Macross Plus: The Masterpiece Almost-fake Macross

So I love Macross as a whole but when I compare Macross Plus with the overall Macross Franchise, it is both very much Macross and very much not Macross at the same time. It’s got the basics but it executes them in a very different way and I feel this is because of the involvement of Keiko Nobumoto and Shinichiro Watanabe who brought in a very different style of storytelling, while still sticking to the base motifs of Macross, that was also seen later in Cowboy Bebop and some of Watanabe’s other works.

I can’t comment much on the newer Macross stuff simply because I haven’t seen a lot of it but legacy Macross is what I fell in love with…like everything up to Macross 7 so I am comparing this to that plus some reading I did on the newer instalments. Macross Zero recently caught my attention and seemed very promising so that’s a pending watch.

Why I love the Macross Franchise

It’s really quite simple-the storytelling is great considering the context. It manages to touch upon deep themes, has a strong focus on human relationships, and doesn’t take itself all that seriously. Sample the below for instance-one of my favourite sequences in the entire franchise. These are two Zentradi, a race which segregates males and females, displaying a kiss to their hostages ironically in order to make fun of human “culture.” It goes on a while and Lap’Lamiz, the lady involved, is clearly annoyed when it ends commenting on how the “culture” was just getting good. This is during a pretty serious sequence in the show by the way. Doesn’t take its own super-scary villains seriously. Total goofball moment.

Macross will generally involve long multi-episodic storylines which may get extended into OVAs with generally some sort of ongoing conflict with aliens or some external enemy, a love triangle of some sort, and the use of music as a weapon, sometimes to evoke the humanity in the opponent, other times to use as a force or energy of some sort. It’s been a while since I watched Macross in full and I do have real life commitments which don’t leave me time to revisit things like this as often as I would like to so I am writing about everything beyond Plus from memory. If I make any factual errors or deviations, please feel free to highlight.

Why I call Macross Plus the “masterpiece but almost-fake Macross”

Like I mentioned at the beginning, it takes the same raw materials but executes them very differently and in very signature Watanabe/Nobumoto styles.

A Story of the Human Experience / Absence of External Villains

Watanabe/Nobumoto stories generally tend to be ones of human conflict rather than a “them versus us” scenario. Spike Spiegel is ultimately struggling against the fallouts of the relationship with his best friend gone wrong. The Bebop crew may go up against a cult in one session or try to catch a drug peddler but they will ultimately end up being stories of people and their lives. Despite being set in space, Bebop does not have space invaders or alien armies. Similarly, Jin, Foo, and Mugen in Samurai Champloo do not have some ultimate “dark lord” they are fighting but their own pasts and, despite the theme of samurai, the show is more about their own emotional journey and learnings. I could go on.

The Macross franchise always involves external villains, largely space alien warriors, but Macross Plus has a very obvious lack of anything of the sort. In fact, peace with the villains who were being fought in its predecessor is actually called out in it and one of our protagonists is part-Zentradi thus eliminating even the legacy motif of villains and telling a story from a fresh slate. Macross Plus is simply a story of the emotional journeys of its main characters dealing with their own pasts and their mutual relationships gone wrong even as they go about their everyday lives which also happen to feature transforming fighter crafts.

There is something of a villain in the form of Sharon Apple but she is again very much not an external villain. Just like the cult leader Londes in Bebop’s episode of ‘Brain Scratch’ who is just a manifestation of the dreams-gone-wrong of a hacker in a coma or the satellite MPU in ‘Jamming with Edward’ which begins to draw patterns on earth because it got lonely, Sharon spiralling out of controls is also a manifestation of human actions and emotions gone wrong. She is not someone who comes in from outside and attacks our heroes but a fallout of Myung’s devastated state of mind caused by the conflicts in her relationships with two men who meant a lot to her.

There are many other very poignant themes also touched on like the fallouts of misplace egos, consent, man-machine interface etc. which again make Macross Plus much more of a “human experience” story than other parts of the franchise.

The Love Triangle

In typical Macross the love triangle will run alongside the overall story but in Macross Plus it is very much the story. Like I mentioned above, since it is more focused on the interpersonal journeys of its protagonists everything in it ties back to it. Isamu and Guld’s conflict is driven very much by one incident involving the same woman and that is called out again and again as they get into unnecessary fights when their focus should be on the crafts they are test pilots for.

There is also the added layer of their own former friendship with each other that often trumps even whatever they may feel for Myung. The end of the series with Guld’s realisation and the boys patching up is actually the major conflict-resolution post which everything else falls in place as well. Even the scenarios of AI going wrong are built into the love triangle with Sharon’s spiral mirroring Myung’s own suppressed feelings for Isamu. I’m not saying that the love triangle is everything (I mean Marge did solid work to fuck up things too) but it is way more centre-stage here than it would be in other instalments of the franchise. It is also very reminiscent of the later love triangle of Spike-Vicious-Julia from Cowboy Bebop which essentially drove that story but I’ll write more on that when I compare the two series.

The Power of Music

This is again a very key Macross motif where music may be presented as this ultimate weapon capable of magically disarming scary villains. Going again with the subtle and much more mature style of storytelling signature to Watanabe/Nobumoto, the role of music here changes completely. Music becomes a symbol for Myung’s loss of her own self since she gives up singing after what happens with Guld and Isamu. This in turn causes music to become a weapon but not for eliminating villains but rather a weapon against humanity with Sharon spiralling out of control. It is finally restored to its original Macross motif as a defender of humanity when Myung sings ‘Voices’ to Isamu causing him to snap out of the trance Sharon has placed her in.

Ultimately, this entire arc seems to me a representation of a very key theme in Macross Plus which is man-machine interface regarding which the general stance of the series seems to be that technology replacing humans completely is a dangerous path to take. Human involvement needs to be balanced with technological advancement so we are not reduced to mere toys in the hands of a machine incapable of judging right from wrong or replicating human actions and emotions without the sentient capacity to actually understand them. The same music in Sharon’s hands becomes a weapon as she thinks she is acting out of love for Isamu, an emotion she cannot really understand as a machine, while coming from Myung it is a healer since it comes from a space of true love for Isamu which she as a human is actually capable of feeling.

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Carole & Tuesday, Bebop, and Dandy: Observations on World Building

Spoiler Free: I have been watching Carole and Tuesday lately and couldn’t help but pick up some observations on its world-building and how it compares/contrasts to some of the other works like Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy set in the same universe. Unfortunately my watch of this show has been a bit slow. Never been too gung-ho on Shoujo as a category but this is a bit more sophisticated version of the typical Shoujo so am managing and it’s started to pick up now.

What’s interesting to me as I watch this though is how differently the common world it shares with Cowboy Bebop is built in both shows, using the same raw materials, to align with each of their drastically divergent stories and atmospheres. Each story would feel out of place in the world of the other.

Carole & Tuesday: ‘Cardcaptor Sakura’ Watanabe edition

My first sense when I see Carole and Tuesday is ‘Cardcaptor Sakura’ Watanabe edition. And I say that with a lot of love, not to mock it. If you know me, you’ll know I’ve always loved CLAMP so I’m making that comparison because there is a certain typically-shoujo wholesomeness, optimism, visual beauty, and innocence to Cardcaptor Sakura which this also keeps reminding me of for whatever reason. It’s the story of two young girls making music and visually is very beautiful but the story is pretty straightforward unlike some of the mind-bending stuff the guy makes. It’s got the emotions and the soft sentimentality, the “real” characters which I’ve come to expect from Watanabe but seems to also be free of the expectations of effort you get from many of his creations too, where a lot is left to the audience to figure out. Carole and Tuesday is telling me everything very clearly so far and I’m surprised, delighted, and just a very slight bit disappointed too maybe because I’m so used to filling in gaps and dissecting their stuff. Still fairly early in my watch though so let’s see.

Common Universe with Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy

The show is set in the same general universe as Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy with the base location being Alba city on Mars for both Carole and Tuesday as well as the Cowboy Bebop movie Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. The currency in both shows is the Woolong, which is the same as Space Dandy as well, thus indicating a common universe again. However, Space Dandy seems set many years in the future from Bebop and is also apparently an anime in the Carole and Tuesday universe. The fridge from Bebop and its blob monster make an appearance in Space Dandy too so that’s all three of them tied in together.

Space Dandy as an anime in the world of Carole and Tuesday

Meow in Space Dandy finds the fridge which Spike chucked out during Toys in the Attic in Cowboy Bebop

World of Carole and Tuesday vs. World of Cowboy Bebop

This is the most direct comparison since both the anime are set in similar time frames i.e. within a few years of humanity’s colonisation of other planets. But like I said, they are two completely different worlds. Cowboy Bebop’s visuals are largely reminiscent of the world we currently inhabit while Carole and Tuesday is a softer version of the current world plus a fair mix of the futuristic. In fact, the colour palettes and generally lighter vibes of Space Dandy and Carole and Tuesday feel more compatible than the absolutely dark and heavy world of Cowboy Bebop. That’s why I feel that Cowboy Bebop and Carole and Tuesday may be “alternate universe” versions of earth’s future (please refer my conspiracy theories below) though actually they don’t need to be connected to each other in any way since both are very different shows.

In alignment with the story it tells, Carole and Tuesday is visually all bright colours, soft edges, the kind of world two girls can make a music career in. There’s quite a bit of innocence in it, unlike Bebop which is more a motif of lost fortunes and an unforgiving world all around. The leaning toward solid primary colour shades of Bebop is replaced by softer hues. Alba City looks radically different in both shows. It’s all hip and pop culture in Carole and Tuesday. We see the monorail running by multiple times but hard to imagine Spike Spiegel doing a river dive from it.

Alba in Bebop looked just like NYC, which has the reputation of a tough city to survive in, with tones of Morocco thrown in-again not a particularly “first world” connection. Carole and Tuesday’s Alba looks more futuristic with the pointed spires on buildings rather than the normal skyscrapers from Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. Apart from the monorail, the river and the bridge on it are also consistent in both depictions but again appear a bit…softer, more romantic.

In Carole and Tuesday, we are given a world with established cities, technology designed for human comfort and not just sustenance, and so it is somewhat believable seeing Carole living by herself in a rather nice apartment (similar to such inexplicably nice apartments we may often see in American sitcoms) even without any parents versus the world of Bebop which is filled with frontier towns, noir cities, shady bars, tumbleweeds, technology focused only on the bare minimum needed for human survival where Edward being knocked around all over the place, surviving however she can from orphanage to a random spaceship, seems like a very plausible reality.

The technology in Carole and Tuesday is also much more “sci-fi” and advanced in general with AI musicians (reminiscent of Macross Plus, another anime by Watanabe), self-operating luggage etc. very different from Bebop where everyday technology seems either unchanged or even to have taken a step back at-times.

Just like in the world-building of Bebop, where there are many familiar aspects like cities which look like dilapidated earth cities, space truckers, amusement parks etc. thrown in to give that sense of continuation of our current world but on other planets, Carole and Tuesday features Instagram and online influencers, reality shows etc. quite similar to our world. There is a lot more reference to earth locations unlike Bebop which just featured Singapore’s Merlion without even naming the city. Alba in Carole and Tuesday feels very much like an Earth city, a fairly hip one, but definitely in a futuristic avatar, while Alba in Bebop is, while far more civilised than the show’s usual locales, still very much a 20th century earth city.

The Woolong in each Universe

The Bebop Woolong is a highly depreciated currency, similar to what the Yen is like. When the show was made, Japan was also going through a period of economic setback which may have influenced its makers. Going with the theme of dystopia and poverty in Bebop, a million Woolongs doesn’t really mean a whole lot in that universe (try buying something in Yens and you’ll know what I mean). However, in the world of Carole and Tuesday, the Woolong seems valued more like the dollar and you can buy a meal for four with 42 Woos, get paid 980 woos for playing a song in the Cydonia Festival which means no need for a part-time job for a bit, and buy an (albeit under-priced but still) AI for 19 Woolongs. Again far less dystopian than a world where bounty hunters put their lives at risk for millions of Woolongs, where Whitney Haggis Matsumoto being worth 19,800 Woolongs was smallest of the small fry, and where a watermelon cost 1000 Woolongs in Mushroom Samba. In the world of Space Dandy, the Woolong is even stronger with one Woolong being worth USD 59.47 apparently since it’s linked to Bitcoins.

Random Conspiracy Theories

The three worlds don’t necessarily need to be connected to each other since there is no continuity to them in any way but what’s the fun in that so here’s me just speculating a couple of theories around this connection. It’s not relevant to the enjoyment of any of these shows, just a bit of musing for fun. Personally, I feel including Space Dandy as a TV show in Carole and Tuesday feels like Watanabe telling the viewer to not take things so seriously-they’re all just TV shows but anyway.

Theory 1: Cowboy Bebop is the “Lost” Future of Carole and Tuesday

The timelines of when exactly Carole and Tuesday takes place are not very clear and no year is given but the official website mentions it’s set 50 years since humanity began migrating to Mars. The timelines for Cowboy Bebop are clear and it occurs in the year 2071 (it’s mentioned in the Bebop “manifesto” and on Meifa’s Dad’s gravestone and I’m sure other places too) so it happens 49 years after the Gate incident in 2022 post which Earth was largely abandoned. Interplanetary colonization would definitely have had to be a reality before this if the gates were already set up and mankind was established enough off-planet to be able to flee.

Mars seems to be the bastion of civilization in Bebop so I always took it to be one of the first planets to be colonized but it could have been done later too. If not later, then Carole and Tuesday could be set a decade or so before the events of Bebop. It’s a more futuristic world to Bebop so seems more fitting for it to come after but this is how the timelines align and people in Carole and Tuesday speak of Earth in ways which feel like the planet has more recency, some characters are even born on Earth before moving to Mars, including Carole who stays in a refugee colony on earth initially, while in Bebop Earth is positioned as more a thing of the distant past. It feels more lived-in than a planet which still has refugee colonies but could be whatever. Also, Alba in Bebop is way more dilapidated than its shiny avatar in Carole and Tuesday, a “has-been” world if you please.

Is the world of Cowboy Bebop therefore one which has resulted post a collapse of the much more regulated and stable world in Carole and Tuesday similar to Japan going through its “lost decade” or economic collapse around the time that Cowboy Bebop was created? The transformation in Japan was definitely not this extreme but stories like that have happened in our world too of great nations collapsing economically and transforming. The two worlds are definitely not the same so the stories decidedly do not take place at the same time in the same universe. Yes, the Bebop crew lives on the edges of society but the whole universe of Cowboy Bebop is much darker, way more dystopian, and dilapidated than that of Carole and Tuesday and, as we have covered already, Alba itself is a completely different city in both. However, given the “frontier town” feels of Bebop I get skeptical of this theory and like the “alternate universe” one better (less depressing too).

Theory 2: Alternate Universes of Earth’s Future

This article has conjectured that the appearance of Space Dandy in Carole and Tuesday means that SD and CB are both TV shows in the Carole and Tuesday universe which I find to be a pretty cool theory. I personally also conjecture if, since Space Dandy plays around so much with the idea of Alternate Universes, Carole and Tuesday and Cowboy Bebop could be alternate universe versions of Earth’s future. Space Dandy could therefore be the future world of Cowboy Bebop where Bounty Hunting slowly morphs into alien hunting and has also ended up as a TV show in its alternate universe…something like that. There’s also an interview where Watanabe has mentioned the fridge from Bebop crossed a wormhole and ended up in the universe of Dandy. It’s a goofball reply and I don’t think he really cared much about any “connectivity” to the universes himself. They’re all just anime and it doesn’t matter what happens when or what is what in which world.

Other Sundry Aspects

For a show which is about music, I am ok with the music for the show but not blown away. It could be my music taste maybe since am not too big on pop in general. Perhaps my favourite track is ‘The Loneliest Girl’ and I hated ‘Round & Laundry.’ The music is by Mocky who I understand is a Canadian artist. The softness of the pop is again very compatible to the softer world-building versus the sad, rough-edged blues, jazz, ballads, and cold rock of Bebop.

Not sure if it was intentional but the “tears they won’t dry” of ‘Loneliest Girl’ reminded me of the lyrics of The Real Folk Blues and Tuesday even quips ‘Whatever happens, happens’ at one point when she decides to stop hiding her identity from her mother. Like I said, it’s still early days for me in my watch and I have high hopes that the show will surprise me as I go forward.

I missed linking this earlier but you can click here for the interview by Watanabe talking more on Carole and Tuesday or check out the show’s website here.

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Tokyo Godfathers: Misfits and Miracles (some assembly required)

Tokyo Godfathers is a creation of one of the “greats’ of anime Satoshi Kon, who both directed it and wrote the base story for the film. Cherry on top was the screenplay being written by another of the greats Keiko Nobumoto (someone I can never find enough words to gush about). To put in simple terms, Tokyo Godfathers is the story of three homeless people who find a baby and try to unite her with her lost family, loosely inspired from the Western ‘3 Godfathers.’ But that’s probably about where the usage of the term “simple” ends for this story.

Just like Keiko Nobumoto, Satoshi Kon is also no longer with us but he is responsible for works like Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress etc. which are still counted amongst the seminal pieces in anime. In my opinion, Tokyo Godfathers definitely deserves its place alongside those pieces because of its beautiful heart-breaking humanity bundled under a layer of humour and a story which seems almost ridiculous at times but is very rich and deep.

Kon’s films generally play around with the element of surrealism quite a bit and, while this is perhaps not as overtly visible in Tokyo Godfathers, it’s present in a very different way. The surrealism here is in the presence of a crazy amount of coincidences which basically become the drivers of the story. It doesn’t even try to be subtle about it, with Deus ex Machina being pretty much the main force behind the narrative. The film is a moment in the lives of these characters who live on the opposite end of miracles when the universe seems to suddenly realign itself around them. (If you are also reading my stuff on Cowboy Bebop where I’ve talked about coincidences which are likely not coincidences at-all, this is a very different kind of coincidences so don’t worry-I watched both around the same time and did this hygiene check already.)

Our main characters in Tokyo Godfathers are a transgender woman, an ex-gambler who lost his family to his addiction, and a young girl who ran away from home after stabbing her policeman father. All three seem to have no home or families when the story begins but we eventually find out they have all ended up living on the streets through misguided choices they themselves made. The baby Kiyoko comes into their lives as the catalyst for a series of miracles which bring all three back to the lives and people they lost even as they literally put their own lives on the line to help her find where she belongs.

The film is set in the middle of winter on New Year’s Eve and the city of Tokyo is very much a character in it, not as the megalopolis but as an exposed underbelly, depicted through abandoned parks, dark alleys and back streets, locales which would be most familiar to those existing on the fringes of society. The “real lives” of its citizens are always apparent, always visible in the background, as our “invisible” protagonists seem to exist almost in another dimension, unwanted and unwelcome, weaving in and out of them.

The atmosphere of winter and a vague reminiscence of Christmas further props up the aura of a “Christmas miracle” which is never quite voiced but still very palpable in the film. In line with the desolate lives of our protagonists though, this is also executed with a twist where a man who looks like Santa Claus gets happy drunk before dying with his body desecrated by hooligans and the “angel” who shows up to rescue a grievously hurt Gin turns out to be a drag queen formerly known to Hana.

Reminders of Nobumoto-san and Bebop

Both the creators of Tokyo Godfathers were masters of understanding broken, unloved individuals dealing with things beyond the normal but a lot of the humanity and “slice of life” element in the story and areas where it departs from Satoshi Kon’s typical works always remind me of the other works of Keiko Nobumoto, especially Cowboy Bebop.

For me personally, Nobumoto-san’s execution of the “found family” dynamic is what I have loved most about her other works like Cowboy Bebop and Wolf’s Rain, and Tokyo Godfathers carries that legacy forward. It’s the story of a found family which seems to not care about each other if you go by what they are saying but whatever they deny matters to them the most, extremely reminiscent of the apparently nonchalant Bebop ensemble who all matter a lot to each other but seeing them you’d never know it. This also overlaps with another running theme in the movie of feeling unloved by those who care deeply about us, a motif which is played around with quite a bit in Bebop as well.

Nobumoto-san was a master of writing characters toeing the line of morality with motifs like gambling, debt, neglect of loved ones etc. but still managing to take a 3 dimensional view to them rather than that of moral judgement. Her writing of queer characters is also something which I have not seen executed quite as well in mainstream anime elsewhere. While yes, there are problematic elements which do crop up whenever anime touches on these themes due to the norms of the time or the culture of the country but she has written characters like Gren and Hana with such beautiful poignance, insight, and sympathy that both stand out as human beings and not caricatures of the category they happen to fall into. Hana’s longing to be a mother despite the body she was born into is dealt with beautiful empathy.

Another Nobumoto motif which seems to play out in Tokyo Godfathers is the telling of the story of the Blue and Red Devils (honestly I have no way of knowing if this was her or Kon but given the parallel I would like to think it was her) used to parallel the story and state of mind of key characters, very reminiscent of the two stories told during ‘The Real Folk Blues’ at the end of Cowboy Bebop, episodes which she wrote herself.

Why you should watch Tokyo Godfathers…

If you are someone who does not enjoy sentimental stories, this is probably not one for you. It’s not an overtly sentimental one prima facie and there is plenty of humour peppered in but the complex equations between the central characters and the people they encounter along the way as well as the people who abandoned them or whom they abandoned require you to really strap on that EQ. It also tugs at your heart quite a bit and this watch was perhaps the first time I have managed to get through it without crying so fair warning on that too. But if you enjoy complex storytelling, well-meshed out characters, and slice of life stories where not a lot happens but that’s the best part, this one is definitely for you.

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Why Cowboy Bebop is Not ‘Just One Thing’

cowboy bebop

More musings, probably because this is a space I am distracting myself with for the time being from some major life changes till I need to go deal with them. I’ve written so much on Bebop and have quite a bit more I want to cover-some days I get alarmed at the volume of content here too but then I know I won’t be doing this forever so if it’s with me at this point in time let me do what it’s asking me to do. This will hang around here after I’m done and maybe someone else can do something else with it.

I’ve talked elsewhere about how the show is a mish-mash of multiple ideas, references, and influences. I doubt anyone can cover them all but in bits and pieces people do keep making the connections-I’ve made some, others have made some. We keep piecing it together and finding new ones two decades later and that’s incredibly impressive. In the same way, it’s also a mish-mash of multiple themes and stories happening at once and really cannot be clubbed down under one particular category. It doesn’t take itself very seriously either which is the greatest respect it pays to its viewer.

If you feel they are messing with you…you are right

One thing I claim to be absolutely clear on, and perhaps the only thing, is that Bebop’s creators did all the mind-fuckery in the show pretty intentionally. It’s a classic trait of genius creators, as can be witnessed in the existence of multiple PhDs and books which most of the seminal works of the world inspire. It’s not just a story and that’s very important to remember. You are given this great piece of art with absolutely nothing to interpret it with. The anime guides, as I have already mentioned, are likely intentionally ambiguous in explaining the series beyond lore information to not lead the viewer along. The people who made it refuse to give a straight answer about it in interviews. They’ve also started leaving the planet so there is that too. (I love Nobumoto-san for a lot more than just Bebop. This is not me being disrespectful, just kind of sad).

If you watch/read the interviews of the creators, there will be ambiguity and contradictory information galore. Watanabe may claim he did not intend any lessons for the viewer in the show and then have an episode in there with everyone talking about their own lessons. But those are lessons learned by the characters. Are they intended for the viewer? Sure. If you want them but you don’t have to take them and often it’s advisable you don’t because you’re also being shown a cautionary tale of what happens if you follow them…which by itself is a lesson.

I’m not saying everything said in interviews is nonsense. I’ve based some critical pieces on interview snippets but it comes down to seeing if what is being said actually resonates with what is being shown or not.

It doesn’t take itself very seriously

The series is always telling a story and critiquing itself for telling that particular story at the same time. It’s showing characters, glorifying them, building them up, and then ridiculing them, pulling them back down simultaneously. It is not just one thing and it will never be. It is an amalgam of multiple conflicting aspects in the same manner as none of its characters are just one thing. They are people in the story and also giant metaphors and lessons at the same time. Which is why you will often see them acting very differently and inconsistently across episodes and you need to fit complementary parts together to figure out who they really are and what the actual running story is, eliminating what is just metaphorical or humorous fluff added to drive a point. Factor all of it in while trying to understand them and you’ll end up with a giant mess.

Most shows are written by a team of writers but in Bebop’s case, the individual personalities and styles of different writers seem to have been allowed to reflect in what they wrote with just some basics loosely remaining consistent across episodes. Even when it comes to references or influences, they may be both intentional and unintentional, shaped by the experiences and contexts of individual writers. Similarly, lessons may be both intentional and unintentional, impacted by the lessons and values each one has picked up along their journeys and may vary widely.

Keiko Nobumoto has mentioned in interviews that as “Head Writer” of a team of nine writers, she mostly just ensured that the crew did not become too out of character or things were not inconsistent with the whole. Apart from this, writers were free to write as they liked and it does reflect in how different episodes written by different writers are.

Whatever happens, happens

This inconsistency is also why you will see me contradicting myself often across essays. And likely anyone else writing about it would run into the same trap. There are days when I talk about all of it being pointless and others where I’ve written multi-part series chalking out progression of story and characters. It’s because all of it is happening simultaneously, because that’s what holds true for that particular piece of the show in its context.Whatever I am talking about may have taken up a theme or piece of story never touched elsewhere and hence I’m talking in the confines of that alternate universe. It may also change basis the lens I’m talking from because there may be one thing going on from the perspective of storytelling while something else entirely from the perspective of philosophy or metaphor.

And that’s probably why works like this end up with people getting into very heated debates about their views on them. It’s like that situation with the dress some people see in one color and others see in another which drove the internet crazy….except it’s 20 dresses at-once and each can be seen in 25+ colors. And everyone wants to prove that only what they are seeing is the right one but it’s not quite as narrow as that. Even references in Bebop will rarely be a 100% copy or homage of something else. There may be two or three things mixed together to make one thing depicted in the show but they are done with such depth and breath and an understanding of human psychology and behaviour that it still ends up being a pretty good snapshot of the contemporary world, still relevant today after 20+ years.

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Why You May Need Hemingway to Understand Cowboy Bebop

Remember that story at the end which Jet tells about the man going to Kilimanjaro? That’s a story called ‘The Snows of Mount Kilimanjaro’ by Ernst Hemingway. Prima facie, this seems to be the only allusion Cowboy Bebop does to Hemingway but, if you are familiar with the man’s writing, you may get a sense that this moment is simply a culmination of a giant love letter the series has written to Hemingway all along through its style of storytelling, motifs, imagery etc. In fact, to me it feels like one of the most significant homages, one which may help you interpret the episodes better. And no, I don’t have anything definitive from any of the creators saying they used this. I am going off the reference to Hemingway, appearance of his signature motifs in the show, similarity with Hemingway’s writing style in the omission-based style of storytelling the series does, and my own analysis to draw this conclusion.

It’s like a code. If you know it, you’ll know what to look out for, what to catch, you’ll know the pattern. If you don’t, you’ll still get something great but might miss out on quite a bit of context needed to interpret the series, ignore subtle stuff which is extremely important. Hemingway was definitely a great writer though there are aspects of him which I don’t appreciate too much personally but Bebop mostly picked up some of the better aspects thankfully.

The show is a mix of occidental and oriental influences and Hemingway is a big one from the former. But they do mix up multiple influences during execution so many of the themes picked up from Hemingway may also be built on further from other areas like nihilism, stoicism, spirituality, theatre, (any of the number of minimalistic theatre forms like Noh, Theatre of the Absurd etc.) history and more to get the final effect. But Hemingway feels critical to me because his Iceberg Theory is very similar to Bebop’s style of storytelling.

Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory and Bebop’s Style of Writing

Also known as the ‘Theory of Omission’ this is the classic style of writing which Hemingway followed in his short stories and is pretty much the style Bebop was written with. Describing it, Hemingway has stated that “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Hemingway believed that you could omit critical events from a story to make it even more powerful. In the short story ‘The Big Two-Hearted River’ the protagonist Nick goes fishing. The heart of it is about him recovering from the horrors of World War I, which is not even mentioned once during the entire story. It’s a theme in most of Hemingway’s works where what is not told is as important as what is being told or what is being downplayed is exactly where you need to focus your attention.

Why something is happening is not told but as it happens you do get enough context to understand what likely led to it though those details are not expressly revealed. Playing the evidence game of needing everything to be told or shown does not work in Hemingway just as it does not work in Bebop. I see the term ‘headcanon’ get thrown around with quite a bit of contempt in discussions on Bebop sometimes but the fact is the writer is depending on your headcanon. It’s encouraged and required, not something contemptible. You can read more about the theory on the net but the biggest example of it in Bebop is Spike’s past. We are dropped abruptly in the middle of the story one day with Vicious killing Mao, given zero insight into it except for flashes, and that makes it even more powerful. If it seems confusing, it’s because it was done very intentionally, urging the viewer to look beyond the obvious, to put together the clues you are given to understand the truth.

This is abundant in the narrative. Even when the series starts, there is no time spent to set context, nothing is narrated to the viewer. Spike and Jet are in the middle of their lives and we just get started with them. Multiple important incidents or pieces of information are omitted. What is the incident which makes Faye run away before Jupiter Jazz? Doohan is introduced abruptly as if he has been a recurring character with zero background, no insight ever given into who sends Faye the video, no insight into what Julia has been upto the time we have not seen her or what her true nature of association with Spike/Vicious was, or what exactly happened in the meantime that Spike is so cold to her at the end. These are things which conventional shows would spend multiples episodes, if not seasons, on but Bebop just conveniently skips them and all it does is make the impact that much more.

While no series can show you every minute of a character’s life, most would make the audience a “confidante” for the main characters. Shows like Bebop will do the opposite. There will be a very clear understanding built that what we are seeing is not the entirety of what is going on. The characters’ lives are happening and we are getting only some snippets of them which we need to put together to understand what they are actually up to. Pierrot Le Fou just opens up on Spike playing pool with some stranger who seems to be a regular acquaintance from the nod he gives him but could also be a complete stranger. The person appears on the screen only as they are exiting. Faye mentions Spike was going to bag Teddy Bomber as a minor task during his trip but what was the trip for? No indication. What exactly was Vicious’ plan and how has it been running while the series we know was happening, culminating in the coup at the end? Again, no apparent information but if you sit down and analyse what you know deeply the patterns do emerge

And this is exactly why interpreting the show basis what we see on screen is a very bad idea because it cannot give you a full picture. It will give you ‘A Picture’ but often a partial one. The story of Tamatebakko is told in an episode toward the end of the series but it’s been played out already in the arc of Wen many episodes back. It’s important toward understanding what led an eight year old boy to become a callous criminal, which in turn gives insight to what turned a naive girl into a reckless gambler and generally difficult individual. Innocuous episodes like Toys in the Attic, Mushroom Samba, and Cowboy Funk seem to be just funny fillers but dissect them deeper and you’ll find a whole layer of metaphorical storytelling which is perhaps as important for understanding Cowboy Bebop as the events of the more story-heavy episodes.

We are never told why Faye runs away and it’s very easy to brush it off saying ‘oh she’s just like that’ but watch the episode closely enough and it is possible to construct a pretty good picture of why. Spike comes across as this callous man with no regard for others or his own safety but dissect his actions closely and you realise who he really is. Jet becomes the mirror through which we view the ending events of the series but think about it closely enough and you realise how partial the picture he had a view to was and how much more information the viewer is given to construct a better one.

Other Hemingway Motifs

Apart from the style of writing, the series has multiple other motifs which are classics of Hemingway’s storytelling strewn across it.

The Theme of Nothing…which is actually Everything

While announcing the episode ‘Speak like a Child’ post the end credits, Jet plays it down saying the story doesn’t really go anywhere, ending is forced etc. This is a key episode in the anime about the backstory of a major character and also ties in with the ending of the series directly. Do you see my point about downplaying important stuff? This is basically it. You’ll find a lot of articles/videos on the net which talk about why Bebop is a story of ‘nothing” but is that really true? What are we doing during 26 episodes then? This is a deflective motif again picked up from Hemingway (and likely other areas like nihilism as well though Bebop in its true form is not as nihilistic as it looks prima facie but that’s my opinion).

For instance, in Hemingway’s story ‘A Clean Well-lit Place’ nothing really happens. It’s just a few scenes and at the end there is a stream of consciousness rant with the word ‘nada’ repeated multiple times. But that entire sequence is critical to understanding two main characters in the story and the similarity of their circumstances. Similarly, in Bebop seemingly meaningless sequences like Spike and Jet at the antique electronics store or diving into the bowels of the earth to get the Betamax player, even as Jet claims it’s all so he can watch the tape which he paid a very paltry sum for, are critical to understanding both characters and how much they care for and want to help Faye out. I always believe Jet knows some parts of her situation and maybe that’s what leads him to taking her in on the ship in the first place. This episode shows a very empathetic side of both the Bebop boys as they try to help their friend. It also shows their understanding of each other. Spike tears up the boxes knowing Jet will never return them but giving him an excuse to side-step his own pride and keep the packages now.

The characters of Bebop, just like the ones written by Hemingway, are all damaged and repressed in their emotions and that’s why you have to really squint and understand the deeper meaning of why someone is doing what they are doing. The main crew actually care deeply about each other even though if you don’t pay attention it will seem like they don’t give a damn. But their ways of expression are very subtle and far from perfect. What someone does is as important as what they did not do which they could have also done under the same circumstances. Glance over it and you’ll get a big nothing-look a bit deeper and you’ll realise the nothing was everything.

The Theme of War-weary Veterans

This is a stock theme of most of Hemingway’s writing, influenced by his own experience as an ambulance driver during WWI which resulted in a massive injury. Most of his protagonists tend to be veterans burdened by their battleground experiences trying to make it in the world while struggling with physical or psychological trauma, or both.

Bebop does this multiple times with Gren, Vicious, and Vincent but executes with recall to other, more recent and relevant wars like the futile, no-allies/no-enemies experience of Vietnam War veterans, the theme of experimentation on POWs and soldiers may be influenced by Japan’s own sordid history of Unit 731 during WWII, which involved some true horrors of humanity. The people responsible were even given amnesty by the US Government in exchange for their knowledge much like it was done for individuals involved in similar experiments with the Nazi regime. This is a theme touched upon in the CB movie. Like the other references, this may not necessarily be a connection to Unit 731 but could be a general reference to such instances related to war across human history.

Motif of Fishing and the Lost Fish

Fishing was a favourite pastime of Hemingway and his characters are often depicted indulging in the activity, much like the characters in Bebop, usually either Spike or Ed. In the episodes ‘Ganymede Elegy’ and ‘Speak Like a Child’ both characters catch a fish which then drops off the line and jumps back into the water, a motif depicted in ‘Big Two-hearted River’ when the same happens to Nick. It’s a motif of opportunity almost appearing and then slipping away and the events which take place in both episodes as this motif appears align to this theme in different but rather interesting ways.

Masculinity and Femininity

I’ve gone back and added this into the essay on this topic as well but this was a major theme in Hemingway’s writing with men struggling to stick to masculine ideals and traits. Hemingway had some misogynistic ideas which Bebop thankfully does not adopt but masculinity was a major theme in his writing and he wrote female characters and love interests who were a lot more sexually-active than women were depicted in conventional literature at the time. Faye Valentine’s character is very reminiscent of characters like Brett which Hemingway wrote in ‘The Sun Also Rises’ (yes, yes she is based on the noir femme fatale too…there can be multiple influences to one thing).

The lens of Hemingway has been the entire basis of my ‘Alternate Take’ analysis on Bebop but it applies to the larger story otherwise as well and can be a powerful tool for interpreting the episodes.

There are a couple of more motifs from Hemingway which are also important but adding them here without the analyses pertaining to them will not make much sense so maybe I’ll do a follow-up second part to this. Hope this helps you in understanding the show a bit better!

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