RFB 2 about being threatened by Vicious seems also to be something he is already aware of since he is shown recalling that bit as well.

The flashback of Vicious warning Spike to be careful when he is with Julia seems to indicate that his relationship with her may have already been over and he was aware of Spike dating her but he does not sound too bitter about it, more concerned for his friend.

The flashback in the finale showing Vicious threatening Julia for betraying him may have been referring to the potential plan of leaving the Syndicate rather than a betrayal in the context of a relationship. Perhaps she continued to be an operative for him.

Even in the sequence where he informs Spike that Julia was in town, he does it as a reaction to Spike going on and on with goading him, stating he is feeling sorry for having Julia’s name being used in a shady deal. Vicious seems to mock Spike that he is aware of Julia’s whereabouts and movements, unlike Spike himself.

It could, of course, mean that Julia is on the run out of love for Spike and Vicious is simply hunting her but that does not correlate to Spike suddenly recalling Vicious’ past warning at this point, or with her disappearance from Spike’s third flashback by the time we get to the film. I take that to mean Spike has some epiphany about her as a result of what happens in these episodes and perhaps gets to know something more off-screen. While we can speculate on what exactly this realisation is since we don’t have all the information for a firm answer, whatever it is seems definitive enough for him to end up this way when he is around her next.

versus how we see him react at the very sound of her name at the beginning of these episodes.

When he opens his eyes from this flashback, we are shown his right eye which sees the present, a further potential indicator of moving from the past to being in the present (the previous flashback in Ballad of Fallen Angels was all about his left eye which sees the past).

Considering what we get to know during the episode about the level of betrayal Vicious himself is capable of meting out, him warning Spike to be careful about someone seems doubly ominous. Spike recalling Julia’s words “women are all liars” at this point also seems significant, perhaps indicative that there is some doubt coming in his mind as well. We see him next cruising over the city figuring out the location for Vicious’ deal through his code.

This code ‘Mangan’ with ‘Ura Dora’ are terms from Riichi Mahjong or Japanese Mahjong. Mangan is a hand which has reached 2000 points and Ura Dora is something which a player who has called Riichi and won the game can do i.e. look underneath the Dora tiles which are otherwise not visible during the game. To understand this better, one can always go and learn Mahjong but basically I always feel this is a hint to the audience to look beyond the apparent, to dig a little deeper than the surface level of what is happening. The deal is taking place in Valhalla Basin, which is an actual crater on Callisto. Valhalla is the hall where dead warriors are taken to rest in Norse mythology, referring back to the theme of dying warriors set by Laughing Bull at the beginning of the episode and foreshadowing Gren’s death.

As the screen loads up, we see Spike flash back to Vicious’ words and he looks pensive again, like thinking over their meaning.

At this time, he receives a call from Jet informing him about Gren and the background to ‘Code Name Julia.’

Once again, we see Spike’s expression become pensive in the exact same way it does after recalling Vicious’ words

If you look at this again with the larger context, I always get the feeling he is beginning to think deeper on his situation. This sequence also drives me to once again believe that we are to understand ‘Code Name Julia’ is likely a signature Julia may have used in previous operations, leading its use by Gren specifically to hold more meaning for Spike. He seems to be pondering over the information he has received, maybe wondering why was Julia in a town where Vicious again happens to be making a deal with an escaped convict, who is likely to have known her while she was there too (Julius the drag queen had asked Spike to go meet Gren for information on Julia).

We see the sequence between Gren and Vicious next where both have come prepared to kill the other and we get to know that it was Julia who helped Gren locate the transmitter within the music box, helping him realise Vicious was the one who betrayed him. Vicious does not seem too phased by this, he just frowns briefly.

Earlier, I always assumed this action of Julia’s was to help Gren in understanding that he had been betrayed by Vicious, an act of helping and protecting him. But we see Gren living in the same situation even after the discovery of the transmitter within the music box meaning that there is either no legal recourse left for him to take to get himself acquitted of his charges now, he is too hurt to bother about that, or the music box being opened up has destroyed whatever evidence he had against Vicious.

This realisation also puts him on a self-destructive path of seeking answers and revenge from Vicious, ultimately leading to his death. The more I think about it now it feels to me like we can draw an inference that Julia shows up on Callisto intentionally, either to destroy the evidence which can possibly implicate Vicious for war crimes in the future, or to close some other loose end with Gren. Of course, it could just be that all of this happens coincidentally and she is actually trying to help Gren but that is again not aligned to the episode deliberately adding a note of deception to her character.

The use of ‘Code Name Julia’ by Gren seems intended as a reference back to the song from the music box and not the actual woman herself since Gren is not likely to be aware Vicious knows Julia has been to Callisto or to want to reveal his connection to her before the deal, believing her to be anti-Vicious.

The deal goes to hell, Lin dies, and a three-way dog fight ensues which results in part of Vicious’ ship getting blown but him escaping and Gren taking a mortal hit. As he lies dying, Spike finds him and Gren requests to be put on the path to Titan.

Spike knew Vicious well so he is bound to know Vicious also served in Titan. He can see how emotionally attached Gren is to the place as well and I feel we can understand he makes the past connection between Gren and Vicious.

As he puts Gren in the shuttle, the dying man finally speaks of having known Julia closely. She has told Gren about Spike’s multi-hued eyes.

Spike asks Gren what she was doing there and he informs Spike she would sit in his club and request the same tune each time. He speaks about her sad smile and we see the shot cut to Spike’s face which bears a sad and painful expression.

Perhaps Spike is familiar with a tune which is a favourite of Julia’s and holds significance to her relationship with Vicious since we have seen Vicious carry a music box earlier playing the tune Gren plays on his sax. Given the war happened a few years ago, this is likely to have been before Spike dated her.

The first few times I watched these episodes years ago as a teen, I always came back feeling wrenched at the idea of Julia wandering the world alone and running into Gren with whom she shares her sorrow and her love for Spike. Gren, who has also been hurt and betrayed by Vicious. I always assumed Vicious just happens to be there on Callisto because called by Gren and never really tried to make the connection between these events or their larger implication on the series. The sequences with Vicious warning Spike and Julia saying women are all liars never really registered, just felt like some fluff content from his past, the kind of dramatic things you say in shows about lovers and criminals.

But even as a kid I was always a bit confused by the fact that, while we are shown Spike has not informed Jet in three years about his connection with the Syndicate, we are shown that Julia opens up to Gren in just a few days about her connections to Vicious, the Syndicate, and Spike as well. If she is truly on the run all alone, her situation is way more desperate that Spike’s so this would be an extremely dangerous thing to do. When Faye meets Gren, she is shown as guarded, never revealing the names of her comrades or any specific details about them or herself despite the fact that at this point she is governed by a raging death wish.

This is not Sex in the City where you sit around and gossip about your love life to your gay bestie. If Julia was truly desperately on the run from Vicious and the Syndicate, she would not trust anyone with this information, least of all someone who knew Vicious before, not knowing how it could get back to the people she is running for her life from. Again conjecture only, but I feel this is the final bit of information which convinces Spike that all is not what it seems with Julia.

Perhaps he makes the connection between the man dying in his arms, his attachment to Titan where Vicious served, his admiration for Julia who has also met him, and has revealed intimate details about her life to Gren, details which could make being on the run very difficult for her. The topic of Spike had no reason to come up with Gren, even if he became her best friend during that one month, since that could really get her killed. And that’s why I feel we are to understand that a reason Julia could have mentioned Spike to Gren would have been to establish solidarity with him, to play on his emotions.

Gren does not seem like the smartest cookie in the box since he cannot figure out the transmitter situation or see Vicious for who he really is. Therefore, again conjecture, but it’s possible to feel Julia worked on the same aspect with him, playing on his emotional side, getting him to lower his guard and present herself as the grieving lover of Vicious’ rival to get him to share his own Vicious story with her, causing him to share about the music box with her. She requests the same tune as the music box from Gren to initiate the connect with him. Maybe we are to assume Spike reaches his definitive conclusions about her basis other information he gathers in the background of the series but I do feel all of this does not add up to him if memories of being warned about Julia begin to surface up in his recollections.

We see Spike tow Gren into space and then return to the Bebop, never looking for Julia again.

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