Looking at the world through a divided lens
Cowboy Bebop, Shinichirō Watanabe’s 1998 international anime hit, begins with visions of the past. A rose lying in a puddle, gangsters with guns blazing in dark alleys—Spike Spiegel’s (Steve Blum) old life hangs over the show from its first moments to its last, when it finally rises up to enfold him. It’s a structure carried over from film noir, a genre from which Bebop borrows extensively. In exploring Spike’s obsession with his lost life and Jet’s (Beau Billingslea) and Faye’s (Wendee Lee) bittersweet acceptance of their own pasts, Bebop looks with tenderness at the inner workings of how we form—and fail to form—connections with each other.
In film noir, tension between the past and present is a common theme, often embodied by a man’s competing affections for a woman representing his potential future and another representing his—often murky—past. In Tourneur’s acclaimed noir love story Out of the Past, Jeff’s easy going relationship with Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) conflicts with his hopeless love for the sociopathic Kathie, a remnant of his checkered past as an investigator. Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard follows screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) as he contends with the uncertain future represented by his infatuation with the young writer Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) and the smothering safety of the past represented by the forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).
Cowboy Bebop expands on this theme, replacing a purely romantic conflict with the push and pull between Spike’s past as a violent criminal and his ersatz family life aboard the titular spaceship. His sexual tension with scam artist and fellow bounty hunter Faye is only part of the web of connections binding him to that life, no more or less important than his close friendship with Jet or his grudging affection for the young hacker Edward (Melissa Fahn) and the ship’s dog, Ein. The quiet collapse of that family unit under the pressure of Spike’s death wish is the series’ real climax, a conscious decision to fall into the welcoming oblivion of a life that can never be retrieved.
Love in Loss
Spike’s doomed affair with Julia—his partner-turned-nemesis Vicious’s (Skip Stellrecht) lover—is a metaphor for his inability to function in sustainable emotional relationships. Julia, intent on leaving behind their lives as Syndicate affiliates but linked sexually and romantically to Spike’s partner in crime, represents both his guilt at the violence he’s done and his unwillingness to move on from that life. Apart, they might walk away unscathed. Together, they drag their shared past inexorably after them.
In a way, the peril baked into their relationship makes loving Julia “safe” for Spike, just as her death near the series’ conclusion gives him an excuse to sever ties with Jet and Faye. The finality of her loss represents certainty, creating an emotional space both familiar and navigable to Spike where the familial atmosphere of the Bebop is filled with uncertainty and unexplored emotions. Norma Desmond’s fixation on her vanished fame explores a similar idea, that an irretrievable past is comfortable not in spite, but because of its inaccessibility. The version of herself which no longer exists is more comfortable than coming to terms with a world in which she’s uncertain of her place.
When Faye, an amnesiac, discovers the secret of her long cryogenic sleep, she finds herself freed from the ache of her missing past. Her yearning to recover herself becomes safe to experience and release once it’s made definite. Jet, too, is able to move on from the lingering trauma of his time in the police force. Their hard-won catharsis holds a mirror up against the romantic nihilism of Spike’s quest for revenge, and in his final exchange with Faye the series makes explicit not his lack of ability to continue living, but his preference for self-destruction. The series’ real love story isn’t between Spike and Julia, or Spike and Faye, but between Spike and the death he courts repeatedly throughout the show’s run.
Death and Memory
Each of Cowboy Bebop’s three principal characters is missing a part of themself. Jet has a prosthetic arm, Faye suffers from amnesia, and in the series’ finale we learn that one of Spike’s eyes is fake, a replacement inserted after an accident. Their injuries tie them to ruptures in their lives, critical moments with great psychological and emotional weight. In his final assault on the Syndicate headquarters, Spike’s maiming is recreated when blood from an injury obscures one of his eyes. Earlier, he tells Faye that since his accident he’s felt as though he looks at the world through a divided lens—half in the past, half in the present—and that he’s no longer sure what’s real and what’s a dream.
Much of noir ends with a similar blurring of the line between past and present. Norma’s psychotic break after she murders Joe when he tries to leave her, Jeff permitting Kathie to kill him rather than running away with her—these crises make noir what it is, a genre lost in the shadows at the boundary between idle daydreams, heartbreak, and obsession. At its best, it shows us not just the romantic thrill of great loss, but the terror of opening ourselves up to new love. Noir boils the human condition down to one-liners and bloodsport not to simplify our world, but to make the fragile beauty of genuine connection that much more apparent in contrast.