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.
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!
What Cowboy Bebop got really wrong is a loaded question. It’s a good show. Is it the greatest show ever? Maybe to some. Is it the greatest anime ever? Arguable, but definitely up there. It gets a lot right in ways that most other works don’t so it’s definitely very good. But it’s not perfect. It suffers from flaws both on the part of the creators and from cultural influences of the time and country (do check out Eddie’s comment on this post below talking about the influence of Japan’s ‘Lost Decade’ on the show) in which it was made.
There are also times when I am left wondering if the whole thing was created by a bunch of giggling five-year olds. Like ‘anime guide’ version and all its liberal plot holes and deus ex machina. Was God just focusing on these bozos all of 2071 that you have SO MUCH divine intervention? Anyway, here’s a quick look (hah! me and quick! but I swear I’ll try my best to keep this brief) at the stuff the show got very, very wrong/politically incorrect. This is not an exhaustive list and there are a bunch of other things as well but these are the ones which gave me real pause.
Treatment of Homosexuality and Cross-dressing
Admittedly, there is not a whole lot of this going on in the show but wherever it does appear, it’s pretty juvenile and often just unforgivable. The story was created in the late 90s in Japan, still a fairly conservative country even today, and themes like this were not common to see. Bebop does show them during ‘Waltz for Venus’ with the gay couple having sex and through drag queens in ‘Jupiter Jazz’ and the movie but all are done as bad, disrespectful caricatures.
Gren is the only exception here and falls on the opposite end of the spectrum, very far from being a caricature, but Faye’s reaction to his body does raise some eyebrows nowadays. I don’t think that was meant as disrespect but rather was just something the creators were more used to in their context at that time. I’m Asian and I know how annoyingly politically incorrect our entire continent in general can often be about such stuff. But yeah, that’s one scene I would go back and change if I got to pick and make her reaction more respectful.
I don’t mind sexual characters but this went really unnecessarily crass in places. Do Katerina’s boobs really need to hang out so much in the bar scene? Why does Judy’s outfit look like that? Do we need to see Faye’s assets bouncing around quite so much? Not really. Her sexuality is a big part of her character and the way she dresses symbolises her state of absolute desperation and sheer fall from grace compared to her pre-cryo self so I get the outfit though honestly it would have still been “sexy” with a bit more fabric on it or without being drawn quite so lewdly and disrespectfully most of the time.
I’m also not a big fan of picking out female characters and force-fitting shower scenes where they don’t need to be shown nude, adding close-ups of breasts in an extremely-vulnerable medical scenario, or adding stupid shots of them bending unnecessarily made just to pander to incels in the audience. Using human beings to sell something and calling it “fanservice” is not ok under any circumstances. Period.
There is a scene in the CB Movie with Vincent cutting open Faye’s top which, while I understand is depicted to show the extent of departure Vincent has made from being a decent human being, still makes me extremely uncomfortable. This departure could have been depicted through a hundred different motifs and showing gratuitous sexual violence is not justifiable under any circumstances. The forced kiss is bad enough but to actually show him cutting open her clothing and then, a million times worse, using images of her with her top cut open on the movie posters just to “sell” the film is beyond disgusting and unforgivable.
Casual jokes about that scene on online forums are disgusting for me because it is just not something you can joke about. Period. Just because she dresses a certain way does not mean she is “asking for it” or ripping her clothing open is a casual matter. The symbolism they tried to drive could have been done through other motifs too and is anyway lost on most people with misogynistic takes like this one emerging where someone has actually been pathetic enough to refer to Faye as just a little sexual snack for Spike/Vincent (no that’s not what the symbolism is there-how can you even believe it depicts something like that and still continue to like the show?). I’m all for the metaphors and symbolisms within Bebop but you need to do them responsibly. I also find it very irresponsible to depict Faye just brushing off the whole thing and moving on like it’s nothing. It’s not nothing-an experience like that could damage a person irreparably so just dealing with it so flippantly is not ok. Watanabe has mentioned in interviews also that he had to do this to sell the show but I don’t respect that one bit.
Mushroom Samba….Blaxploitation….watermelons….really? I’ll just leave this here. No way am I diving into this landmine but what was Watanabe thinking putting that in? Google it if you don’t get it…
There’s also criticism which is put on the show for the character of Laughing Bull since he is a generic “Medicine Man” trope. This is again likely something lost in translation. I’m not saying anyone feeling offended here is not justified because such sentiments come from long histories of cultural disrespect so if you are offended then you know it best but I feel they probably did not have enough of an understanding of this. Bull is based on the Lakota Chief Sitting Bull and talks about Wakan Tanka who is a Lakota spirit. He is positioned as Spike’s spiritual guide, the “wise monk” of Asian stories, so I don’t think true disrespect was intended here. They probably saw cowboy movies with similar characters and went with it. But yeah, this is another controversial topic here and they could have researched a motif from another culture better before adding it in.
I get super concerned and uncomfortable sometimes with the kind of things I see Ed exposed to in the show. I mean, Zen symbolism and all apart, she’s a kid and the sort of things which happen on that ship…she has no business being there. There are softer moments between her and the adult characters definitely but the fact that there is no room for innocence in that universe is sometimes driven through her, which can result in very difficult and sad scenarios.
She’s survived in this world so she goes along with whatever happens and knows how to brush it off but a child should not have to. The people she lives with are emotionally damaged individuals who do care for her and try to do what they can though sometimes their actions toward her are very misguided. They are all victims of their circumstances and Ed is more like a homeless child who grew up on the streets, for whom having anyone care for her at-all is good, but I do sometimes get uncomfortable with the presence of a child in a story like that and the kind of things which are said to her/around her. It’s realistic definitely and many kids in this world live that way but I do feel a child should not have to.
Glorification of a Very Toxic Romantic Relationship
Do you really need me to explain this?
Ok, this deals mostly with the commonly-known ‘canon’ version of the story. That’s the version described in the anime guides of CB and was what I believed all my life. Unfortunately the guides are a bit suspect in their content and authority on the material so while doing all these analyses I did stumble on another version which works if you look deeper at the show. I have deep-dived over months to explain why CB has a second layer of storytelling to it but the fact is the commonly believed ‘anime guides’ version is what most of us will know. You won’t get to the second layer if you don’t spend an insane amount of time and effort to analyse the whole show (I’m brain-drained and really, really tired over here by now people). And you don’t have to get to it either if it doesn’t make sense to you.
Anyway, the ‘anime guides’ version, as I like to call the ‘canon’ version of CB, and which is what most viewers will get out of the story, does glorify a severely toxic relationship between Spike and Julia. Both seem to be on different pages, get involved in a doomed romance, and then take arbitrary paths to deal with it’s consequences. That’s not a romance-that’s a mental illness. I’ve written two essays on this alreadyso no point going further into it here. But in short, there is almost zero character development and Spike mopes over one woman the entire series to a very unhealthy extent, to the exclusion of all else. She on her part takes a random decision and shows up at the end to lead them both to their deaths. He is specifically shown disrespecting and not valuing people who genuinely care for him because of this obsession with her.
I’m yet to find an individual who is a big fan of this equation and manages to pull it off without severe toxicity (not saying there’s no one like that out there but I’ve not met any yet). Julia is a character in the story who is designed to be despised by the viewer because you spend 24 episodes investing yourself with these characters who seem pretty great and then that one guy who is your lead character abandons everyone, treats them badly, and goes off to die because of his ex who needs classes in decision-making and timing. It’s not the kind of story or character you should glorify. These days I see some people jumping down your throat the moment you criticise this character as if she is a goddess and you are blaspheming against the show or something by criticising her but the fact is Julia is not my next-door neighbour who steals eggs from under my chickens every morning that I would have something personal against her. She is a fictional character in a story and I view her as such. I analyse her from the lens of the role she is intended to play in the narrative, not because she stole my imaginary boyfriend Spike (grow up, seriously!). If you don’t like that character, trust me it’s perfectly ok. You are not supposed to like her.
Glorification of Bad Emotional Hygiene
So many here. Again, as per the ‘alternate lens’ I came across a different take on Spike’s relationship with Faye (though I’m not saying that’s perfect romance either but it is definitely sweeter and more wholesome than the dumpster fire we just discussed above) but going by the ‘anime guides’ version again we would assume he stays hung up on Julia the entire time he’s around Faye. There is definitely UST between them and his characters does its part in giving us that impression. In that case, he is kind of an emotional fuckboi and I cannot respect or root for a character like that. In that context, his dialogue asking Faye to come rescue him with Pierrot, even as a joke, is just him callously playing with her feelings. Him walking away at the end when she is at her most vulnerable because he doesn’t care and is only bothered about avenging the dead lady he loves, not her or Jet, is just cruel. You can take a minute and console the girl. In that version of the story, I am truly happy when the man dies because the character of Faye would have space to move on finally. In that version, he is also quite a bit of an ass to Jet so I’m happy for Jet as well. Vicious’ death honestly feels like the real loss there because man got cheated on by both his best friend and his girlfriend so he’s the real victim there.
Apart from this also, and this goes for both the ‘anime guide’ and the other version, (I’m copy pasting something I wrote on social media here because it captured what I want to say and because I’m tired) I don’t think the mental health situation of these characters gets discussed enough. The overarching label of “cool” overshadows and unfairly glorifies legitimately damaged personalities. The series was aware of this and actually never portrays them as “perfect” or individuals to be emulated. Even Jet, arguably the most “well-adjusted” character has his own issues with control (Alisa’s arc) and projection (all the advice he gives Spike works for Jet since for him revisiting his past is optional while Spike’s won’t leave him alone even if he drops it). Faye’s half-baked, femme fatale act, compulsive gambling, Vicious’ unhealthy obsessive and abusive behaviour, Julia’s indecisiveness and avoidance, Spike’s refusal to deal with things he should’ve addressed long ago, constantly getting into self-destructive situations etc. Dysfunction is a theme out here. Mental disorders are woven in deeply with motifs from philosophy to build that whole atmosphere of ambiguity and dissociation.
What I have a problem here is that the show is well-liked and what it ends up doing is getting many impressionable people who like it thinking that this is how you should be. I’ve even seen questions asked on Reddit where young people wonder what parts of these characters’ lives and personalities they can take up and the answer is absolutely nothing. They are cautionary tales, not people you should emulate. They are packaged in a way that it seems like it would be “cool” to be like them but trust me, not so. Not at-all. It’s a show and you should take it as just that.
For instance, despite all the drinking and chain-smoking that most of the characters in the show are shown doing, most of the production team did neither. They did it for aesthetics, because that’s what fit in with the movies they were trying to copy, but that doesn’t mean they wanted you to act this way. So don’t.
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 Theorywith 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.
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 Jazzor 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 theanalysis 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 Juliawhich 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.
Vicious’s Motives: A breakdown of Ballad of Fallen Angels to trace out Vicious’ coup and level of planning in targeting of the Bebop crew/why he keeps going after Spike
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.
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.
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.
“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 hereand 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 Onohere.
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.
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 Tumblrand 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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So, Toys in the Attic is a loaded episode for Bebop. Apart from everything else, the episode features four ‘Lessons,’ one for each of the crew members of the Bebop (for the humans at-least…Ein’s lesson is to pick better companions I guess). The episode is written by Michiko Yokote, the other major writer of Bebop apart from Keiko Nobumoto herself, with 7 episodes to her credit. If anyone ever gets too snarky “macho” with you about Bebop, or something else gender-toxic, please remind them that the majority of it was written by women. The creative team was a mixed group and hence the show is so balanced.
Anyway, the Lessons are largely just representations of the characters’ individual personalities, and foreshadowing of some of the information we find out about them in subsequent episodes. The episode is also loosely built on the movie ‘Alien’ and named after an Aerosmith song of the same name, which is a reference to drugs.
“Humans were meant to work and sweat for their money after all. Those that try to get rich quick or live at the expense of others all get divine retribution somewhere along the way. That is the lesson….But one thing about humans is that they quickly forget the lessons they just learned.”
The lesson holds comically true for Jet’s current state, having been swindled out of everything including his underwear by Faye, because he “tried to get rich quick” by gambling with her and got divine retribution. I also low-key feel that he’s hoping in this moment of annoyance, for Faye to get divine justice at having done this to him.
But the larger picture is that Jet is all about Justice and Duty, as the previous episode both tells and shows us. Jet does the right thing even when he has been wronged. He left the ISSP because the corruption didn’t sit right with him and that’s routed in the belief he states here in the lesson. Other cops like Fad chose the “get rich quick” or “live at the expense of others” route, through falling in line with the Syndicates but he deliberately chose another, less respectable, and much more difficult life.
He is the most moral of the Bebop crew members and conducts himself with quite a bit of honour. He does not do this for any reason other than his own moral compass and a belief in divine justice. He does his duty by people even if he gets nothing in return, an example being him choosing to do the right thing by going after Faye and rescuing her even though she left very childishly, after having damaged his ship. Another example is him helping Rhint even though Alisa treated him quite badly. Even if she felt suffocated in the relationship with him, just abandoning him without a word was probably not the kindest way to go about it. But when it’s his turn, Jet does right by her still.
The last line in the lesson can both hold true for his two adult crew members, who quickly seem to forget the lessons they learn throughout the show, much to Jet’s frustration, and also for Jet himself. He has been abandoned once by someone he loved, but still continues to take in people who all end up ultimately doing their own thing and even leave him to pursue their own agendas. Both Spike and Faye learn different lessons but keep repeating their patterns too. Faye learns that she has people in her life who care about her but still keeps going off on her own. She keeps losing at gambling but still continues to do it. Spike knows his past isn’t good for him and will come back to haunt him but does nothing to resolve it, till things go truly over his head.
“Survival of the fittest is the law of the land. To fool and to be fooled is the reason we live. I’ve never had anything good happen to me when I trust others. That’s the lesson.“
This is again fairly straightforward if you know the character of Faye. Of course, if you are watching the series for the first time, at this point you do not know her backstory. So, this lesson essentially foreshadows what the viewer learns about her in ‘My Funny Valentine,’ the fact that she has been swindled by someone she trusted, and likely several other instances in her life of three years have taught her she cannot trust anyone. She was a blank slate when she woke up and probably a series of bad experiences have taught her to be over-the-top in her mistrust.
This is ironic in a way as well because she does trust the people she is around at the moment to quite an extent. If nothing, she trusts them enough to take up residence with them, and keeps reminding them they are comrades. But essentially, the lesson tells us that her bitter experiences have shaped her into the conniving, selfish con-artist she is. The first two lines are callous lessons of self-service but, the third line switches tone to reflect a lot of pain and vulnerability. These are essentially the two facets of Faye Valentine.
“Lesson, lesson…if you see a stranger, follow him!”
This lesson is deliberately kept to be the exact opposite of what children are normally told. It is reflective of essentially how wild and abnormal Edward’s life has been, something which a first-time viewer would again be completely unaware of, but which a repeat viewer can really understand.
She is an abandoned child who never had anyone around to tell her that strangers are not to be trusted, and hence she has picked up the exact opposite belief as she went about raising herself. Her taking up residence on the Bebop is also exactly an act of following strangers, since she doesn’t know any of the crew personally and starts living with them basis just her research on them. It is also reflective of thestate she lives in, flowing freely, largely immune and transcending above the world around her, so that even the worst advice you can ever give a child cannot harm her.
“You shouldn’t leave things in the fridge. That is the lesson.”
That Spike is an idiot is something I consider an established fact. But actually, he is just a normal, flawed human. Spike has an avoidant personality and he runs from things rather than facing up to them. Not talking about gun battles or enemies. He is a brave man in that sense, but is a pro at leaving things unresolved with the people in his life.
He exits the Syndicate leaving things unresolved with two important people in his life-Vicious and Mao, and it all comes back eventually to bite him smack dab on his rear end. Looking at the whole, it was a very arbitrary decision on his part. He asks Julia to run away with him without really factoring in what she actually wants, if it’s even a good idea in her mind, or if it’s even practical at all. Post leaving, he never tries to do anything to resolve all the loose ends he left behind, except one expedition to try and find Julia after Ed accidentally chances upon her name, until it all comes back to hit him.
Even in this new life, we see him disrespect or abandon Jet in the first half of the series twice, creating more unresolved threads in this part of his life too. And that’s essentially the lesson he needs to learn. By the end, he does begin to take some steps in this direction. Not saying he perfects it because his dialogue with both Jet and Faye at the end was lacking the reassurance and direct communication they needed at the time, but his returning to the ship to try and make some amends, or pay some respect before leaving for the Syndicate, is a step in the right direction.
The series never glorifies Spike’s avoidant personality and this lesson is very much indicative of it, along with the shots of Faye crying alone and Jet cleaning absently while Spike flies away at the end. Those shots are a judgement on him, on how he has left things with them, and what his current actions are costing them emotionally. He needs to learn to understand the consequences of his actions and resolve them real-time, to value the feelings of others and do his part toward them, not wait till things have gone completely out of his hand and start to impact other people. That’s his lesson.
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