Cowboy Bebop: Reflecting on Keiko Nobumoto

I will write a somewhat more analytical piece on her work too. This is more of a somewhat sentimental love letter I wrote to her so just a heads up.

Keiko Nobumoto
Cowboy Bebop

*Trigger warning: There is mention of suicide and loss of pregnancy in the following paragraphs so if you are uncomfortable with either of these themes please skip down to the end of trigger warning. 

To understand a work of art fully, it is important to understand the artist behind it. For instance, if we are given the following image:

It’s a simple painting of a field. While yes, we can definitely draw joy from it, do we really understand its significance if we do not know the fact that, just before he took his life in a field very similar to this one, Vincent Van Gogh kept painting fields of wheat, including this image? If you look at the artwork of Frida Kahlo, you can see images which seem dramatic, depicting death, children, and other recurring motifs. But unless you know her struggle with her own body, inability to have children, and the multiple other causes of pain in her life, you cannot understand them for what they are expressing.

*End of Trigger warning*

Similarly, to understand Bebop you do need a bit of insight into the people who created it. Unfortunately, these are/were very reticent and media-shy people so there isn’t a whole lot available. The story was created largely through the joint creativity of Keiko Nobumoto and Shinichiro Watanabe, both geniuses in their own rights. Watanabe has mentioned in an interview that they did not have clearly demarcated roles as writer and director. They worked together to come up with the story we see.

Now, Watanabe is someone who, when asked about whether the Bebop movie is a dream answered that ‘To people who tell me they think it is a dream, I tell them it is not a dream. And to people who tell me they think it is not a dream, I tell them it is a dream.” This is a genius who definitely does not want to do the work for the audience. He has created his work of art and left it to the ones watching it to draw their own conclusions and interpretations. Like a puzzle. 

If you have never seen Tokyo Godfathers, please do. Its a film I’ve seen quite a few times and it made me cry each time. Both Wolf’s Rain and Macross are again incredible works. Keiko Nobumoto unfortunately did a very small body of work in the space of anime but each and every one is a masterpiece. Something which was a signature for her was the richness of the characters she wrote. These were not straightforward, uni-dimensional individuals, but were complex creatures built with great finesse, flawed but ultimately characters who stay with you, who begin to feel like friends or family members. They walk off the screen and begin to live with you. Keiko Nobumoto’s works also have in common a deep empathy toward the women she wrote, often ridiculing or calling light to the impact of the actions of men, their egos, a society created by the dominance of men, and the price women pay as a result (Cowboy Funk is one of the sessions directly written by her).

Keiko Nobumoto was the head writer for Bebop and wrote nine of the sessions herself along with the movie. There was a team which worked with her to write the other episodes but lastly it would be vetted by her to make sure all was in alignment with the overall story and who the characters were supposed to be. In Bebop, some of the most thoughtful and introspective sessions are written by her directly including Asteroid Blues, Honky Tonk Women, Sympathy for the Devil, both parts of Jupiter Jazz, My Funny Valentine and the two-part finale. The much more sensitive and emotionally heavy Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is again written by her.

The deep respect with which the character of Gren is written, creating a very rich individual with multiple facets, so much more than the stereotypes typically used in media for a gay man or for someone dealing with gender dysphoria is the same beauty with which Hana, a transgendered woman is written in Tokyo Godfathers. They are individuals first and the categories they fall in happen to be a reality in their lives but they are just so much more than these labels. The Live Action version of Bebop turning Gren into a stereotypical “man in a dress” to represent a non-binary character did us a favour in displaying just how masterful Keiko Nobumoto’s storytelling was compared to where mainstream media stands even today, over two decades later.

For me, one of the key themes in Bebop which, in line with Keiko Nobumoto’s writing of female characters in other works, is a satire on how women are viewed by society. She created two characters, one appearing as the typical demure and “respectable” woman and the other an archetype of the “cheap and easy” woman and then flipped the tables on both. Appearances and narrow mindsets can be deceiving, seems to be the message. She created a protagonist who seemed capable of seeing past these, even if the viewer is not initially. The story is intensely human, intensely subtle, and heartbreakingly beautiful.

That’s why my understanding of Bebop always felt partial. What is the commonly believed version of the story seemed too simplistic, too base, too…macho. When Spike talks about his “other half” it is very easy for us to imagine the uber-feminine Julia as the counterpart to this man who oozes “masculinity” and charm. That’s what wives are supposed to look like, dressed in aprons, smiling, and singing for you. The image of Faye Valentine is not a ready fit and most people still struggle with the idea because that is simply not how they view women. How can a woman who dresses in tiny bits of clothing, who is assertive and difficult, who is very flawed in ways real women usually are be anyone’s “other half,” much less that of a guy they look up to?

I am still not of the belief that there is one “right” way to interpret the series and feel you should hold on to the version you cherish personally. But for me, the version which has come up through these explorations lately, something very diametrically opposite to what I have believed it to be in the last 15 years, is both difficult to adapt to sometimes (due to my own conditioning of many years and the general belief I keep encountering around it) but also so tempting, beautiful, and filled with a gorgeous sense of closure which the version I have believed in so far never gave me. Therefore this is the one for me from now on, my cherished version. I often wonder if it is just wishful thinking but then I can also see that it is supported by the narrative, dialogues, and sequences. 

How much more masterful can storytelling be that you spend years with a piece of work, feeling a lack of closure, wishing there was something more which would explain it to you, assure you that things turned out ok for the characters you came to love so much, and then you revisit the work years later only to realise that the actual story lies hidden within what you have believed it to be so far? That the closure was always there and you had just not been able to see it? It would tug at the corner of your thoughts, sequences which felt intensely meaningful but then seemed at odds with everything else and went nowhere, make you feel like you’re missing something, like the picture you have is partial, but it took a while for you to come to it? Isn’t it so similar to the running thread within Bebop itself of people with lingering pasts, revisiting them to get closure finally? 

I am sure I not the only one who has seen all these motifs-a lot of us likely have, in parts or in full, and maybe in another 15-20 years we will see even more. But this makes me feel happier, more wholesome, like friends who had something bad happen to them for some time finally got the life they deserved. It feels so much more like the breathtaking canvas of emotion, beauty, and humanity which is Nobumoto-san’s work otherwise that I personally take it as a parting gift from her.   

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Cowboy Bebop: Reflecting on Shinichiro Watanabe

Shinichiro Watanabe has always been a reticent director. Neither he nor his team have spoken too deeply about their works, especially Bebop. Even the supplementary material issued doesn’t give us much detail beyond what we already know and I feel it is intentionally neutral, confusing, and, in a very subtle way, sometimes even contradictory to what the Director has said. It always gave me a sense that the intent on his part was for the viewer to look beyond these resources and not just rely on them completely to be guided through the series. Do your own work. Also, may be due to the fact that he moved on from Sunrise who own the rights to the show so he is likely not allowed to speak more about it legally.

Mish Mash Blues has a whole segment which talks about doubting everything. Doubting what you are perceiving and drawing your own conclusions. I do feel that Watanabe has kind of let this show float out there hoping that, in time, people might see some deeper layers to it and get the closure they probably did not get 20 years ago. I’m not saying there is “one right answer” to this closure but probably getting the closure which makes most sense to you. That’s sort of what made me revisit it now. With Keiko Nobumoto passing away and with the realization that Netflix has likely scared away other creators from attempting any further adaptations for a while, this becomes even more necessary. But never say never.

When I started writing these pieces, I was a bit skeptical because something like Bebop has an accepted canon and people (including me), who are very passionate about it. Some of us even act like gatekeepers to this canon. While I do feel it is necessary to expect faithfulness to the original from anyone touching it to curb fiascos like the Netflix version, I feel if someone wants to relook at the existing story and try to find new meaning in it that should be ok. When writing this, I take the ‘canon’ version of the story as an accepted given and there are many analyses on the net which cover that in detail so I really don’t have to. Plus, I have a day job. This is not something I am getting paid for or which is official in any capacity so I think it’s ok.

What I am writing is part analysis and part alternate interpretation of the series but building on what is shown on screen and its references. Maybe it’s because I am revisiting the show after a hiatus which has featured intense loss and heartache and, coming back to a cherished piece from a simpler time, I no longer want to/am not able to accept the utterly devastated version of it. Either way, this exercise is for myself and no one else. If it makes sense to someone else reading it, well and good, but I never set out to do an objective analysis so that’s the caveat.

‘Head canon’ isn’t necessarily someone being a ‘simp.’ Watanabe has mentioned in an interview about wanting people to draw their own conclusions. If someone wants to believe the story holds a strain of hope and ended on a note of continuity I think the creators would be cool with it. It might be more meaningful for someone else to believe that the story holds a different message and it ends on a definitive note of death and I feel that would also be cool.

What kind of supplemented this for me was the below excerpt from an interview with Dai Sato, a Japanese screenwriter and musician, who has worked closely with Shinichiro Watanabe (and also Keiko Nobumoto). You can read the whole interview on this link. Reading it, I could understand why this whole “thought revival” may be happening now, after so many years. Guess we were always supposed to come back to it 10 years later.

Watanabe and Dai Sato

OTAQUEST: As I’m sure you’re aware, for the month of November OTAQUEST is focusing on Shinichiro Watanabe as a director. We’re setting out to showcase the true Shinichiro Watanabe as a person, breaking through his elusive personality.

Dai Sato: It’s my own personal opinion, but regardless of how much you know about Watanabe, there’s always going to be a level to his productions that you won’t understand.

OTAQUEST: Can you elaborate on this a bit?

Dai Sato: Watanabe rarely appears in front of the media, and it’s even rarer for him to accept interviews. Even if we ask him questions about his production, he’ll just say the answer lies within the finished product. It’s about what we feel while watching his works, and there can be multiple answers to any question. It doesn’t matter who made it, it’s about how people feel throughout their viewings — that’s how I believe he thinks.

OTAQUEST: Do you think he wants people to understand the theme of his productions?

Dai Sato: I think so, but if you were to ask him about it he’d probably say something like “Don’t ask me to explain it”. If people don’t understand what is trying to be expressed when watching a series, that means the product is a failure in terms of expression. It’s the same music and film where it’s not something you can necessarily put to words as to how you want someone to feel. It’s like the Bruce Lee quote, “Don’t think. Feel.”. There are messages, attitudes, and spirit being delivered, but if the director themself explains it, you’re going to have a biased answer. What I’m looking at might be biased too, however.

OTAQUEST: Has Shinichiro Watanabe ever been disappointed by his viewers? Say, if he had an expectation for a project that people would enjoy it but it gets turned over?

Dai Sato: I don’t want to cause any problems by answering this incorrectly, but I can give an example. When I was in elementary school, I spent a lot of time listening to Yellow Magic Orchestra. They were truly a group that never explained anything. It was hard enough to understand the titles of their songs, but all of the sampling sources and logo design were all constructivism. It was too hard for kids to understand, but I thought it was cool, and I liked it. It would be good to look back at it in 10 to 20 years and think “Oh, that’s what that meant”. There are things like this in “Cowboy Bebop”, “Samurai Champloo”, and even “Carole & Tuesday”. There’s time to enjoy it now, and time to understand it years later. I think Watanabe believes his viewers will understand his productions at some point in time.

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