“I’m not going there to die. I’m going to find out if I’m really alive”: A Discussion of Cowboy Bebop and How it Creates Deep Interesting Characters…

Warning! Warning! The following is a discussion of Cowboy Bebop and so contains an extensive reference to the series and movie along with related material. Contains major spoilers. Read ahead at your own risk…

There’s only been a few shows that have truly blown me away throughout my time watching television, shows so great that they make you want to go back to them again and again, this is one of those shows. This, of course, being one of the best animated shows of all-time, the Sci-Fi genre-bending anime Cowboy Bebop. There are no words to explain how much this show means to me or so many other people out there. There’s so much to look at and digest as a Sci-Fi and animation of the show. From its great mix of both series and episodic plot to the great animation style and the world that has an excellent mix of genres and themes. There’s nothing more important to the show then the tragic development of the show’s characters. Fun fact, by the way, the show was originally commissioned as a way to sell expensive toy spaceships but given a medium to do whatever the director (Shin’ichirô Watanabe) wanted to do with it and so we got Cowboy Bebop, fancy that. But, before I go into that, what is the story of Cowboy Bebop?

Taking place in the future of 2071, the show follows the group of bounty hunters as they go through misadventures throughout the galaxy linked across multiple hyperspace gateways. There are many elements of the show that mix within several genres, the main two of which being Noir and Sci-Fi. Because of this, there is both a sense of fun but also tragedy spread throughout the 1998 animated show. The settings and ideas are often fun, energetic and often very interesting taking from other anime and animated shows in general but where the tragedy comes in is through the characters. Upon the beautiful animation and interesting episodes that each have their own stories much like the crime genre, the main aspect of interest comes in the slowly revealing arcs of the main four characters Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, Faye Valentine, Edward and their intelligent dog, Ike who we originally see as fun Noir-esc characters playing bounty hunters in the future. On top of this, Cowboy Bebop is a story about acceptance and vulnerability.

At the end of the day, Cowboy Bebop is about a bunch of characters that are stuck in a void. They either are trying to find out who they are or have been shut out from their past, aimlessly drifting throughout the galaxy and trying to make money in any way they can, namely through the bounty hunter profession. The characters in the show range from quirky outcasts to deeply troubled individuals who are locked out from their past in fear of facing themselves. You all know these band of rogues if you’ve seen the show but who really are they? That’s what why you’re here for, isn’t it? So without further ado, it’s time to look at the surprisingly three-dimensional characters of Cowboy Bebop.

It’s hard to think of who to start with but I think I’ll start with the story that backends the entire show, the stagnation and downfall of Spike Spiegel. So this one is a bit complicated as it takes place throughout the whole show so I’ll try to run you through it as best I can. His journey starts as not a bounty hunter but as apart of the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate as revealed in the episode, Ballad of Fallen Angels. However, early on he distances himself from that past, he has fun catching bounties, he’s sharp and well collected. With this, you wouldn’t think he would have a dark history of betrayal and isolation which would turn any normal character into someone hardboiled and deeply troubled although removing that part of his character is blocking out all the pain, much like Jet (but we’ll talk about him later). He is like water, he flows wherever the current takes him, impulsive and apathetic but at the same time strong and cunning.

Within many of the episodes there’s a general sense of his charisma fun side he’s great at his job and he knows that. However, this interjected with his past is what makes him truly interesting. Throughout episodes such as Ballad of Fallen Angels and the two-part stories Jupiter Jazz and Real Folk Blues is where we get the most out of his past. We meet characters such as Vicious, his past partner in crime, who originally joined the crime syndicate together and who ends up betraying him. He must battle Vicious his old friend and find the true love of his life, the interestingly vague Julia. One of the elements and one of the most fascinating parts of his character whoever comes from some of his specific dialogue. One specific line in particular, “I’ve been seeing the past in one eye and the present in the other. So, I thought I could see patches of reality, never the whole picture”.

The last scene between Faye and Spike is iconic on its own with the tremendous dialogue exchange between the two characters on a script level but on a deeper character level, it helps paint a picture on the whole show. These are all characters that are stuck between the past and present. They try to live on the best they can as struggling bounty hunters but what draws them together the most is how deeply fixed to the past they are. Before I look again specifically at Spike. The connection of Spike is obvious from his betrayal and trying to find his love Julia, Jet is a past cop that tries to move on from his old life but constantly meets his old friends and colleagues, Faye is literally trying to figure out her past and well Ed only leaves Earth for a small-time but she has a father there and so she must eventually return home. They all have rivalry but they get along because of this weird connection, they are all people running or trying to make peace with their past whilst at the same time trying to live new lives.

So back to Spike for a second, there’s much to his character that is troubled like many other characters in Noir esc shows and movies. He was part of a syndicate but one day gets injured when stumbling into rival gang territory and meets Julia, Vicious’ girlfriend who then helps repair him but as most of those stories go, they fall in love and soon they decide to leave their life behind to begin life anew together. It doesn’t go as planned, however. Spike fakes his death, asking Julia to meet him although she never does. He’s troubled but he still stays fairly chilled and charismatic which is even with his history, he tries to distance himself from his past. He’s a character that is quite laid back but also stubborn. He has a heart even in times he seems like he doesn’t care but that is due to past and his lack of willingness to fully let go. The reason he left the syndicate in the first place has left him, he’s made an enemy in who used to be his greatest friend and he is alone in the universe all until he meets someone with similar struggles, his partner in bounty hunting, Jet Black.

Jet Black is the oldest (unless you count the time Faye was cryogenically frozen) and experienced the four members, acting as the team captain. Jet I would probably call the most stern of the group although rightfully so. Once a police officer, Jet retired after seeing the brutalities and corruption of the ISSP (Inter-Solar System Police). He is also probably one of the more hard-boiled detective characters within the series. He is responsible, well-read and has a more serious reflection of his past which he reluctantly takes on throughout the whole series. Due to his natural leadership instinct, on his journeys with the Bebop crew, he commands the crew on their bounty hunter missions throughout space.

The main baggage of Jet’s character comes from how controlling but righteous he can be. He enjoys a simple but exciting life of catching crooks, it’s what he is truly good at and does so even after leaving his old past as an officer behind. He just wants to do good throughout the universe even if that means sacrificing the rest of his life which happens when his original police partner shot him to protect the syndicate and when his previous lover left him as he was too controlling over her life (something she wanted to get away from, just to be free). He understands that we must look at the past but it is also important to forget it when it’s going to drag us down, words of wisdom he gives to Spike in the last story, Real Folk Blues.

This is something he struggles with a lot throughout the series although he learns from it, tries to overcome and try to lead a group of misfits across the galaxy in the best way he can. He meets many of these people that he once knew in his old life. He cares deeply for the ones around him no matter if they screw him over, he does what feels right and he puts up with the ones around him even if he doesn’t get along with them. He is constantly reminded of his own life but as Faye eventually does, he accepts his past. Whilst I could maybe call Spike more of a space cowboy, Jet embodies many elements of a space detective. Although two of the moments that show his character most is in episodes Black Dog Serenade and Boogie-Woogie Feng-Shui. The main thing that brings him down, however, is that he can’t see his past with pride.

Here we see both the light and dark sides of his past although we also see the strength of his character. He is compassionate but strict, he gets the name black dog for that reason, when he bites, he never let’s go until a job is done or someone is behind bars. He is aware the most of his responsibility and his mortality whilst characters like Spike and Faye struggle with reality. They are all originally stereotypes; the cowboy, the hardboiled detective, the nuisance kid and the femme fatale who all break those stereotypes to become their own very fleshed out characters who feel real, troubled and vulnerable in ways any human would. They have realistic struggles even if they are bounty hunters from the future. They aren’t unrealistically smart or strong, they are humans and professionals at their job but I have yet to look at the rest of the characters in Bebop so let’s move on a second.

So we’ve got Faye and whilst she is set up as an annoying stereotype femme fatale in the early episodes, she is probably one of the most interesting, especially in how she begins by knowing nothing of her past. So let’s refresh for a second. Faye Valentine is the character that is probably connected most to the Sci-Fi genre which as you would probably know, is that she was cryogenically frozen after an accident during space travel although she lost her memory in the process. Once this element comes into play, you get to understand her character up until this point, why she is in the situation she is in, why she got deep into gambling and her hesitance to trust others even the other members of the Bebop crew.

We see Faye slowly piece together her history as we find about her in the process. She, like Spike and Jet, is constantly struggling with coming to terms with her past but again she is different. She doesn’t know her past, she slowly pieces it together but this is only when she gets certain clues that could help her as the mysterious Beta tape. When she finally figures it all out in the episode Hard Luck Woman, there is nothing left of her home. Everyone she knew is either dead or is old. She, however, is stuck 77 years in the future. The past version of her is gone, the person that was a shy girl who had an incredibly positive outlook on life, even being a cheerleader although she doesn’t know her possible name. This is, of course, very different from the pessimistic and debt-ridden bounty hunter that Faye has become.

She’s probably the most cynical of the entire group. She didn’t have baggage from her past that forces her to move on as Spike and Jet did. She doesn’t know her past and is constantly trying to find a way to connect to her past or live her old life in some way. But as she slowly finds out, there’s nothing there. This is where it breaks down in the final scene between her and Spike. Ed and Ein have left and Spike, the person who told her constantly to move on and forget the past is about to face his own, where he will never come back. The gang is broken again, there are only two members left and Faye has to struggle with a past that she can never have and accept the future. As Spike leaves, that means the end of the Bebop crew, her final place for a home, the bunch of bounty hunters that had become her support system or even a new family.

Françoise Appledelhi Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivruski IV or Ed for short and Ein are the last members of the Bebop and probably the most simple but they do bring their baggage and issues to the show even if more lightly and optimistically. Ed much like the other Bebop has some sort of troubled past, she was left by her father in an orphanage. She travels across Earth hacking into other computers and messing with other people but she doesn’t have the same baggage. Her past is mysterious in a way like the other characters but because she is young, she doesn’t have to worry. She brings a levity to the group, this is also why she connects so much to the intelligent corgi Ein. They don’t worry about other troubles but just explore and have fun with the crew. They are more comedic relief characters but you warm up to them throughout the series, they have more purpose than that and become crucial members of the crew especially with Ed’s tech and hacking prowess.

But as they leave the Bebop crew in Hard Luck Woman, so does the glue that keeps this dysfunctional group of misfit bounty hunters together, then came Real Folk Blues with ended the group’s adventures and the life of Spike along with it. But there’s a couple of things that I have not looked at yet in this retrospective. In the end, as I’ve mentioned, the meaning of cowboy bebop is acceptance of your past and characters dealing with that same issue. We can’t change it whether we think of that in a pessimistic or optimistic way. In one light, there are always people and parts of our life that we want back much like the characters (Faye wants to learn of her past, Jet’s past as a cop in a corrupt police force, Spike leaving his life as a member of the syndicate/losing Julia and Ed leaving Earth along with her father). In another life, there’s still a future ahead of us, which can especially be seen in the crew of the Bebop and how they eventually become a weird, support system and even family to each other. This is what makes Spike leaving to take on Vicious somewhat tragic.

After he loses Julia, she says something interesting, “This has all been just a dream”. Spike believes that he has been stumbling in a dream state throughout his time on the Bebop. But when he tackles Vicious, he instead decides to do something for himself, on his terms, to not be static like he was all this time. He is going to find out if he was alive all this time. His tackles with Vicious and the syndicate are unfortunately his last, finally tackling with the past and finishing what he started. The sad thing about this is that, even though he thought Julia was the only thing that brought him out of an endless apathy/static state, he has been alive all this time. His relationship with the Bebop crew, would he dislike admitting it was stronger than his relationship with Julia ever was and by killing Vicious, he isn’t venging just her life but saving Jet and Faye from being hunted by the syndicate. That’s the main tragedy of the last story, he was always alive, he just didn’t fully appreciate it, even though he free the first time he left the syndicate, free to choose any life he wanted.

And that is the end of today’s analysis, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed researching it and writing it. Cowboy Bebop is a special show for many reasons. The fact it has a conclusion is great on its own and a very satisfying one at the fantastic animation, the interesting and very deep characters and the soundtrack by Yôko Kanno which takes a whole life on its own. There’s not one bad episode of Bebop, so many moments that are deep, fun and cathartic throughout the show. Throughout the fantastic script and characters, there is also some fantastic editing, pacing and of course animation that makes each moment and character feel unique but meaningful.

The world feels truly lived in; the ships are banged up, the cities are eroding which many shows and movies try but can’t fully manage to do. The music is jazzy but it can also be introspective and not to mention the great movie that acts as another early session of the series as a way to look back at the best parts of the show. The show is dark, the show is fun; the show is Sci-Fi, the show is Noir but all in all the show has something interesting to say and we get a great feast with it. It’s something I wouldn’t just call the best anime or animated show of all time but one of the very best shows of all time…at least in my opinion.

And with that final note, that’s plenty from me today and me talking about the fantastic animated Sci-Fi show Cowboy Bebop. There are so many elements I could analyse throughout the show but when I was rewatching the show recently something really made me think about the characters in a more deep and transcendent way. It’s one of the very best shows I’ve seen and after teasing it a while back, I’m so glad to be able to discuss this masterpiece of animation. It’s so fun, dark and everything in between but it always has a purpose and style with what it is trying to say and that wouldn’t be possible without the great team and director behind the project. Sorry this was so long but I really needed this time to look at the great characters of the Bebop crew and that’s without looking at the deep and dark backstories of the villains in both the show and movie. What is your favourite episode, do you think I touched on each character in enough detail? Let me know in the comments below. I may be back to talk about the show some other time but on this 20th anniversary of the finale, I must say, see you next time space cowboy…

Next time, we get back to your regularly scheduled content as I will be looking at more of a concept, this time with recent events how blackholes and wormholes are represented in Science Fiction such as in Interstellar, Doctor Who, Event Horizon and many others. In the meantime, I might actually have a review or recommendation up on the website. If I don’t, you can find one at my Twitter. Stay tuned for that future thinkers and until next time…

Michael McGrady, Signing Off.

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