The Philosophy of Cowboy Bebop – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Cowboy Bebop!
Written by: Thomas Ambrosini
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Dean Bottino
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Cowboy Bebop – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Helen here. So, Jared’s taking a breather this month, which means I have the honor of telling you guys all about one of the most beloved and fan-requested animes in Wisecrack history: Cowboy Bebop. Yes! We’re finally doing it! So, what’s taken us so long? Well, when we sat down to analyze what makes Cowboy Bebop so amazing, from it’s super-fluid fight scenes to its insane grab-bag of a soundtrack, we kept running into the same problem: every episode is a kaleidoscope of references, philosophies, narratives, and forms. It seemed downright impossible to pull on just one thread. Then, around the beginning of season two, we noticed this interstitial. Yeah, it might be hard to read, but it says:
“Then… in 2071 in the universe, the bounty hunters, who are gathering in spaceship Bebop, will play freely without fear of risky things. They must create new dreams and films by breaking traditional styles. The work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called… Cowboy Bebop.”
It’s those last two sentences about breaking traditional styles and creating a new genre that really gave us pause. See, Cowboy Bebop isn’t just about great characters and deep thoughts, it’s about blurring the line between three distinct genres: sci-fi, westerns, and noir. So, welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Cowboy Bebop. And, you guessed it, spoilers ahead. First, a quick refresher course. Set in the year 2071, Cowboy Bebop follows a group of starving bounty hunters who wander from planet to planet looking for their next meal ticket. There’s Jet, a former detective who’s rocking the Robocop look on his left arm; Spike, a modern take on the Marlboro Man mixed with a tragic mob backstory; Faye, a femme fatale dealing with gambling problems and a serious case of amnesia; and, um, Ed. Who’s a brilliant hacker, but really, yeah, she’s just Ed. Together, in more or less episodic fashion, the team hunts down fugitives while shoveling down some pretty meager meals:
“You don’t call a meatless ‘beef with bell peppers… ‘beef with bell peppers’ do you?”
Aside from an ongoing fight with hunger, the first thread you’ll notice in Cowboy Bebop is its unique take on the sci-fi genre. The show challenges our idea of sci-fi by presenting a future that really doesn’t have much to do with the future. Sure, there are all the familiar trappings here. After the destruction of a giant space portal that lets you travel the universe at near light-speed, Earth has been left near uninhabitable, and mankind has spread throughout the universe.
And for those of you who grew up on things like Star Wars or Gundam Wing, you’ll notice a medley of conventions. Epic space battles? Check. Terrifying, mysterious alien creatures? Check. Space terrorists? Sure, why not? But the longer you inhabit the world of Cowboy Bebop, the more you realize its brand of sci-fi isn’t about portraying the future. In fact, it feels more like the 90’s than it does 2071. Cities here aren’t the shining beacons on the hill that futurism promised us; instead they’re dirty, almost rundown. Hell, there’s a whole space colony full of drifters and riffraff. And technology isn’t exactly 70 years ahead of its time, either. Take Session 7, for example – Heavy Metal Queen. In it, we see the ins and outs of space transportation through the lens of the best trucker there is, VT. But it quickly becomes apparent that much hasn’t changed for future trucking. Space trucks are still adorned with hood ornaments their cabins are still cramped two-seaters crammed with personal knicknacks. They even communicate via radio.
“Thanks for the compliment. So, any info?” “I passed by someone like the one you’re looking for about 10 minutes ago.” Radio, people.
And when it’s time to wind down, they relax at crappy rest stops which look identical to thousands I’ve seen in West Tennessee.
So, what’s going on here? What are we to make of sci-fi that doesn’t really use of the science part in a flashier way? As Wisecrack favorite, Ray Bradbury, tells us, “Science fiction… is the fiction of revolutions. Revolutions in time, space, medicine, travel, and thought… Above all, science fiction is the fiction of warm-blooded human men and women sometimes elevated and sometimes crushed by their machines.” In other words, at the heart of any good sci-fi story, then, are people and their stories, in which machines are only a part. Bradbury’s words go a long way in explaining why we continually see stories in Cowboy Bebop that are surprisingly light on the technology that surrounds them. Perhaps there’s no better example of this than Faye Valentine. In many ways, Faye is a victim of science’s progress. When she and her family travel to space aboard their private shuttle, something goes horribly wrong, leaving Faye as the only survivor. But her injuries are so severe that doctors decide to cryogenically freeze her until she can be saved by later medical advancements. Over fifty years pass, and Faye is awoken by the questionably named physician, Dr. Baccus.
Except there’s only one problem: “Then tell me! What kind of accident? What was I like before then? Who am I?!”
Yep, she lost her memory. Worse, because the Gate exploded while she was frozen, there’s no surviving data on who Faye even was before.
“What is this?” “An ID. This way if you die or if you forget yourself they will know who you are and where you’re from.” “And I don’t have that.”
And did we mention she’s now drowning in debt?
“I can’t pay 300 million… it’s unreasonable for them to choose to resuscitate me and then expect me to pay the debt.”
Yet despite science and technology nearly screwing Faye at every turn, Faye’s story is never folded into a warning about the future or its technology. Instead, Faye’s journey is all about finding a place to belong – a pretty common literary trope across all genres. “My memory came back. But nothing good came out of it. There was no place for me to return to. This was the only place I could return to.” Sure, elements of science fiction set up Faye’s narrative, but at the end of the day, they’re just silent cues that help move the conflict along. By letting science elements do their work in the background, Cowboy Bebop really thrusts its characters into the spotlight. Which is maybe why, with only 10 out of 26 episodes exploring our heroes’ personal stories, we’re still able to relate so much to them. Seriously guys, who did not feel like crying when Faye just lies down in the wreckage of her childhood home.
But sci-fi isn’t the only genre Cowboy Bebop works in. “Wait.” Yeah, if the title wasn’t enough of a dead giveaway, Cowboy Bebop also plays heavily with Western conventions. More than anything, the first session, Asteroid Blues, really sets the tone. In the episode, Jet and Spike hunt down the drug dealer Asimov Solensan and his girlfriend, Katerina, in… Tijuana. There are saloon fights and stetson hats, indigenous wise men.
We even see Spike wearing a poncho and sombrero at one point. And true to form, even the episode’s ending itself is an homage to classic Western themes. Katerina, realizing that Jet and the authorities are closing in on them, decides to take drastic action. “Adios.” As literary critic Peter French notes, while rare, when suicide is depicted in Westerns, it “is shown to be the escape of the weak or the defeated.” For French, though, nothing characterizes Westerns more than death, and that’s particularly true in Cowboy Bebop. French writes,
“The Western is about… a dead man’s walk, or run or gallop. It is not accidental that so many of the heroes and villains of Westerns are portrayed as having a previous history in the American Civil War on the losing Confederate side. They have been defeated and lived with death and gore in a cause they, we are led to believe, saw either as their inescapable duty or as romantic.”
“Figure a man’s only good for one oath at a time. I took mine to the confederate states of America. So did you, Sam.”
This concept of a dead man’s walk becomes particularly relevant with Spike. Just as Western heroes aimlessly wander through life carrying the burden of their romantic cause, which has now been extinguished, so, too, does Spike meander through life carrying his tragic romance with him. A romance that almost killed him. The first detail we learn about Spike is that he’s already died once before.
“Again, I see?” “Again?” “I’ve already died once. Got killed by a woman.”
A former hitman for the Red Dragon Syndicate, Spike wanted to escape with the love of his life, Julia, after performing one last job.
Except Julia never showed up. And Spike’s partner, well, let’s just say he’s named Vicious for a reason. In the end, Spike barely managed to escape with his life, with everyone in his old life believing he died. But instead of washing his hands of everything, Spike holds on.
“I’m gonna go look.” “What?” “I’m gonna look for my woman.”
Just as French described with Westerns, Spike can never fully tear himself away from his bloody past.
Whether it’s to bring a bounty on his former boss,
“Then what? You’re Mao’s?” “I owe him one from before.”
Or to chase after the woman he loves, or to settle the score with Vicious, Spike returns time and time again to his past. Considering Spike nearly dies every time he runs after his past, we’ve got to wonder what duty could be so important. Especially since he once told Faye that the past doesn’t matter anymore:
“I guess I don’t know anything about my past anymore.” “Isn’t that something that really doesn’t matter?” “You think that way because you have a past.” “No matter the past, you still have a future.”
Well, digging deeper into the genre, the answer isn’t too much of a stretch. As literary critic Jane Tompkins notes in her book West of Everything, the heroes and villains of Westerns aren’t concerned with traditional Judeo-Christian ethics – the harsh reality of the desert and their outlaw lifestyles won’t allow it. Instead, their moral code revolves around honor. As French elaborates, “What, after all, is the value of residence in the Kingdom of Heaven, if the cost is one’s self-respect?” We see this in almost every character from Spike’s past, but most vividly in Vicious. Vicious, ever the sociopath, holds a might is right attitude. Those who can’t or won’t fight, according to Vicious, shouldn’t be allowed to live. It’s the reason why he killed his boss and later staged a coup.
It’s also the reason why he seeks to kill Spike, the man who has renounced his violent past.
“The same blood runs in you and me. The blood of a beast who wanders, desiring the blood of others.” “I’ve bled all of that blood away.” “Then why are you still alive?”
But even Vicious seemingly wants a fair fight with Spike. He passed up easy opportunities to kill his mortal foe. When Spike was passed out on one of Jupiter’s moons, Vicious leaves him unharmed: “Tranquilizer, huh? They’re mocking me.” And when Spike and Vicious are in their final duel, they both pass their own preferred weapons to each other, instead of either taking the advantage. As for Spike, his decision to kill Vicious isn’t about him being a serious piece of sh*t. In part, it’s about righting a personal wrong: Julia’s death: As French reminds us, “[the hero of a Western] is not the cowboy equivalent of the Caped Crusader. The wrongs must always relate to some harm suffered either by him directly or by someone with whom he has established a relationship.” But there’s also a more philosophical reason behind Spike’s decision. And it has to do with skepticism. Since leaving the Syndicate, Spike has wondered if he ever really survived at all – wondering if what he saw was real.
“Look at these eyes. One of them is a fake because I lost it in an accident. Since then, I’ve been seeing the past in one eye and the present in the other. I had believed that what I saw was not all of reality.”
Specifically, Spike continually floats the idea that everything he sees could just be a dream.
“I’m only watching a dream that I never awakened from.”
In this sense, Spike echoes the skepticism of ancient Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzhi, who wrote: “Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” Spike, struggling to make sense of life before and after the Syndicate, wonders if maybe he never really left the Syndicate at all. He wonders if he really died that night. It’s only after losing the love of his life that he accepts the cruel reality of the situation: he’s been awake the whole time.
“I thought I was watching a dream that I would never awake from. Before I knew it, the dream was all over.”
For Spike, his deadman’s walk isn’t just to take revenge on Vicious, it’s paradoxically to show himself that he’s awake. Or as he tells Faye:
“I’m not going there to die. I’m going there to see if I really am alive.”
And while it’s up for debate whether Spike dies after his final fight with Vicious, I’ve got to say, Spike would make Clint Eastwood proud by storming Vicious’s hideout. Oh, and wondering why Vicious and Spike can go at it with a katana and a pistol, and the whole fight still feels believable? Yeah, it’s because “Ronin” films – you know, Japanese period pieces that followed the lone samurai dispensing personal justice – are pretty much the cultural equivalent of Westerns. In fact, from the epic one-man armies to the tense silence before the duel, Westerns and Ronins have created a fairly shared visual and thematic identity. But that’s another video. Finally, the third and perhaps most notable genre Cowboy Bebop works in is noir.
Strangely, noir is notoriously hard for film critics to define. For example, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton defined it in their seminal text, A Panorama of American Film Noir, as having five key characteristics: dreamlike, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel. But many popular noir films don’t hit all the marks. While every character is influenced by film noir.
“Here’s lookin’ at… my reflection, kid.”
I think the genre has the greatest pull on Faye and Jet. (Sorry, Spike.) Faye is clearly a femme fatale – one film noir’s favorite conventions. See, when film noir first captured the popular imagination following WWII, there were few representations of women that depicted them as anything other than swooning, fainting, walking pairs of ovaries. But as literary scholar Janey Place notes, noir changed that and became “one of the few periods of film in which women are active, not static symbols, are intelligent and powerful, if destructively so, and derive power, not weakness, from their sexuality.” Fay is definitely intelligent, powerful, and sexual. She’s constantly one step ahead of her male peers:
“She sucked out all the antifreeze from the radiator. It’ll be out for at least half a day.” “Even if she didn’t pull this stunt, we wouldn’t look for her, right?” “She emptied out the safe as well.”
And she isn’t above using her sexuality to get what she wants.
“Hi.” “What do you want? Ya wanna get some?” “I’d rather be the one to give some.” “I’m fine with that.” “Hands in the air, Decker.”
And while some, like critic Julie Grossman, have criticized the trope for being an overly simplistic reduction of lady agency in the world, Faye is a little more dynamic. In fact, she’s the only character who really makes a substantive internal change by the series’ end. But her narrative arc also taps into the very philosophical spine of noir: nihilism. Yes – I know nihilism has become Wisecrack’s favorite dead horse, but hey, I didn’t put it in the zeitgeist. According to literary critic Mark Conrad, noir developed as a consequence of the 20th century ushering out old belief systems. When Nietzsche famously proclaimed, “God is dead”, he was making a statement that these seemingly eternal systems – like God, morality, or even truth – were illusions. Reality, to Nietzsche, is in constant flux, which means things like definitions, constants, and even being don’t exist over time.
Whether he was right or wrong, Nietzsche was correct in predicting the mass alienation and loneliness brought on by the disillusionment of these systems. As science chipped away at our happy belief systems in the 20th century, people became lost and anxious, and Wisecrack was born. Conrad writes “Seeing noir as a response or reaction to the death of God helps explain the commonality of the elements that critics have noted in noir films… the inherent pessimism, alienation, and disorientation.”
And if there’s one character who’s continually had belief system after belief system ripped away from her, it’s Faye. When Faye first awakes, she doesn’t actually believe that she’s in the future. That is until her lawyers tells her that she’s got it all wrong.
“No, it is definitely 2068 now. And that’s not a TV. But a washing machine.”
And if waking up in a unrecognizable future sounds bad, try adding trust issues. When Faye finds out that her old lawyer you know, the one she fell in love with had faked his death you can bet your bottom dollar that she felt the same lonely, anxiety that Nietzsche had described.
“Where does the truth end, and the lies start?”
And Faye experiences the ultimate disillusionment when she finds out that the goal she’s been searching for – her past – is gone. After Ed takes Faye to the place where she grew up, the two are greeted by an old classmate, emphasis on old. “Are you… Faye? Impossible… Really? It’s me, Sally Yung. I was in your high school graduating class.” Time, like Nietzsche’s idea of reality, is in constant motion, and it’s left Faye behind. Realizing that she can never get her old life back, Faye calls herself a ghost. “I bet you don’t know. Actually, she’s –” “A ghost.” As she later tells Spike, the life that she thought she wanted – the home that she wanted to return to – is no more: Faye’s not the only noir-esque character. Who’s a trench coat-wearing cop who remembers his sweetheart like this?
Yeah, it’s everyone’s favorite chef, Jet. Like Faye, Jet’s backdrop borrows heavily from noir conventions. A former cop, Jet suffered two massive blows in his past. First, his lover walked out on him without warning.
“When I came home, only that watch was left, and a small note with one word: ‘farewell’.”
And second, he was nearly killed when he cornered a Syndicate assassin.
Oh, and did I mention Jet’s nickname?
“To think you’re a bounty hunter. You, who used to be called the Black Dog – a mad dog who never let go of things he’d bitten into.”
So, we’ve got a former cop turned PI, I mean bounty hunter, who’s pining over a lost love. Yeah, it’s noir. Like Faye, Jet has to learn that time moves forward – and with it, everyone else. Consider the pocket watch that Jet’s lover, Alisa, left him.
“You seem to think that time on Ganymede had stopped… That’s a story from long ago… I’ve… forgotten it. I don’t need time that stands still.”
While the symbolism might be a bit heavy-handed, here, Jet holding on to the broken watch represents his desire to return to the past, to a time when his watch still ticked, and Alisa waited for him to come home from work. But, when Jet seeks answers about the past, he’s reminded that it’s long gone. Alisa has a new life and a new boyfriend, and only Jet is wondering why.
Worse, when Alisa finally gives Jet the answers he’s looking for, they shatter his ideas of the past; as it turns out, Jet’s relationship wasn’t so perfect, and Alisa felt trapped.
“You were like this back then, too… You decided everything. And you were always right. When I was with you, I never had to do anything. All I had to do was hang on to your arm like a child, with no cares in the world.
In the end, Jet can’t return to his past, because this idealized past never existed at all. Looking back at that interstitial about playing without fear of risky things, breaking traditional styles, and creating new genres. It’s hard to argue that series director Shinichirō Watanabe didn’t do just that in Cowboy Bebop. Sci-fi, westerns, noir – even a little ronin action – it’s all here and it’s all excellent. It’s this very genre-bending that’s made the series so popular, and it’s the reason why Cowboy Bebop seems so fresh two decades later.