Practice English Speaking&Listening with: The Philosophy of Cowboy Bebop – Wisecrack Edition

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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 its 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:

Thenin 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.”

Its those last two sentences about breaking traditional styles and creating a new genre

that really gave us pause.

See, Cowboy Bebop isnt just about great characters and deep thoughts, its 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.

Theres Jet, a former detective whos 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.

Whos a brilliant hacker, but really, yeah, shes 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 youll 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 doesnt

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, youll 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

isnt about portraying the future.

In fact, it feels more like the 90s than it does 2071.

Cities here arent the shining beacons on the hill that futurism promised us; instead

theyre dirty, almost rundown.

Hell, theres a whole space colony full of drifters and riffraff.

And technology isnt exactly 70 years ahead of its time, either.

Take Session 7, for exampleHeavy 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 hasnt 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 its time to wind down, they relax at crappy rest stops which look identical

to thousands Ive seen in West Tennessee.

So, whats going on here?

What are we to make of sci-fi that doesnt really use of the science part in a flashier

way?

As Wisecrack favorite, Ray Bradbury, tells us, "Science fictionis 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.

Bradburys 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 theres no better example of this than Faye Valentine.

In many ways, Faye is a victim of sciences 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 theres 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, theres 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 shes 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, Fayes story

is never folded into a warning about the future or its technology.

Instead, Fayes journey is all about finding a place to belonga 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 Fayes narrative, but at the end of the day, theyre

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 heroespersonal

stories, were 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 isnt the only genre Cowboy Bebop works in.

"Wait."

Yeah, if the title wasnt 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 episodes 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,

itis shown to be the escape of the weak or the defeated.”

For French, though, nothing characterizes Westerns more than death, and thats particularly

true in Cowboy Bebop.

French writes,

The Western is abouta dead mans 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 mans 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 hes already died once before.

Again, I see?”

Again?”

Ive 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 Spikes partner, well, lets just say hes 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 its 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, weve got to wonder

what duty could be so important.

Especially since he once told Faye that the past doesnt matter anymore:

I guess I dont know anything about my past anymore.”

Isnt that something that really doesnt 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 isnt too much of a stretch.

As literary critic Jane Tompkins notes in her book West of Everything, the heroes and

villains of Westerns arent concerned with traditional Judeo-Christian ethicsthe

harsh reality of the desert and their outlaw lifestyles wont 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 ones self-respect?”

We see this in almost every character from Spikes past, but most vividly in Vicious.

Vicious, ever the sociopath, holds a might is right attitude.

Those who cant or wont fight, according to Vicious, shouldnt be allowed to live.

Its the reason why he killed his boss and later staged a coup.

Its 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.”

Ive 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 Jupiters 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 isnt about him being a serious piece of

sh*t.

In part, its about righting a personal wrong: Julias 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 theres also a more philosophical reason behind Spikes decision.

And it has to do with skepticism.

Since leaving the Syndicate, Spike has wondered if he ever really survived at allwondering

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, Ive 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.

Im 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.

Its only after losing the love of his life that he accepts the cruel reality of the situation:

hes 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 deadmans walk isnt just to take revenge on Vicious, its paradoxically

to show himself that hes awake.

Or as he tells Faye:

Im not going there to die.

Im going there to see if I really am alive.”

And while its up for debate whether Spike dies after his final fight with Vicious, Ive

got to say, Spike would make Clint Eastwood proud by storming Viciouss 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, its becauseRoninfilmsyou know, Japanese period pieces that followed

the lone samurai dispensing personal justiceare 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 thats 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 dont hit all the marks.

While every character is influenced by film noir.

Heres lookin' atmy reflection, kid.”

I think the genre has the greatest pull on Faye and Jet.

(Sorry, Spike.)

Faye is clearly a femme fataleone film noirs 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 becameone 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.

Shes constantly one step ahead of her male peers:

She sucked out all the antifreeze from the radiator.

Itll be out for at least half a day.”

Even if she didnt pull this stunt, we wouldnt look for her, right?”

She emptied out the safe as well.”

And she isnt above using her sexuality to get what she wants.

Hi.”

What do you want?

Ya wanna get some?”

Id rather be the one to give some.”

Im 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, shes the only character who really makes a substantive internal change by the

seriesend.

But her narrative arc also taps into the very philosophical spine of noir: nihilism.

YesI know nihilism has become Wisecracks favorite dead horse, but hey, I didnt 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 systemslike God, morality, or even truthwere illusions.

Reality, to Nietzsche, is in constant flux, which means things like definitions, constants,

and even being dont 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 writesSeeing noir as a response or reaction to the death of God helps explain

the commonality of the elements that critics have noted in noir filmsthe inherent pessimism,

alienation, and disorientation.”

And if theres one character whos continually had belief system after belief system ripped

away from her, its Faye.

When Faye first awakes, she doesnt actually believe that shes in the future.

That is until her lawyers tells her that shes 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 shes been

searching forher pastis 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?

Its me, Sally Yung.

I was in your high school graduating class.”

Time, like Nietzsches 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 wantedthe home that she wanted

to return tois no more: Fayes not the only noir-esque character.

Whos a trench coat-wearing cop who remembers his sweetheart like this?

Yeah, its everyones favorite chef, Jet.

Like Faye, Jets 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 Jets nickname?

To think youre a bounty hunter.

You, who used to be called the Black Doga mad dog who never let go of things he'd bitten

into.”

So, weve got a former cop turned PI, I mean bounty hunter, whos pining over a

lost love.

Yeah, its noir.

Like Faye, Jet has to learn that time moves forwardand with it, everyone else.

Consider the pocket watch that Jets lover, Alisa, left him.

You seem to think that time on Ganymede had stopped

Thats a story from long ago...

Ive... forgotten it.

I dont 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 cant 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.

Its hard to argue that series director Shinichirō Watanabe didnt do just that

in Cowboy Bebop.

Sci-fi, westerns, noireven a little ronin actionits all here and its all

excellent.

Its this very genre-bending thats made the series so popular, and its the reason

why Cowboy Bebop seems so fresh two decades later.

The Description of The Philosophy of Cowboy Bebop – Wisecrack Edition