Overthinking Cowboy Bebop:  Sessions 1-5

Overthinking Cowboy Bebop: Sessions 1-5

Episodes one through five. Come for the overthinking, stay for the woman with a turtle on her head.

ein chained

Howdy, y’all!  It’s good to be back, it really is.  Hope you missed me.  Since it’s been almost a month since the introductory installment, you might want to give it a quick once over, especially if you don’t really know the show. And a quick reminder:  while you can say anything you want about episodes 1-5 in the comments now, don’t go spoiling the later ones.  At least not much.  Like I said last time, I’m not totally sure that Cowboy Bebop is a show that the concept of “spoilers” really applies to.

In typical “Overthinking X” fashion, I’m going to begin with a quick plot summary a long plot summary of the particular episodes in question.  And actually, for the first one, I’m going to go into some pretty extensive detail.  A problem that I can see myself having to deal with a lot, writing about this show, is that a lot of the important stuff is in the details, and it’s hard to talk about the details in isolation.  We could be looking at some mammoth posts here, people.  I’ll try to keep a lid on it in the future.  For today, just settle in.  You might want to get a snack.

1:  Asteroid Blues
Before the credits, we get our first tease of the Mysterious Tragic Past of Spike Spiegel.  This is atmospheric as hell:  a silent montage of breaking glass, dripping blood, rose petals, birds, dudes standing back to back with guns, all jumbled up in a montage set to a haunting and melancholic celesta melody.  The overall effect is like John Woo sneezing into a music-box.  While it’s pretty hard to tell what’s going on, it is fairly clear that the battle ends with our boy Spike getting shot to death.  Before the credits.  Of the first episode.  But apparently he got better, because after the title sequence, and a leisurely montage of spaceships coming out of hyperspace near a terraformed asteroid, the camera makes its way inside the good ship BeBop (sic), where we find Jet Black sauteeing some mushrooms and peppers, and Spike practicing kung-fu in the dark.

Where's the beef?

Where's the beef?

Jet calls Spike to dinner, offering him “special beef with bell peppers.”  Spike screams bloody murder over the fact that there isn’t actually any beef in it.  Jet explains that they can’t afford beef, because they spent all the money they made last time fixing the damage to their equipment.  In most shows, this would be throwaway dialogue, but here I think it’s kind of important.  Not having enough food, or not having good enough food, or not being happy enough with the food that you have – because Jet’s vegetable stir fry actually looks pretty appetizing, for a drawing – is a leitmotif that Cowboy Bebop will continue to lean on for the duration of its run. Also, the fact that the crew of the Bebop is caught in a sharecropper-like cycle of debt has a symbolic value that will become clear later on.  (Interestingly, the soundtrack here is sharecropping music, all slide guitar and mournful harmonica.  This might be accidental, though… it’s not the most obvious connection to make, especially for the a non-American audience.)
Meanwhile, in the plot proper, we are introduced to renegade drug dealer Asimov Solensan and his pregnant girlfriend Katerina.  Solensan has stolen a massive cache of drugs off his mafia associates and is trying to unload the merchandise so that they can start a new life on Mars.  So let’s see, he’s a drug dealer trying to make one last big score before leaving the game for good, and she’s hoping to leave an impoverished dust bowl for the deep space equivalent of a farm where they can raise rabbits and live offa the fatta the lan’, AND she’s pregnant… yeah. This will end well.

A classic story.  But here’s the little wrinkle:  the drug dealer isn’t just peddling cocaine, or even Space Cocaine™.  He’s got a load of eyedrops that give you crazy superhuman reflexes and strength.  His mafia bosses keep sending squads of hitmen after him, but he just dips into his stash, hulks up, and mops the floor with them.  When Spike first bumps into Solensan, he declines to take him in because there’s no challenge in it.  But once he learns that his target is an unstoppable roid-fueled juggernaut, well, that sounds like a job for Spike Spiegel!  (This would feel more heroic if he hadn’t spent the entire first act bitching his partner out for not having enough money to buy steak.  Dude. If you’re going to turn your nose up at the easy money, don’t complain about being poor!)

So you see, instead of being pregnant with a child -- a metaphor for hope, innocence, and the future -- she was pregnant with drugs, which are a metaphor for drugs.  Heavyhandedness aside, it's a pretty chilling moment.

So you see, instead of being pregnant with a child -- a metaphor for hope, innocence, and the future -- she was pregnant with drugs, which are a metaphor for drugs. Heavyhandedness aside, it's a pretty chilling moment.

Spike tracks Solensan down again, and they have what turns out to be a pretty awesome fight, if you like over the top slow motion bullet-time kung fu (and really who doesn’t?)  It’s not clear to me whether Spike prevents Roidy Mcgee from taking his magic eyedrops, or whether Spike is just so badass that it doesn’t matter, but either way, Spike is winning when the Mafia shows up with machine guns and scares everyone off.  Solensan’s pregnant gal pal Katerina lays down suppressing fire, catches a round, and turns out not to be pregnant after all.   And then the awesome kung-fu battle segues into awesome flying car chase.  Eventually, Katerina realizes that they’re not getting away – Spike is overtaking them, and there’s a huge police roadblock at the hyperspace gate, which I guess is the equivalent of the Mexican border…IN SPACE!! – so she makes meaningful eye contact Spike, and then shoots her boyfriend in the head, seconds before their spaceship explodes in a hail of gunfire.

The epilogue finds Spike and Jet back on the Bebop, practicing kung-fu and cooking bell peppers.  Cut.  Print.

Something very interesting happen here, that set a pattern for the rest of the episodes.

1) The things that feel the most badass, usually don’t make a lick of sense.  Why did Katerina shoot Solensan?  It’s framed as a mercy killing, but I don’t see how his death is any less painful (or honestly, any different) from her own death, like, two seconds later.  Why doesn’t Spike take Solensan in when he first finds him, strung out and vomiting in a gas station bathroom?  I’m not really complaining about this — I have nothing against things that feel badass — I’m just pointing it out.

2) Everything works out for the worst for everybody.  Spike and Jet don’t get their bounty.  Solensan and Katerina don’t get to go to Mars.  The gangsters don’t get their drugs back.  I guess the police were able to successfully blow up an escaping fugitive?  Wooooo-hoooooo.  There’s a lot on the surface of Cowboy Bebop that screams Fun! Cool!, but right under the surface there’s a sense of futility that borders on nihilism.  When people say that the show is influenced by film noir, I think this is what they’re really talking about.  If anything, it’s closer in tone to the deconstructed neo-noir of the 1970s — you know, Chinatown and the like.  And the soundtrack during the car chase sequence, with a meditative saxophone noodling over a bed of moody synths, is very evocative of the Chinatown soundtrack, which I don’t think is a mistake.

3) Speaking of the music, something really interesting happens at the beginning of the fight scene.  The deconstructed delta blues that’s dominated the soundtrack so far turns into a high energy big band tune, more or less in the style of the opening credits song, and as a result, the fight scene is disconnected from the rest of the episode.  And this is how the action scenes (fight, chase, what have you) in Cowboy Bebop usually work.  In fact, this is arguably the way that any action sequence has ever worked, in anything.  They’re sort of like the songs in Glee, or the slapstick in a Chaplin movie, in that they are completely disconnected from the story but at the same time they’re pretty much the reason to watch the story in the first place.  As with much else, Cowboy Bebop takes this narrative trope and makes it obvious and self-conscious.  Every episode I’ve watched so far has had at least one extended action sequence, and regardless of whether they have any bearing on the plot, they’re always carefully bracketed on the soundtrack.

Whew!  Okay, now a much shorter recap of the other episodes.

12 Comments on “Overthinking Cowboy Bebop: Sessions 1-5”

  1. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Hooray, more Bebop posts written by Stokes! A fine combination. Here are my random thoughts, in no particular order:

    -I have to say, the first time I saw the show, I didn’t understand why Asteroid Blues was the first episode. The tone seemed different to me (yes, more nihilistic) than the usual episodes of the show, which are a mix of wackiness and cleverly staged fight scenes. This episode had the clever fight scene but not the wackiness.

    Having seen the whole show, I can now say that Asteroid Blues IS the correct first episode. The parallels between it and the last episode are really interesting, for one thing. You say in your post that the first four wacky episodes of Bebop are the main theme, and the dark fifth episode is the counterpoint. I could also see it the other way around. The nihilism and darkness of the 1st and 5th episodes are the main theme, and the wackiness in between is the filler. Fun filler for sure (you still haven’t got up to the wacky drug comedy/blaxploitation episode or the wacky terrorist episode), but still filler, in a way.

    -I think you brought up an interesting question about how much Bebop is a deconstruction of an anime/action show versus just a plain anime/action show. Or is it a sort of deconstructed reconstruction? I need to think about this more before I can answer.

    -What I do think is different about Bebop in comparison to most other anime shows I’ve seen – and incredibly frustrating sometimes, especially later in the series – is, as you said, the amount the writers hold back. This is the only anime TV show I can think of (besides, of course, Evangelion) where there is more subtext than text-text. Compare Bebop to, say, Dragon Ball, and you will see what I mean. The characters in most anime shows, even the good ones like the aforementioned Evangelion, spend a lot of time talking about their feelings to one another, or at least to the audience. Bebop is unique -and, again, sometimes incredibly frustrating – because it is about four (or five, if you count the dog) main characters who almost never speak honestly to each other. I can think of one time in the show where Spike talks honestly to one of the other members of the main cast, and it was so shocking to me that I was chilled to the bone. Chilled, I say!

    -I love all the commentary you have about the music. More, please!


  2. RiderIon #

    A response to your episode 5 recap: Spike is being a dick within the context of the show for insulting Faye’s singing. However, it’s more of a 4th wall joke as Faye’s Japanese voice actress is Megumi Hayashibara, who is a popular Japanese songtress, voice actor and pop culture icon. The joke doesn’t really carry over into the English dub as Wendee Lee, while talented, isn’t on the same level as Ms. Hayashibara.

    I view the reason the writers’ hold back information (both plot detail as well as denying viewer expectations) is that Cowboy Bebop is a juxtaposition of two common anime genres: the typical seinen and slice-of-life. We get the drama and violene that comes from the seinen genre’s target demographic (males 18-40). We also get the observation of Spike and Jet’s regular lives as the bounties they chase ultimately don’t tie into storyline of Spike’s past. Their lives are much more exciting as they’re space bounty hunters but it’s still an average day for them. Your example of the ending of Stray Dog Strut fits into place quite well in this aspect. We don’t always have the epic kung fu battle with our nemesis. Some times you just never confront them, some times they get arrested for pet trafficking. Life’s weird that way.


  3. stokes OTI Staff #

    @Mlawski – Very interesting! I would not have put episodes 1 and 5 in the same category, but you’re right that 1 is way more dour than 2, 3, or 4. And I’m totally with you on the lighter episodes being the “filler” around the “real plot” that takes place in the serious episodes… the serious episodes are sort of definitionally where the “real” plot of a serial TV show takes place, even if the lighter ones are better overall (for which see Buffy the Vampire Slayer). I’m wondering, though, whether Cowboy Bebop is trying to turn this on its head somewhat, and argue that rather than focusing on some grand revenge narrative you should just kick back, eat some sauteed bell peppers, and play fetch with your super-intelligent Corgi. This is sort of the position that Bilbo Baggins takes at the beginning of the Hobbit, right? “Plot development? Drama? Oh, no, not for me. We don’t want any of that here, thank you. Wouldn’t you rather have some nice seed cake?”

    @Riderlon – Cool to know! I never would have gotten that joke. So is Hayashibara basically a singer who gets voice acting work as a stunt, the way that Miley Cyrus might over here? Or is she just a voice actress who is also a successful singer? If it’s the latter, that’s astonishing… although I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that the status of voice actors is different in Japan than it is in the states, given that the status of animation as a whole is so different.
    As to whether Cowboy Bebop can be seen as a slice of life drama… I’m a little hesitant to agree. It seems a little too packed with incident. Shouldn’t there be episodes where they just take the day off and do their laundry? (Not that any of them seem to own another set of clothes.) Or entire episodes where they’re just lounging around the ship en route to the next planet? But maybe I don’t quite understand what you mean by the term slice of life… is it really a well-defined anime genre? What would be the textbook example?


  4. RiderIon #

    @stokes Ms. Hayashabira started off as a singer but eventually started doing roles as a voice actress for anime. She still does release new singles and albums every few years but she’s becoming more well known for her voice acting than her singing (especially in the West). She also still has a radio show if memory serves. She really has become something of a pop culture icon as opposed to just a singer/voice actress. According to her wikipedia page, she was also a licensed nurse at one point so she seems to be an all around success if you ask me.

    Slice of life by definition is just a look into the daily life of our characters and examine what happens to them. It often includes some kind of observation on life or society and rarely has an overarcing plot. The pinnacle American example is the sitcom Seinfeld. Japanese anime and manga have two very distinct flavors of the genre: mundane and fantastical.

    The mundane variety tends to be populated with comedies such as Azumanga Daioh (high school girls), Genshiken (college otaku), Crayon Shin-chan (5 year old boy’s antics) and Maison Ikkoku (boarding house tenets). Some have an overarching storyline while others are purely episodic. The fantastical variety tends to be populated with more drama such as Planetes (astronauts), Patlabor (mecha pilot), Kiki’s Delivery Service (witches) and The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi (which is a comedy despite its title). I’ve heard arguments for Ranma 1/2 and Neon Genesis Evagelion as slice of life but I’m not willing to label them as such. Check out one of each type and you’ll have a good idea of what the genre consists of.

    Cowboy Bebop gives us a fantastical flavor of the genre. We observe Jet and Spike’s life as bounty hunters in space. The series is fairly episodic as outside of the episodes dealing with the crew’s checkered pasts. We also get very notable observations on life and society. The first is that even with advanced technology, humanity is very much the same.We still have terrorists, organized crime and smugglers that exist today although their means are more science fiction. The second observation is that being a bounty hunter sucks. You’re always out of money between repairs, fines and feeding yourself. You’re in constant danger even with the most mundane tasks. I would not enjoy being a space cowboy one bit.


  5. stokes OTI Staff #

    So… okay, I’m still confused. Isn’t any serial just a look into the daily lives of its characters? If you can have a slice-of-life show about mecha pilots, can you argume that Lost is a slice-of-life show about people stuck on a mysterious island? Is The Wire a slice-of-life show about the drug trade? Is Dexter a slice-of-life show about a serial killer who only kills other serial killers? Is the Illiad a slice-of-life poem about the Trojan War? They do all describe the events that — however interesting they seem from the outside — make up the protagonists’ daily lives, and all of them provide social commentary.

    But you gave me a good long list of titles (for which thanks!), so probably I should just watch some of them and get back to you if I’m still confused.


  6. RiderIon #

    @stokes Slice of Life is pretty hard to define and I explained it to the best of my ability (which really isn’t that great). One of the main characteristics (in my mind) is the lack of an overall important narrative. The Illaid and The Odyessey tell an overall stories of the Trojan War and Odysseus’ return home from the War. there’s a narrative there despite it just being a day in the life of Odysseus.

    I’ll use Crayon Shin-chan as an example seeing as I’ve seen all of what’s been released in the US. Each episode is essentially standalone. No narrative is being told and we just see the hilarious antics of Shin. There are multipart episodes but they don’t affect the narrative setup which is Shin is 5, goes to school and drives his parents and teachers insane. The status quo is maintained at the end of the day.

    Cowboy Bebop does this with its story. New characters are introduced but regardless of the success of this week’s chase, the status quo isn’t changed. Even when we do get a serious episode dealing with Jet, Spike or Faye’s past we get some character development with [my mouth staying shut to avoid spoilers].

    The other issue is how non-slice of life anime do this for character development. They take a break from the action and shift tone to expand on someone’s backstory via a slice of life episode. Bleach is a big example of it from what I’ve been told.


  7. Jonathan #

    I think Riderlon has a point in that there actually are a number of scenes where the characters are just waiting for something to happen. An argument could be made that the first scenes on the ship with the bell peppers and the kung fu are of this type. I seem to think there’s an episode later where Jet is fishing off the Bebop while waiting for laundry to dry. These daily activities are the true keys to understanding the characters: Jet grows Bonsai; Spike practices Jeet Kune Do.

    At the same time, I disagree with Riderlon’s suggestion that Cowboy Bebop is largely a slice of life drama since it does have an overarching narrative. It is ‘going somewhere,’ but it takes its sweet time getting there. The closer you get to the end, the fewer side episodes you have until it’s all about the backstories and the choices these characters make about whether they will continue in the life they’ve led.


  8. RiderIon #

    I say it’s a juxtaposition of seinen and slice of life genres. We have the standlone bounty episodes that don’t really tie into the oerall backstory. We also have sequences and entire episodes featuring realistic violence, adult situations and humor along with flat out depressing issues that people deal with like Post Traumatic Stress, addiction and betrayal that are common to seinen anime and manga like Berserk, Battle Royale and Noir.


  9. Jonathan #

    @Riderlon: Yes, I understood that, but I disagree with the idea that it is a juxtaposition of the two groupings (I hesitate to say genres for reasons I’ll mention later). I agree wholeheartedly with the seinen elements (Black Lagoon being the closest in terms of content, style, and presentation), but I think that the slice of life elements, which I agree exist, only serve to further characterization rather than being juxtaposed with seinen.

    Further, the fact that many of the bounty hunting episodes are among the darkest episodes suggests that they, while part of everyday life, are equally seinen in nature. In addition, some episodes that tie in to the main storyline do begin with apparently unrelated bounties. There isn’t always a clear line between episodes that delve into character stories and episodes that are just them doing their job.

    I also disagree that The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is from the slice of life genre. I believe it to be a very different animal all together.

    Of course, I think it’s silly to say that something is ‘seinen’ as a genre since it’s a grouping that includes such diverse series as Elfen Lied, Detroit Metal City, Mushishi, and Mahoromatic. Four VERY different series that I would say fall in very different genres.

    @Stokes: While it is true that everything works out for the worst here, not everything does. They win some and they lose some. I think that’s an important thing to consider. they will succeed with some bounties later.


  10. Wraith #

    This will be a bit of a long comment on the slice-of-life genre, since I don’t think Cowboy Bebop really fits. Of course, that’s my definition, and it is definitely one of the nebulous ones that will receive ten different answers from ten different people.

    Personally, I’d say Cowboy Bebop is primarily an action series. Sure, there’s comedy and drama and character exploration and so on, but the main focus is on the action. It has some slice-of-life elements, but both drama and comedy can get bigger impact if the audience has some kind of connection with the characters, and slice-of-life is one method for creating that. But every single episode has some kind of major action that’s central to the story. Even Toys in the Attic, or the more comedic than most Mushroom Samba.

    A lot of the series mentioned above I would classify as primarily sit-coms. This is a genre that most anime fans seem to have forgotten about. ^_^ They may focus on the every-day life of the characters, but it’s the “wacky and zany” life. Or, frequently in the Japanese case, the “cute and cuter” daily life. They have to keep up the constant stream of jokes, so we get the funny incidents. Granted, the characters seem to have a lot _more_ of them than most people, but the focus is on these moments, not on typical every-day life.
    Incidentally, I think that’s one of the reason so many otaku got upset with the chocolate coronet scene in Lucky Star. That kind of tangential conversation does happen, but it isn’t the kind of constant set-up, punch-line, set-up, punch-line they were expecting.

    If you want a good example of slice-of-life, check out Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou. Unfortunately, it isn’t officially available in English, and isn’t likely to be (unless Vertical’s upcoming release of Twin Spica does very well, in which case it’ll have a slim chance of being licensed).
    It’s the “purest” slice-of-life story I know of. Sure, there are comedic and dramatic moments, and even actiony moments (the hurricane, for instance). But they’re not dominant or even primary elements.
    For instance, one chapter involves the main character, Alpha, doing the following: She wakes up, putters around the house, makes coffee, and falls asleep waiting for customers. That’s it. There’s around three lines of dialogue in the entire chapter, all her speaking out loud to herself. No action, drama, or forced comedy. And it works. It takes a good storyteller, but they can do it.

    This kind of thing is very different from the kind of thing shounen action manga like Bleach do. Those do sometimes break from the main story to follow/explore the characters, but it’s so they can power up (over 9000!) or show dramatic tragic pasts.
    As far as Cowboy Bebop goes, they’re bounty hunters. Their daily life is full of exciting adventures. Even the quiet moments are usually tied in with this. Spike goes toe-to-toe with criminals frequently, so he practices Jeet Kun Do in his spare time. Not that it doesn’t, or can’t, have slice-of-life elements, they’re just very minor ones.
    Action and Sci-Fi definitely come to mind when you mention the series. Slice-of-life, not so much.

    I’ll add that slice-of-life seems to be a particularly Japanese thing. America just doesn’t have an equivalent. It isn’t a particularly common genre, but it does show up outside anime and manga. Yasujiru Ozu made some great slice-of-life movies. He’s got comedies and dramas as well, but for things available in English (Criterion carries several of his films) this is your best bet.

    To finish, I’ll reiterate that this is a very undefined genre. Everyone is going to have slightly different views on it, and Riderlon’s view seems pretty common. This one is just mine, not any kind of “official” view.
    But for me, of the series mentioned above, only Genshiken has any kind of significant slice-of-life element. Maison Ikkoku is more a romance/comedy. Azumanga Daioh is more sit-com, etc. It’s just very rare for this to be the, or even a, dominant element in a published-for-profit story. By nature, it’s hard to have any kind of gauge on how successful they’ll be before you actually try to sell them. Publishers will rarely want to take that risk. Even Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou has some elements (the data transfer, for instance) early on that are obviously meant to increase its saleability. Luckily it was popular enough that Ashinano has apparently been given enough freedom with his new series, Kabu no Isaki, to not have to pander.


  11. CKS #

    IIRC Ms. Hayashibara (she used to have her own manga detailing her life) was a trainee nurse when she was “talent-spotted” to be a seiyuu. Later on she branched into music; very common among seiyuus in Japan.

    Azumanga Daioh = “Seinfeld” with girls


  12. Andie #

    I’m gonna nitpick a few of your points in the Discipline section…

    “Consider the stuff they keep back:

    • We don’t get to see Katerina shooting Solensan (we just see the aftermath)”

    I think this is simply more dramatic, and not that a unique way to show a shooting.

    “• We don’t get to know why Ein is so important”

    I honestly think this was lazy writing, not a conscious choice of Reveal versus Conceal. Even if you’re suggesting the Reveal versus Conceal conceit as a byproduct rather than the creators’ conscious choice, what is the point? What does it add to the series and your enjoyment of it?

    “ We don’t get to see Spike and Faye’s poker game (instead, we get an oblique montage of casino-related imagery)”

    This I can see fitting your pattern.

    “• We don’t get to see the Space Warriors turning into apes (we just cut away after the vial shatters)”

    I feel like this was to save time and $$.

    “• We don’t get to know what motivates Vicious’ power play within the crime syndicate”

    And I hate this! I’m only on episode 10 so I hope this changes.

    “• And hey, while we’re on the subject of character motivations, we don’t get a reliable one of these for ANY of the main characters, at least not yet.”

    I’m hoping this is more of a symptom of early episodes than anything else.


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