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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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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Cowboy Bebop: Lessons of Toys in the Attic

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.

Jet’s Lesson

“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.

Faye’s Lesson

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.

Ed’s Lesson

“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 the state 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.

Spike’s Lesson

“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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Cowboy Bebop: The Theme of Doubt, Death and Awakening

This essay deals with the different definitions of death and awakening in the anime Cowboy Bebop, exploring the referenced Asian spiritual and religious beliefs. The intention is not to insinuate these are the ultimate truth, just explore what they say. I personally have no one belief system I follow. It’s more of a mish-mash.

“Doubt everything.” Mish Mash Blues, the extra episode of Cowboy Bebop tells us.

What’s doubt? Doubt is the path you take to arrive at what you can definitely be sure of. This mention of doubt so vehemently seems to refer to Cartesian Doubt and Solipsism. Also the doubt of the Butterfly dream of the Taoist Master Zhuang. Both Cartesian Doubt and the Butterfly Dream are often paralleled and the latter is written a love letter in the Cowboy Bebop movie, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

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For me, doubt has been a way of thought I’ve tried to cultivate…not to say I’ve achieved any spiritual heights with it or anything, because it’s not easy. Just that I try to use it to keep my ego in check. It allows you to stay more centred, empty, not captive to just the perception of the self. It’s a journey and I am somewhere on the way.

Even what I write, whether the current writing around Bebop or anything else, I doubt. I question it and keep trying to verify it, looking from different angles, eliminating something if I discover it no longer holds true. What I write is based on my observation, research, and intuition. There may be a lot more or a lot less than what I am seeing. So read it with your own doubt and question it till it makes sense to you. If it doesn’t, find what does.

I feel the show was constructed in a manner to encourage the viewer to doubt as well…doubt your first impression of things, keep questioning if you have the absolute right idea. Why build a canvas so confusing otherwise? I mean, you can interpret the show in a very straightforward manner if you want to, as a simple story of lost love and revenge, but you will definitely be left with things which won’t fit in. Maybe there is no “right version,” just the closest you can come to eliminating what doesn’t seem right to you to get to what does. It doesn’t just apply to the stories of main characters or the Monomyth running through disjointed episodes either. It applies to the bounty heads, to each individual story we encounter which ultimately gets us no where, doesn’t move the narrative forward at-all…or doesn’t it? We are blatantly told at one point that the story doesn’t go anywhere but it does. You meet that one character whom you see once and never again but they leave their impressions on what you take away from the story, the impact of that one episode on the overall series, how you view your protagonists, or the conclusion you derive from another story later because something resonates or contradicts from the earlier one. Sometimes you look at someone and think if they are even a real character or just a recycled version of someone we already know. Anyway….

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Different characters within Bebop are shown doubting their reality, unsure if what they see is the real world, a dream, or just parts of reality. It leads them to different paths in the context of the story but there is also a much deeper thread underlying the narrative, one which is much more spiritual and transcends the story. It’s the idea that the truth is beyond all of the doubts, beyond past, present and future, beyond the perceivable reality. We live our lives like actors on a stage, just like these drawings on the screen, but ultimately all are governed by the same universal laws. The death of someone on the screen is about as real as the eventual death of the viewer watching them. Whether a character dies at the end credits or later is meaningless because he will eventually die at some point in his life just like all of us. We cannot build any narrative in our heads around him without factoring in this reality. And that is the ultimate futility which the show keeps reminding us of, a beautiful futility. You can either use it to live your life pessimistically or make the most of what you get here and keep an eye on what is beyond this, whatever it may be. You can either live in the fear of death or embrace it as an old friend.

Who an individual was, what they did, what they possessed is all ultimately rendered meaningless in the face of death as a certain reality. The story builds a myth of Julia for so long only to have her pass away in a moment like her life was very much a dream. Vicious expends enormous effort to build his reality in the image which ultimately fits his own values to have it all end in a moment, a moment which he himself engineered.

The Daoist idea of pre-determined destiny and the pointlessness of human effort are driven again and again through our protagonist escaping certain death simply because it is just not his time to die yet. Because he yet has a role to play in the world. The idea is not nihilism or fatalism here but living life in freedom, without fear (think of what Bull says in both the movie and in the finale-the two scenes are directly linked) because Daoism literally says “whatever happens, happens.” It’s also pointless to seek out death or waste your life away. Once your role is over, you will be allowed to leave, but not a moment sooner or later (think to the story of the cat who keeps coming to life till his purpose is served).

Then what is this world? This “real world” which is so fleeting, so uncontrollable?

To answer the question of what is actually real, Descartes began the process of doubting everything, including what he could perceive through his own senses. By doubting and eliminating all which did not absolutely hold true, he did arrive at one final thing which he was sure of “I think therefore I am.” That the conscious thinking self is the only thing which one can be sure of. This is the crux of Solipsism-the understanding that only the self can be known to exist. All else is doubtful.

Over the course of time, both long before Descartes and after him, similar understandings have evolved across philosophical and philological thoughts in different parts and eras of the world. Descartes questioning what is the truth is no different from the question which led Buddha to leave all behind in search of the ultimate truth. It is the same question which Master Zhuang woke up with wondering, asking if he was dreaming he was the butterfly or the butterfly dreaming it was him. It is found in the teachings of Confuscious and so many other religions and philosophies.

The solipsist idea of the conscious self as the only surety is the occidental representation corresponding to the Buddhist ideal of Atman, the thinking and feeling self separate from physical form, energy which is recycled through the cycle of life and death till Nirvana is achieved. It’s same as the Vedic ideal of Brahman or pure consciousness as the ultimate form of the self, or the Taoist idea of the spirit which reincarnates again in different forms (and again, many other philosophies). These concepts may be complicated or extremely easy to understand but at the heart of them is the doubt which led to these questions. All come down to the idea that life exists beyond just this world, that the self or consciousness is beyond material reality, and ongoing. What we see here may be a seen as a mere illusion, a dream, a field of action. But we ourselves transcend it all. Our existence doesn’t stop at death since we are not just the body. In the Taoist text Zuangzhi, Master Zhuang refers to himself in the third person to indicate this detachment.

Concepts from both Buddhism and Taoism are mentioned across Bebop. The theme of the show is Spike’s Karma, as quoted by its creators. Karma is the Sanskrit term meaning ‘Action’ and is a core ideal for Buddhism. Good Karma takes you up spiritually and bad Karma drags you down.

Death in the context of these spiritual traditions is not necessarily just the cessation of the physical form. It can also to refer to transformational events which change an individual drastically while being very much alive in the body. Prince Siddhartha Gautam left the palace to take on the life of an ascetic seeking enlightenment and became ‘Buddha,’ a spiritual rebirth while in the same body.

Similarly in Bebop, death is not always physical. Spike refers to the end of his past life as a death since it was a transformational event for him. He moves from doing some very bad things to a comparatively more moral life. He goes from being a bad guy to literally catching bad guys, regardless of the motivation. Awakening can definitely refer to him awakening from life in the form of death but spiritual awakening refers to a shift in one’s plane of consciousness, moving to greater wisdom. Awakening is also often used to refer to the attainment of ‘Enlightenment’ or realisation of the ultimate truth.

For Vicious, who stands at the opposite end of the belief system, awakening refers to Spike stepping back into the immoral and violent life of his past since he views a more benevolent life as a “step down.” When they meet in the end, he believes the bloodlust in his former friend has been awakened again and that is what he comments on right before their final battle. For Spike, awakening is moving away from the bloodlust and he refers to this earlier, talking about bleeding all that blood away.

Similarly, “Ascension” can definitely refer to the act of leaving the body and going to heaven or another plane. But in these traditions the goal is never a “heaven” or “salvation.” In both Buddhism and Taoism, we are given this life and the body with a purpose and the journey of the soul here on earth is very important. We come here to live out our roles, destinies and Karma. It is here that we achieve spiritual ascension which eventually allows us to transcend this plane of existence in the right way. This translates to cessation of rebirth in Buddhism but a more evolved state of being while continuing to be a part of the eternal rebirth cycle in Taoism. But in Buddhism, to achieve Nirvana, one needs to either attain enlightenment or have all their Karmic debt settled.

As per Buddhism, you cannot run from your karma but only by settling your Karmic debt and doing right action can you begin the journey of true spiritual ascension, moving to wisdom and true freedom from the bounds of this world which is fleeting and steeped in suffering. Whenever you die and leave the body, you are pure energy and can’t settle any earthly debts. The body is a tool for spiritual growth because through it you can perform actions.

All the different belief systems have their ways of tackling this unreal world but essentially the crux for all comes down to being a better human being, in-line with the flow of the universe, nature, divine will, or the pure self. It is only through all or a mix of transcendence of the ego, detachment, right action, settling past Karma, discipline, doing one’s duty, ceasing unnecessary effort, being present, not living selfishly or hurting others unnecessarily, and any other number of wholesome practices that one can achieve true freedom from the illusion. Running away or living poorly never gets you anywhere.

For instance, Spike coming back to the Bebop at the end to share a meal with Jet is a shift in him toward honouring his emotional obligation to someone who depends on him and has done a lot for him. It’s one of the indicators of him beginning to take accountability for his Karma, a shift toward greater wisdom. It’s irrelevant to whether he lives or dies next but he chooses to not leave that end open without paying due respect. I do want to explore how Spike’s karma flows through the story and where it stands by the end but likely in another piece…because rabbit holes. But the crux of it is, I do not feel Spike’s karmic cycle is resolved by the end of the show because he has people still relying on him, who need him, and hence saying he has died and achieved Nirvana at the end (as is assumed by most people from the fading of the star) is a fairly simplistic take without any understanding of Karma or Nirvana.

There is also a reference to Lakota belief through the mention of Wakan Tanka, the great spirit which animates the universe and whose realm of peace a soul achieves after it has journeyed well. This does not seem exactly accurate to original mythology though, more adapted to drive the message of Karma perhaps and Bebop did receive criticism on the character of Laughing Bull.

Anyway, point of the matter I guess is-don’t be obnoxious. Doubt everything till you know for sure that what you believe is the absolute truth. It’s a fleeting world.

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Cowboy Bebop: The Theme of Masculinity and Femininity

A Play on Names and Meanings

Masculinity and Femininity, and gender as a whole, are a low-key theme in Cowboy Bebop, but the episodes which deal with it most are the two parts of Jupiter Jazz. The sequence announcing part 2 makes quite a few allusions to masculinity and femininity. The episode deals with the absent Julia. The name Julia is the female version of the name Julius which is the Roman name for Jupiter, the ruler of the Roman pantheon of Gods. The episodes revolve around the moons of Jupiter. We see Spike hunting for the woman Julia and running into the drag queen Julius, a male by birth but identifying as a woman. The meanings of names seems important here since the same episodes also reference the meaning of Faye’s name i.e. ‘Fairy’.

The episode is based on Callisto, which is a moon of Jupiter. Titan is another moon of Jupiter. Both Callisto and Titan are names in Greek mythology, which also features the God Hermaphroditus. He is the God of male and female sexuality and possesses organs of both sexes. Hermaphroditus was formed post merger of Hermes and Aphrodite’s son with a nymph who fell in love with him, two halves making up one entity. Gren is the same, with both male and female organs. This theme in the episodes seems to have both occidental and oriental influences, much like most of Bebop.

Yang Qi and Yin Qi (Yin and Yang)

The oriental influence seems to be from the concept of Yang Qi and Yin Qi in Taoism…essentially Yin and Yang, or the composite of masculine and feminine energy. Callisto is a satellite which is very visibly pointed out as being cold but it is inhabited only by men. Cold is a trait associated with Yin, or feminine energy. There is imbalance in both the satellite and its inhabitants with both featuring extremes, and an absence of the other balancing element. Even the drag queens are very visibly male, with five o’ clock shadows and beards. That’s why it seems to be depicted as a crime-infested area housing criminals who are mostly male because generally such acts would be associated with the “masculine” aspect of humanity.

Taoism is a major theme in Bebop with different elements tied to it like Jeet Kune Do, Spike’s ‘whatever happens, happens’ life philosophy, Zuangxhi’s Butterfly Dream as the base of the CB Movie, references to Taoism’s tenet of life as a dream, and an entire episode dedicated to Feng Shui.

In Taoism, it is the combination of the ‘masculine’ energy Yang Qi and the ‘feminine’ energy Yin Qi which birthed the Five elements and the world itself. An individual needs to maintain a balance between these two within themselves to be whole and healthy physically as well as psychologically. These energies also represent other opposites like light and dark, night and day, with both needed to form a whole, neither able to exist without the other. The combination of Yin and Yang is not dependent on how we choose to identify our gender but rather are aspects or traits present in each individual. Someone born male but identifying as a woman or as non-binary would still need to balance their masculine side (logic, dominance etc.) with their feminine side (intuition, emotions etc.) to live a healthy life. It’s a human requirement, common to all, rather than based on the chosen gender of the individual.

In Taoism, rather than correlating to physical sexes, Yin and Yang are more traits which exist within each individual. At the deepest level of our self or soul we are neither male nor female, there is no gender to the pure self. Rather, we are both and neither at the same time. A similar thought process is found in Buddhism and Vedic Hinduism. The soul is formless, traitless, pure consciousness.

I feel to completely understand Bebop as well you need to tap into both of these aspects. If you just look at it from the surface level, practically, logically, you can miss out on a lot.

Hemingway’s Masculinity and Femininity

This is not too different from the Yin and Yang concepts. Hemingway seems to be a huge influence on the storytelling of Bebop in general and his stories deal heavily with the themes of masculinity and World War I, talking mostly about men who have returned from war broken and damaged (just like Gren and Vicious).

Hemingway held fairly misogynistic opinions and his stories glorify the strong, silent, emotionally-controlled man. These characters are more similar to the emotionally-stunted characters of Bebop like Spike, Vicious, and Faye and are contrasted by more intuitive characters with greater “feminine” trails like Gren and Jet.

Imbalanced Characters

During the episode as well, we see characters reflecting this balance or imbalance in their behaviours. Both Gren and Jet operate from a space of being in touch with their ‘feminine’ aspect i.e. emotions and intuition. Gren is an amalgam of both masculine and feminine and, even in the flashbacks, we see him as someone more tuned into his emotions against the contrast of Vicious, who is emotionally suppressed. Gren immediately understands the emotional implications of Faye running away and Jet remains concerned about her well-being despite the damage she has done. He catches on to the fact that she left their zipcrafts undamaged. Jet is very “typically masculine” in his external appearance but he is balanced with his “feminine” side, his emotions and intuition.

Both of these are juxtaposed against Spike and Faye, both imbalanced in their energies, both cut off from and suppressing their emotions, but also overwhelmed by them and deeply hurt. They are well in touch with their “masculine” energies, being able to be forceful, aggressive, but out of touch with their “feminine” sides, unable to feel fully. The episode also ties in with Spike speaking about his “other half” at the end. Yin and Yang are both halves of a whole, they complete each other, each needs the other to survive and to be defined. Night is pointless without day. Both of these characters are imbalanced, they are not whole.

Spike sets off at the beginning of the episode looking for someone he believes he needs, someone who he believes loves him back and can make him feel whole again. He doesn’t find the person and remains unfulfilled, partial. He is so driven by his emotions that he acts very pompously toward Vicious, “flexing his muscles” metaphorically by taunting him through his affiliation with Julia, asking him if he is seeing Julia behind Spike’s back, likely repeating something Vicious may have asked him earlier. Vicious responds back with a taunt of his own and then in the latter parts of the episode, we see Spike less emotional, more thoughtful, evaluating the situation rather than acting on impulses.

There is also the theme of warning. Gren has the imbalance of being too emotional, too trusting. Even before what happens to him, he trusts Vicious, giving in to the emotions he feels for the man rather than using logic to identify who he truly is. He is a soldier, a typically masculine profession, but he is an artist and that is what he remains on the battlefield as well, thinking of playing the tune on his sax once he is back, missing out on the danger right in front of him. He trusts Julia blindly as well, never once questioning her motives or the coincidence of her appearance. We see him do the same with Faye, who could have been equally dangerous to him. His emotions leave him bare, vulnerable.

Spike is in a similar space. He is run by emotions in the beginning, driven by them to abandon his home, fight with someone who cares about him. These emotions have already made him once leave someone else who truly cared for him (Mao) and he is repeating the pattern. It’s required for him to look through the lens of logic and see the destructive nature of the path he is on to make a shift toward balance. He does do that I feel and swallows his pride (something which goes against masculinity) to return back to the ship. Jet greets him with the classic “masculine” reticence, allowing him back on the ship without any explanation or detailed exchange, understanding him wordlessly as only a comrade can.

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