Why You May Need Hemingway to Understand Cowboy Bebop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Hemingway Motifs

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

The Theme of Nothing…which is actually Everything

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

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

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

The Theme of War-weary Veterans

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

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

Motif of Fishing and the Lost Fish

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

Masculinity and Femininity

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

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

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

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Cowboy Bebop-Watching a Dream: Unreliable Reality and Dissociation

Trigger warning and disclaimer: This explores what characters in Bebop may be referring to when they talk about ‘watching a dream’ and delves deeply into talking about mental illnesses. Please avoid reading if this is a triggering factor for you. I have studied psychology and this is basis that experience but am not a psychiatrist/psychologist so please treat these as just speculations, not any formal medical diagnoses.

Dissociation from the self or dissociation from reality seems to be a running theme in Bebop. I’m not saying this is done with clinical accuracy or any kind of deep research into psychology. Not at all, but rather it’s more like the dissociative psychological state is implemented throughout the show as a recurring artistic motif. Sort of like “hey this seems cool and mysterious so let’s build it in.” Spike mentions in many places how he feels like he is watching a dream, Faye is cut off from her past due to what looks to be something quite similar to dissociative amnesia, Vincent lies somewhere between these two, unable to recall his past life due to trauma from the battlefield and also unable to distinguish between what is reality and what isn’t. In flashbacks, Julia echoes the same sentiment of feeling like she is watching a dream and her last words to Spike are along the same lines. Vicious, for all his megalomania, is extremely detached to the idea of dying when it is proposed to him at the end, at a point where he has done so much to reach the top.

Spike essentially exhibits quite a few symptoms of depersonalisation disorder, a situation which literally causes a person to feel their own life is a dream, and perhaps so does Julia. It seems indicated that the general trauma of his life and past, or one particular impactful and traumatic event, may have caused him to detach from his reality and come to view his own life as a passive viewer, like watching a dream or a character on the screen. To me, this event seems to be whatever caused him to lose his eye since he is shown waking up sweating profusely from a memory of that surgery during ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ This might mean that the whole “seeing the past in one eye” is just a fallout of this disturbed psychological state with him stuck partially in the traumatic past, unable to fully connect with anything post whatever led to the loss of his eye. He’s already in this “seeing the past in one eye” state long before leaving the Syndicate since one of his flashbacks have him telling Julia about it.

There is no sense of reality, nothing concrete. You cannot invest in a dream so he drifts meaninglessly. The two back to back flashback sequences in Jupiter Jazz of both him and Julia saying the same line, feeling like they are watching a dream, seem to indicate a shared sense of dissociation which may be hinted as a cause for their initial bonding, both disconnected from reality by similar trauma. It would also explain Julia’s decision to not run away to a better life or take arbitrary decisions throughout the series which do not serve her well.

I also feel Julia is perhaps indicated to suffer from Stockholm Syndrome as well, depicted through the “two personalities” which we see of her in flashbacks to the past, perhaps an initially-strong woman broken into a more domestic persona through involvement with a highly-abusive man (Vicious). Spike’s agreement to her that ‘yes it’s just a bad dream’ as she is dying seems empathetic reassurance resonating back to their shared bad experiences. This is also what makes me skeptical about the “true love” which their association is usually referred to as. It feels to me hinted more at two dysfunctional young people coping with a bad reality by building a bond which is actually not about their compatibility or love at-all. It’s unhealthy for all involved and hence ends in the destructive manner it does. Vicious is anyway a severely damaged character, seeking control, unable to let anything go, unable to believe in anything and to me it always seems like the intent is to show his personality drives these two to seek solace in each other, but their relationship really does not have much concrete form outside of this situation. When Spike asks Julia to leave, they are not on the same page. When she asks him at the end to run away, they are again not on the same page. It seems more like strangers trying to seek something in the other which they are incapable of providing under those circumstances.

Dissociation has different forms and largely results from trauma – amnesia, derealisation, fugue, depersonalisation, and dissociative identity/multiple personality disorder. It doesn’t have to be just one of these conditions either and may be a mix or a spectrum. Depersonalisation is something I do have first-hand experience with and it was one of the major bonding factors for me with the characters of Bebop back when I watched it first, knowing exactly what was meant by the sense of becoming completely and clinically disconnected from your own reality as a result of trauma, the feeling of being caught in a dream or a nightmare you cannot snap out of. I’m not in that state anymore and haven’t been for years but watching the episodes again, the association hit me again when I heard those dialogues.

Similar to Spike, Faye seems dissociated to her self and reality in addition to her amnesia, unable to build stable connections, unable to “put down roots” even when around those who care about her. She shows signs similar to Dissociative Amnesia which occurs generally post trauma and, while the creators may not have researched this much and the illness was likely not understood very well back in the late 90s (information on it is still scarce today), it is still indicated to us that the trauma of the accident causes her mind to wall off her past resulting in her amnesia. The personality she builds up for herself in this new life would be something her past or “original” self would be horrified by. Interestingly enough, this is another trait of someone suffering from dissociation, building a drastically “unacceptable to themselves” personality, though again I feel this is more artistic in the show than perhaps intentional, the contrast depicted to show her fall from grace and loss of innocence. This building of a contrasting persona is indicated to be fuelled by the further horrors she encounters after waking defenceless in a highly unforgiving world.

Every time we see her using her sexuality to con a bounty, we are also shown her pulling out her gun immediately. She never goes too deep with the flirtation, never actually crosses beyond a coquettish voice or a seductive posture to bring their guard down, never gets physical with anyone. Why she is shown to have chosen to go the way of appearing so sexual is left to the viewer’s guess. There is the explanation offered through Whitney’s arc but her drastic change in personality seems rooted in more than just that. We can imagine that maybe she ends up in very traumatic situations during her initial days. Maybe she falls in with criminals or suffers a sexual assault early on. Things like that can really mess up your relationship with your own body.

We see Faye spending time taking care of her body, using cosmetics etc. on it but she does not seem to truly value it, doesn’t value herself. She uses her body as a tool, seemingly disconnected from it. In the same way, Spike lets his body take on multiple wounds, working out only to hone it in martial arts (a parallel to her appearance routines) as a tool, not really caring too much about what happens to it, not acting too strongly out of self-preservation. Faye leaves hers exposed to the world, again acting contrary to self-preservation considering the kind of world she lives in. Both are dissociated with their current realities, unable to really “settle in” where they are, to build past their traumas. They feel out of place, like they have no home, nowhere to belong, and it causes them to feel out of place within their own bodies as well. This dissociation is also shown to manifest in both characters in the form of indifference to death, in Faye’s compulsive gambling, in Spike’s reckless destruction.

Vincent shows signs of a mix of derealisation and depersonalisation along with some sort of amnesia. It causes him to lose his memories selectively and build up a personality very different from whatever he may have been earlier, a person Elektra had found worthy of loving. It explains her complete bafflement at his lack of recall of her and also probably what causes him to not shoot her in the end as the cloud built in his mind gives way a bit at the recall of their past love. In an interview, Watanabe has mentioned that what happens to Vincent is a result of the trauma he faces on Titan on the battlefield, likely indicating that a theme of mental illness in the characters was intentional even if dramatised and not just philosophical imagery and metaphors.

Watching a Dream
Cowboy Bebop

Dissociation in the series is also woven in with philosophy and not all references to ‘dreams’ seem to allude just to psychological disturbance. The butterflies in the movie are a call back to the story of Zuangzhi and the Butterfly Dream in Taoism. Both Taoism and Buddhism speak of the “real” world as a mere dream. The true form of the self is pure consciousness and everything in this world is nothing but an illusion with death being the true awakening. Zuanghzhi has a dream he is a butterfly and wakes up wondering if he is Zuanghzhi dreaming he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming it was Zuangzhi. Which world is real? Vincent wonders the same thing throughout-is he a man who died on Titan or is he the person living now? Is the metaphysical world of the butterflies real or the physical world he is experiencing under it?

It’s a comment on the ultimate search of humanity for comprehension of the world we inhabit, the existential queries of who we truly are, where did we come from and where do we go once we die? Are we living in the real world?

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