*Minor spoilers ahead – predominantly vague*
The world is in a bit of a muddle; sometimes we all get overwhelmed by the misery that surrounds us, and distraction becomes harder and harder. With work on one side and the hostile planet we call earth on the other, I was inches from burying my head in the sand. How have I been avoiding work? Avoiding progression, the moving forward of the life that I have been fortunate to lead. Avoiding living in fear of losing? By spending some time back on the Bebop, that’s how.
“Don’t you want to hang out and waste your life with us?” – Spike Spiegel
Cowboy Bebop. The gateway anime series. Shinichiro Watanabe’s 1998 crowning achievement. The anime most anime fans can cite as one of their top ten anime of all time. What’s it about? The year is 2071. Earth has been left a desolate wasteland following a hyperspace gateway accident years before. As the human race has colonized the rest of the solar system, the world has gone rogue and a gang of bounty hunters travel through space to clean up the mess in return for a reward. That’s the basic description. There’s also a major arc involving the Syndicate and hanging onto your past. But you have to watch it to know what I’m talking about, and twenty-six episodes and movie isn’t too much to work your way through. I have four times.
I was late to Bebop. Like many an anime fan, I grew up on Pokémon (1997-present) but didn’t really get into it until my first year of University. I was twenty-one years old and working at HMV part time. I had always been curious having watched a couple of Studio Ghibli films ( Morita's 2002 The Cat returns one rainy afternoon and Miyazaki's 2001Spirited Away when I was very young, if you must know) but never really sought it out. Associating it with the girls in school who would cut holes into their uniform sleeves to make arm warmers, draw ‘manga’ on their work books and dye their hair blue which would turn a patchy green by the next day, they were often unapproachable and elitist for some reason.
“It’s just like Charlie said in my dream. If you want to receive you have to give. See Spike, you got to listen to your dreams, that’s how you find your dream girl.” – Jet Black
But I decided to buy a few Studio Ghibli movies on DVD (because I believe in the format). It was almost all new to me. Doing some coursework one evening, I stuck on Howls Moving Castle (Miyazaki, 2004) in the background, a practice I have when my work isn’t too focused. However, two hours later I ended up with a blank document in front of me and my heart soaring. It’s still my favourite Ghibli to this day. The emergence of the castle through the fog in the distance, still send chills down my spine. Seconds in and I was hooked.
I didn’t stop after that and within a year I had completed my Ghibli collection (thank the lord for the discount). I also branched out, discovering new genres (I’m a sucker for a cute high school romance but a violent horror/fantasy doesn’t go amiss either), the works of Mamoru Hosoda, Makoto Shinkai, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Satoshi Kon, along with a lot of lovely series - Clannad (2007-2008), Toradora (2010), Hellsing (2001-2002), My Love Story (2015)... I was lost in the beautiful animation, the landscapes, and the sense of humour. Japanese filmmakers have a wonderful interpretation of the world with many thanks to their culture, rich with stories and creativity. It became my escapist fantasy. It was like Disney to me, but with higher age ratings.
I could never get enough, yet my purse would always resist. There were varying peaks in my intakes. Sometimes months would be taken up by other obsessions, and then I would return fresh-faced and ready for immersion as though I’d never gone away. But Bebop was one I always wanted to see. But never wanted to spend the money on. My anime buying slowed down a little for a while after the first wave, mainly due to the need to save and being more sociable in second year of University.
“You know the first rule in combat? Shoot them before they shoot you.” – Faye Valentine
But third year I was hyper stressed again; planning a dissertation on Japanese Cinema, the heightened pressure of impending deadlines and with a mind that was running on next to empty. Then one day, I had a lot of vouchers saved up and decided I’d splurge on some neglected anime that had fallen to the bottom of my ‘need’ list; Berserk (1997) was one of them. And Cowboy Bebop was the other. This was Christmas, 2018. I’m such a noob.
I don’t believe in there being a set way to get into anything, just as I don’t hold a single film accountable for an entire genre or allow an isolated book in a series put me off and the same can be said for anime. I’ve seen shit, which I’ve usually streamed, but when I buy something I want to know I’m going to like it (at least a bit). I was confident I would like Bebop, if just for a single run-through. In fact, I wasn’t into it immediately at all, my attentions waning a little. You have to finish what you start. And then, as all Bebop fans can firmly and enthusiastically concur, ‘The Ballad of Fallen Angels’ came on. Stuck it on, not thinking much of anything; the usual. Before I knew it, I was frozen to the spot, allowing the full credits to run for the first time, enjoying ‘The Real Folk Blues’ and making a fool of myself many times since, singing along in attempted Japanese and always unaware of what I’m saying (Thank you Yoko Kanno and The Seatbelts).
“There are three things I hate the most: Kids, pets, and women with attitude. So tell me, why do we have all of them packed into our ship?” – Spike Spiegel
So my re-watch has been with some purpose; to introduce my housemate to Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, Faye Valentine, Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivruski IV and Ein the genius Welsh Corgi. A genre-bending show, there’s at least one episode for all to enjoy and an unforgettable amount of impressive animated sequences. The space-chase with Spike maneuvering through enemy barrages in the Swordfish II, during ‘Wild Horses’, for example, is the highlight of the episode. Zany characters, great lore, powerful stories, fantastic music and amazing visuals all make Cowboy Bebop more than just your average anime.
But something has struck me this time around in amongst all the action-packed sequences, moments of horror, and elements of humor. The depiction of adult relationships in the show. I always knew that the Bebop crew was a very dysfunctional, rag-tag family, but now they were more than that. The way they gravitate towards one another, the way they always come back and the intimate moments between that they never even acknowledge has broken my heart in ways I wasn’t sure Bebop could do anymore.
Relationships are harder when you’re older. When you’re younger, although it seems like more is at stake, things come more naturally. You’re finding yourself and in doing so finding others that compliment that in some way be it through music or books or even a t-shirt. When you’re older, these things don’t really matter. You have to meet at work and mutual misery forms a bond of survival in the hell hole. There’s never any common ground in particular, it’s just chatter to get you through the day. Or you have to be introduced through other friends, and then you don’t know whether or not you can consider an introduction friendship. When do you add them to your contacts? It all becomes harder. Your personality is pretty much set. And you’re more conscious of this, of yourself and all the things you want to change but have lost the malleability. I also found that I want to try less. That more friends complicate things and that trusting people is hard, being open is really hard.
This is where Bebop stands out to me. Three adults, a child and dog have all ended up on that ship and have created something of a home for themselves. They turned up and never left. Ed, computer-hacking child-genius, and Ein seem to be the only ones who know why they’re there. Ed is the only one that forced them to let her on the Bebop, hacking the ships core computer to make them turn back around and let her on. She seems to understand the need for companionship, the environment suiting her talents and desire for a family unit.
Jet, the father-figure of the household you could say, owns the Bebop and has worked with Spike the longest. It’s suggested that he picked him up not long after leaving the police force and the latter escaped the Syndicate. They’re been working bounty’s ever since. These two gravitated towards one another. Both have left organizations and become loners in their world. But why not work alone? Pride would say convenience. Jet cooks the food, fixes the ships and tends his bonsai trees. He needs to nurture. It’s why he has no problem with all these people under his roof despite his complaints. It also explains why he’s so riled up when they threaten to leave and never come back, like runaway children, but never making a fuss when they return. I think he’s just happy to be looking after someone again.
“They often say that humans can’t live alone. But you can live pretty long by yourself. Instead of feeling alone in a group, it’s better to be alone in your solitude.” – Faye Valentine
Faye and Spike are very similar in their sentiments towards life. A con-woman turned bounty hunter with a serious gambling problem; she is known to leave the ship for days on end, throwing money at casinos, the races and other such eventual losses. And more often than most, she claims she’ll never come back. With the theory that she wants to leave them before they leave her. It’s also better to be lonely on your own than in a crowd. That’s what Faye says. But I don’t think the Bebop crew is alone when they’re together. They don’t communicate, never really say what they mean and they can’t quite see what’s right in front of them (with the exception of Ed and Ein). For Faye, it’s the feeling of being forgotten all those years, with no one left to tell her who she was before she was awoken, that running away has become the better option.
Spike’s biggest problem is living in the past, which is much of what Bebop explores with all its characters; Jet for his policing days, Faye for her forgotten past and Spike for Julia, Vicious, the Syndicate. Maybe they see that life stopped when they united on the Bebop instead of seeing it as a possible new life, but until they can accept their pasts they cannot move forward.
Spike and his past are elusive as Faye’s, but one which is full of answers he’ll never relent to the crew or to the audience. Circumstance reveals more, but from the man himself, his lips are sealed. We learn through the end credits sequence of each episode as a series of faded memories and from significant turning-point episodes in which he is confronted with Vicious, his once comrade and now mortal enemy. The name Julia looms over them all. He falls hard in battles, he's not over-powered and more often than not, we see him on the brink of survival, on the edge of the mortal coil. Why does he push so hard? What more, how hard it is as an adult to wear your heart on your sleeve? Who are you fighting for when you don’t know what’s worth saving? When is it time to call it quits? These are things Spike Spiegel knows a lot about, and he’s known the answers for a long time. His story taught me that no matter how much you think that words can change the outcome of a person’s life, some things won’t change. And it’s childish whim that wishes it so.
They’re all broken in some way. And so Bebop perfectly captures the complication of the adult relationship. The need to shield oneself at every possible angle and the bubble we put ourselves in. In many ways, the adult friendship – the good ones – is genuine, more so than that of our youth. It comes with all the baggage. Those of the Bebop crew fail to see the harmony in their chaos and the fulfillment that entails. With each episode, I am taken by their intimacy and familiarity, their playfulness. Knowing the outcome makes me enjoy these moments, for what they are, all the more. As bounty hunters living a dangerous life, I don’t think they want a crutch. But if Bebop taught me anything, it’s about depending on your friends even when you’re too proud. I relate to their pessimism and in doing so can see right through them – see the generous soul that is Spike, the lonely child that is Faye and the soft-hearted man that is Jet.
“…I felt like I was watching a dream I could never wake up from. Before I knew it, the dream was over.” – Spike Spiegel
I’m currently in my third wave of anime, bingeing Gintama and hunting for new shows on CrunchyRoll like a hopeless Otaku. I’m finding more gems, but I’m not disillusioned by the worlds I’m escaping to. I have no misconception of Japan and reality. That anime is a romanticised version, capturing the dream world, the fantastical lands and the utopia in its Slice-of-Life whilst harbouring the real-life issues of its characters. There’s beauty in it that doesn’t really exist. Accepting this is hard for a dreamer like me. Because being an adult is hard, not a day goes by where I don’t yearn for my youth, for unforgettable days at eight years old, living in that hazy world where everything is still new and exciting and before I had anything to regret.
“Bang…” - Spike Spiegel
This is a long article about something not a lot of people will care about. Still, if there’s one thing I know about writing, write from the heart. This is what I know. Cowboy Bebop is an excellent series, and like a fine West Country cheddar, only gets better as time goes by. I can’t hear the words ‘Call Me’ without crying. ‘Space Lion’ breaks me. The colour ‘Blue’ has a deeper meaning to me now. Something about it holds you and won’t let you go. It taught be about growing up, fighting on and the right thing. Long after those final moments, it carves a space in your heart forever and nothing can fill it again – five individual spots for all the crew. Eternally. And it’s a heavy burden, but just like the past, it can’t leave you so just have to learn to ‘… carry that weight.’
Other Significant Quarantine Watching
· Spaced (1999 - 2001)
· The Story of Tracy Beaker (2002 - 2005)
· Inside No.9 (2014 - present)
· Psychoville (2009 - 2011)
· Cowboy Bebop (1998)
· Brass Eye (1997)
· This is England (2007 - 2015)
· Gintama (2006 - present kind of)
· Wotakoi: Love is Hard for an Otaku (2018)
Images from: Cowboy Bebop Complete Collection. (2014). Directed by Shinchiro Watanabe. [DVD]. UK: All The Anime LTD.