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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