Overthinking Cowboy Bebop:  Sessions 11-14

Overthinking Cowboy Bebop: Sessions 11-14

Stokes picks up on Cowboy Bebop right where he left off. On the menu for this week: sexually ambiguous saxophonists and mutant space blobs.

But of course he isn’t really dead.  He gets up in the second part of the episode, and we’re told that Lin was using tranquelizers or something… I don’t know.  It seems more probable to me that Spike, like the demonic kid from “Sympathy For The Devil,” is in some kind of ontological freefall due to a past trauma that cannot be resolved until he revisits and violently recapitulates said trauma, and as such is effectively immortal.  You know, kind of like Harry Potter and Voldemort:  each can only be killed by the other.  (Two guesses as to who the Voldemort figure is in this case, and they’re both “Vicious.”)  To be clear, I don’t think that this is actually literally true within the universe of the show – although I suppose it’s possible, since it is sci-fi – but it’s definitely the symbolism that they’re going for.

Gren, left. Vicious, right. Knife, phallic.

Anyway, the second part of Jupiter Jazz is really all about Gren.  Like any good Cowboy Bebop character, he’s hiding from a mysterious tragic past, which in his case has to do with trench warfare on Jupiter’s  desert moon Titan.  He knew Vicious there – in fact, the show very coyly suggests that he knew Vicious in the biblical sense.  (Although, does that phrase really work if it’s two dudes?) At the very least, he idolized Vicious.  But when Gren made it back home, he ended up arrested for treason, and apparently because Vicious had sold him out.  (That music box is somehow involved in this.  It’s not quite clear how.)  Then, while in jail, Gren was exposed to some drugs that changed his body to its current form.  Depending on whether you believe the subtitle translation or the dubbing, this was either because prison drove him to become a drug addict, or because the government was doing secret tests on prisoners, so this isn’t very clear either…  but it hardly matters.  The causal chain that we’re supposed to follow, I think, is
1)  Gren falls in love with Vicious
2)  Vicious betrays Gren
3)  Gren is physically transfigured by this betrayal, losing his masculinity.

Now, if we wanted to judge this episode purely on whether its politics are “correct,” it would probably be a pretty bad episode.  Being differently gendered is presented to us as this catastrophic wrong that has been inflicted on Gren; furthermore you could read it as “punishment” for having the “wrong” sexual orientation to begin with.  Neither of those is great, to put it mildly.  I mean, the conflation of homosexuality and intersexuality is pretty bad all on its own, right?   I could try to defend the show – point out that Gren is allowed to have narrative desire in the sense that Callot brought up in a comment thread here, point out that he is if nothing else a sympathetic character, and point out that a problematic treatment of LGBT issues is still better than no treatment at all.  But I wouldn’t want to sweep the troubling aspects under the rug.  They’re there, and if we want to enjoy this show, we need to acknowledge them.  We don’t necessarily need to dwell on them too much, though.  The specifics of Gren’s backstory – gender change – are a lot less important to the plot and to his character than the simple fact that he has a long simmering grudge against Vicious, even though they used to be quite close.

With Gren’s backstory established and Spike back up on his feet, the stage is set for an epic confrontation between Spike and Vicious.  Except that’s not really what happens.  Instead we get a confrontation between Vicious and Gren.  And this is one of the things that I really like about “Jupiter Jazz:”  it’s not Spike’s story, or Faye’s or any of the other regular cast members.  It’s Gren’s story, and the crew of the BeBop are just supporting characters.  Gren has arranged to sell a load of drugs to Vicious, just as a pretext to get close enough to confront him about his betrayal.  Vicious is unrepentent, and when Gren brings up their status as old brothers-in-arms, he just laughs it off.  (The dialogue is pretty overblown here – Gren:  “I believed in you!” Vicious:  “There is nothing to believe in, nor is there a need to believe.” – but I feel like the show has earned it).  It turns out that Vicious’ business on Callisto was as much about killing Gren to clean up loose ends as it was about buying drugs:  the suitcase of money that he tosses over turns out to be a bomb.  But Gren dodges this, and then Spike crashes the party, and they end up in a three-way spaceship dogfight.  Vicious is getting the best of this, when suddenly the bag of drugs that he got from Gren also turns out to be a bomb and explodes (which is kind of awesome), crippling his ship and forcing him to beat a retreat.  Even so, Vicious lives to fight another day (presumably until the series finale, at the very least), while Gren is mortally wounded by a stray round.  As a last request, he has Spike carry him into his spaceship and set it on autopilot for Titan, the only place where he’d ever been happy in his crazy, mixed up, differently gendered, saxophone playing life.

But there’s more to it than that, which I can’t get into without doubling back and talking about the way that music has figured in this episode from the beginning of “Jupiter Jazz part 1.”

Generally in Cowboy Bebop, episodes have a lot of music.  They also tend to have lots of different kinds of music:  goofy funk here, a haunting music box there, stride piano in a third scene, etc.  “Jupiter Jazz” is fascinating, because while the scope of the narrative, and even the scope of the action scenes in this episode is so vastly expanded, the sense of musical space is rigidly confined.  The very beginning of the first episode is pretty normal, in that we hear a few different things:  pseudo-Native American chanting in the opening scene, a menacing Blade-Runner-era-Vangelis synth pad for some scenes with Vicious’ mafia bosses, etc.  But in the scene where Gren is introduced, we hear him playing the opening bars of a smooth jazz ballad on his sax… and once this music appears, it is essentially all you hear, as underscoring or otherwise, until the very end.  Well, that’s not entirely true, come to think of it, but it’s not far off.  Adding to the sense of claustrophobia is the fact that it’s usually played by saxophone alone, without even the piano accompaniment that supports the theme in its first appearance.  It’s always at-pitch too (by which I mean, they don’t create musical variety by transposing it up and down).  But it’s not just the same recording over and over again – you can hear the performer adding different little ornaments and playing with the rubato – so we can assume that this was a conscious choice, not a cost-saving measure.

The melody figures into the plot, too.  Gren learned it from Vicious.  Specifically, he learned it because it’s the melody played by the music box, which he got as a gift from Vicious during the war, and Vicious in turn may have received as a gift from the mysterious Julia.   And when Gren met Julia, years later, and told her how where the music box came from, she instantly realized that Vicious used it to set Gren up:  he’d been using a beacon inside the music box to transmit troop movements to the enemy, and by giving it to Gren he was framing another man for his own crime.  (Or something like that.  I’m still not %100 on the details.)  This means that in the second episode, we also get to hear the theme played on a music box… and that musical texture has a certain resonance on this show. Nifty.

Okay, so back to the climactic dogfight.  When the bag of drugs blows up in Vicious’ back seat, it’s triggered by the music box, which Gren used as a timer.  And the music box doesn’t just explode:  it plays the beginning of the melody first.  And when Vicious hears it, this shakes him to his core.  He flashes back to meeting Gren on Ganymede, to the camaraderie and (if I’m reading the subtext right) love that the two of them shared.  So yeah, Vicious wins the fight, and Gren gets killed.  But Gren wins the argument.  Vicious really did care about him, and there is something to believe in.  D’awwwwww…

Oh, and another thing about the melody:  the A section, which is usually all you hear, sounds almost exactly like the introduction to Maria from West Side Story.  You know, the part that goes “the most beautiful sound… that I ev-ver heard…”  At first, I assumed this was accidental, and unfortunate.  Looking back at it, I’m not so sure.  The significance of the melody, to both Gren and Vicious, is its role as a trigger for memory.  So maybe by choosing a melody that strongly evokes another familiar melody, Yoko Kanno puts us in the paradoxical position of already remembering the Jupiter Jazz theme even the first time that we hear it.  It’s not something that’s new, it’s something we’ve always known – that is, our relationship to it is the same as Vicious and Gren’s relationship to it.  (But the fact that the B section bears an even stronger resemblance to the bridge from The Christmas Song – “You know that Saaaanta’s on his way… He’s loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh…” probably is an accident.  And the fact that we hear this part for the first time during a dramatic pan to a snow-filled sky is decidedly unfortunate.  I don’t think that my reaction to Spike getting shot was supposed to be a guffaw at the underscoring.)

In most of my Cowboy Bebop posts so far, I’ve given you a video clip with a music clip to listen to.  I’ll give you one here too.  It’s the very end of Jupiter Jazz part II.  As the music begins, you’ll hear a version of the theme that I’ve been talking about.  But as the closing sequence continues, this expands into a strange, Peter Gabriel-esque texture that blends the Jupiter Jazz theme together with the “Native American” chanting from the very beginning of Jupiter Jazz part 1.  And eventually, during the credits sequence, we hear some fairly nifty smooth-jazz sax work – the first music that could pass for jazz (in the sense that all true jazz involves improv) over the entire two-part episode.  I warn you, this one isn’t as immediately appealing as the show’s main title theme or the “In the Rain” from episode five.  You have to be able to stomach Peter Gabriel style “ethnic” cheese.  You have to be able to stomach smooth jazz.  But man, if you can swallow those pills, this is an epic use of film music.  You have two seemingly unrelated cues combining in counterpoint.  You have a rigidly circumscribed theme established as a leitmotif throughout the episode suddenly bursting into full and rapturous song.  You have the delayed expectation of “jazz,” established by the episode’s title, finally fulfilled during the closing credits.  (Also worth noting:  “Jupiter Jazz part 2” is the only episode so far that has its own special closing credits sequence.  This in itself is kind of a stunning moment.)  And becuase this is all set over an image of Gren’s ship burning up in re-entry over Titan, his ashes sprinkled across its desert like snow, the explosion of melodic exuberance from the sax (Gren’s instrument), and the (admittedly cheap) spiritualism of the chanting, combine to form a frankly glorious image of the liberated soul as it escapes from this tortured world of woe.


I mean, look, Cowboy Bebop doesn’t ever talk about religion or the afterlife, and I’m pretty well an atheist here in our world.  But after hearing this cue, I believe that Gren got to heaven.

14 Comments on “Overthinking Cowboy Bebop: Sessions 11-14”

  1. RiderIon #

    Ed’s 4th wall-breaking and her dubious lesson in Toys in the Attic is a lot more revealing to her worldview: she’s completely disconnected from reality. There are no consequences in Ed’s mind.

    There’s a lot of assumption on the writer’s part for Jupiter Jazz. They assume we have figured out what makes these characters tick and I’ll give you my thoughts on the matter

    Being bounty hunters, Ed would be skimming underground sites and bounty hunter websites that deal in rumors and criminal sightings. With Julia’s name coming up (despite being a common name), Spike would still react to it because of where it came up: the criminal underbelly of the solar system. That makes, at least in my opinion, Jet and Spike’s argument all the more poignant. Jet assumes that Spike is going chase after his past. The last time he did that, we got Spike the Mummy and Jet’s willing to bet that Spike will be coming back in a body bag. However, I can’t explain how Faye ended up in the same moon as the Julia rumor (and ultimately Spike) other than plot convience. Nor can I explain why they just let Faye back on the ship despite how much she screwed them.

    Faye’s actions inside Gren’s apartment are also pretty explainable if you follow Miss Valentine’s modus operandi for (most) of the series: money. Gren was/is close friends with Vicious, as evidenced by the pictures Gren has of the two in uniform. Vicious is the leader of the Red Dragons, a premiere organized crime syndicate. Gren’s in the shower alone, unarmed and possibly with a nice bounty on his head. I believe I can see the dollar signs in Faye’s eyes. She is flirty with Gren and shows some attraction to him but now it’s business. I imagine all the alcohol she’s consumed in the last 12 hours also influenced her decision making.

    Faye’s reaction to the reveal of Gren’s intersexed condition is a well done. She was attracted to what she was classify as a woman. She isn’t exactly pleased with this revelation and doesn’t really know how to react to it (I imagine the booze isn’t helping either). Once she finds out Gren’s past, her prior plan doesn’t really work as Gren doesn’t have a bounty and there’s no guarantee that Faye could even get to Vicious now. I’m also sure she’s sobering up and her plan isn’t as great as she first imagined it.


  2. marmls2m #

    having read all 4 of your posts, i now feel qualified to comment. i would have written some comments on the other articles, but apparently i am too late. you make some really interesting points and comparisons, but you seem to ignore one critical aspect of cowboy bebep. which is this: it is anime. i don’t know if this was touched on in the past, or assumed, or deliberately ignored, but some of your observations and comments could be answered by the fact that this series is a product of a foreign pop culture. and there are certain aspects of that culture that explain some peculiarities of the series, most notably, the animation. the long panning shots of static backgrounds and images are a staple of anime, not because of artistic license, but because they save money. the same could be said about weird character movements, strange visuals such as the fruit flying over ein in episode 2, and the reuse of establishing shots like the bebop pulling into a warp gate, which i know you haven’t mentioned. and while i know the music was innovative for an anime series at the time, the choices aren’t necessarily as deliberate as you might think. Yoko Kanno composed hundreds of songs and themes for the show before the animation went into production and Watanabe or whoever the shot caller was picked and chose what to use for any particular scene or episode. that is why there are 5(?) soundtracks for the show that have a ton of songs that you may not recognize or possibly have never heard. no one knew how popular cowboy bebop was going to be until it started to be popular, after production had already ended on the core series, and so it was produced in the japanese anime tradition: haphazardly. in fact, if i remember correctly, it never aired in its entirety in japan until after it started to gain popularity in america. at the time, it was really just Watanabe’s low budget love letter to american culture.

    maybe your analysis of the series is purposefully ignorant of the intentions of the creators of the series, i don’t know. but basically what i’m getting at is this: like all anime, it has to be viewed through the lens of our cultural differences and translation problems before it really starts to make sense. there are some points where you touched on that, like jet’s weird arm gestures and the translation problems at the end of episode 10, but i feel that you are taking too small a scope on its impact on the entire series.

    side note: i am endlessly amused by your nod to the tick. and here i thought i was the only one.


  3. RiderIon #

    @marmls2m I don’t think that’s a valid criticism of Mr. Stokes’ analysis. Yes, something is lost in the translation and there is a culture gap between American and Japanese audiences. It does lead to some references and direction that leaves us curious (like the character design influences and the fruit flying), it does not immediately exclude us from understanding the themes and the narrative value of the show. The show stands on its own and can freely be criticized by the masses regardless of whether we understand every single minituae of the show.

    You also gloss over the fact that Cowboy Bebop was not show in its entirety in both Japan and the US until it was very popular as it crossed Japanese and US cultural taboos. The first episode wasn’t cleared for air in Japan as it featured prominent drug use. The US had 2 episodes cut (episodes 6 and 8?) because it featured violence against children and a plane hijacking shortly after 9/11. There’s also an episode that featured the WTC but I can’t remember if they trimmed the scene out or if they cut the whole episode during the first few runs.


  4. marmls2m #

    cowboy funk. cut out of its run on adult swim either the first or second time, i cant remember.


  5. fenzel #


    Good points, but also, restrictions breed creativity. If circumstances, budget or genre force you to use a certain technique or make something a certain way, it’s better to make it work on your own terms than to just let it happen.

    For example, _Paranormal Activity_ is the way that it is because it was shot on a super-low budget. But the aesthetic choices are also deliberate and have other purposes.


  6. stokes OTI Staff #

    @Riderlon –
    Yeah, to a certain degree I’m being uncharitable about the plot holes just because it makes for a funnier article. And you’re absolutely right about *why* Jet gets in an argument with Spike (although it doesn’t make the way their argument is carried out any less strange). I disagree with you about Faye’s motivation for drawing down on Gren though – I don’t think it’s supposed to be money, I think she wants revenge on Vicious for Spike or for herself.

    @marmlst2m – “maybe your analysis of the series is purposefully ignorant of the intentions of the creators” Yeah, that’s the one. I always try to avoid learning anything about the creator’s artistic vision until I’ve drawn my own conclusions about the work itself. Especially when I’m dealing with something like film or TV, where pinning down one creator is often borderline impossible. I don’t mean to say that this is the “right” way to analyze a show, but for me doing it the other way is kind of paralyzing.

    As for the music “not being deliberate,” while I freely acknowledge that I have no idea who assigned which track to play under which scene, someone made the choice. I usually assign that agency to the composer for the sake of convenience, but even if it turns out to have been left up to some lowly production intern, I’m sure that whoever it was said “Wow, placing the music! Here’s my chance to shine!” and did the best job they could do.

    Your criticism that I should approach this with more of a background in anime is harder for me to answer, because I probably should. There’s always room for multiple perspectives, as Riderlon points out, and I like to think that includes the perspective of a genre neophyte like myself. But it IS usually better to be able to put the work in context with its genre. Let me ask you, (and Riderlon, I’d love you to weigh in on this as well, because from the earlier comment threads you seemed to be well-informed): what aspects of Cowboy Bebop are generically required? That is, are there some parts of the show that are so common in anime – specifically action/sci-fi anime – that they don’t even bear commenting on? I can think of one example right off the top of my head (Spike’s green hair), but I’m sure there are others that I’m not seeing.

    (Keep it spoiler free please, though – I still want to approach the rest of the show without preconceived notions.)


  7. marmls2m #

    just off the top of my head, i would say translation is a really big issue. like almost all anime, the english voice actors were really hamming it up and pretty much butchered most of the dialogue. my favorite example of this is in episode 3, honky tonk woman, in the exchange between faye and spike at the blackjack table.

    (i am going completely from memory here)
    english subtitles:
    “i am not nimble, nor am i lucky”
    “what are you?”

    english sound track:
    “i’m not skillfull and i’m not really lucky either”
    “what are you then?”
    “well, i seem to be very generous”

    what is a simple, graceful, elegant, and well written exchange becomes a pop up book level display of the awful translation job. that is not to say the subtitles are totally perfect either. let me just say that my japanese friend had much more criticism for the english dialogue then i did.

    the second thing i can think of right now is fan service, which explains faye’s ridiculous outfit and the amount of coverage seemingly dedicated till faye’s boobs (just wait till you see the movie). fan service is pretty much an inescapable aspect of any anime aimed at an audience over grade school age. while there are some shows that do avoid fan service, like full metal alchemist, they often fall into other trappings of anime, like silly rage attacks and deliberatly poor animation.

    i would also like to point out that i feel ed’s personality to be pretty irrelevent to the series, as he/she does have a tendancy to break the 4th wall, and no one in the show really pays that much attention to her insanity. it is just my personal opinion that ed was just kind of shoved into the show with little regard for how it would affect the greater story or their other, better fleshed out characters. ed seems to be there only for comic relief, and only, it seems, in moments and episodes where it has no effect on the story or general mood.


  8. RiderIon #

    @stokes I’m glad you consider me an expert. I think I have too much time and disposable income.

    Cowboy Bebop hits a few things that you as a self processed neophyte would probably miss: Spike, Jet and Faye’s character designs are homages to the cast of Lupin III, which is a series that’s been (essentially) running since the 70s. The hair color thing is just to make characters more memorable and diversify the cast. I’m trying to think of some specific examples but it’s been ages since I sat down and watched Cowboy Bebop.

    @marmls2m You make it sound as if the English translators either go out of their way to ruin dialogue or that they’re totally incompetent at their jobs. Citing the example you use as a way the English dialogue was inferior. They have to match the dialogue to the lip movements. The exchange between Spike and Faye still conveys the same information and the code talk (from Faye’s perspective)/flirty tone (Spike’s perspective) but loses a little bit of that “elegance” as you put it. You also seem to fail to realize that the Japanese companies have a pretty large part in the translation and voice selection process. The English scripts and the cuts of the dialogue will not go anywhere until the Japanese studio (Bandai, in this case) approves it.


  9. stokes OTI Staff #

    The problem of translation is not specific to anime, of course, but Cowboy Bebop is an interesting case. Most of the differences between the dub and the subtitles are like the one marmls2m points out, where the dubbed version is slicker, more verbose, more conversational, etc. And I agree that this is annoying. However, very rarely, there will be a really substantive change. And in these cases, I sometimes find myself preferring the dub. For instance, there’s a throwaway scene in one episode (Ganymede Elegy, I think), where Faye spends a little time working on her tan. Ed asks her why she’s doing it. Here’s her reply, according to the subtitles:

    “Beautiful skin requires constant effort that seems futile,”

    and the dub:

    “Beautiful skin requires constant effort that is ultimately futile.” [emphasis mine]

    Just a small change, but there’s a world of difference between them. The dubbed version presents a character that is complex, ironic but resigned, vain but self-aware, and generally interesting</em. The subbed version comes off as vain and conceited, and that's about it.

    Now, I generally assume that the subtitles are closer to the original Japanese, per lectio difficilior. But does that make them better, necessarily? Or should translators feel free to improve the original whenever they get the chance? Obviously the problem with this second tactic is that a lot of the improvements end up being “improvements” instead. But there are some cases where they actually are better… and I find that these put me in an uncomfortable position. I don’t know how to judge them, honestly.


  10. stokes OTI Staff #


    (Better late than never.)


  11. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Not that anyone cares, but, although I’m usually a big proponent of subtitles, where Bebop is concerned, I prefer the dub, primarily for the reasons Stokes outlined above. (Although maybe it’s just ’cause I’m sick of hearing Megumi Hayashibara’s voice, I don’t know.)


  12. marmls2m #

    anime dubs have been getting much better lately, with the rise of anime’s popularity in the us. pre-2000 no one really gave a crap about the english dub, which explains how the atrocious dub of envangelion happened.


  13. Jean #

    I find your analysis interesting, yet I believe it fails in its mention of the LGBT part of the episode. Gren never changed his “gender” and it wasn’t inflicted upon him, if anything was inflicted upon Gren, it was the gynecomastia that he suffers from. That is all. If anything, I think the portrayal of LGBT characters is interesting in this episode as Gren casually admits that he is homosexual and it is not played in a gag in a 1998 anime. I guess my comment is a bit too late, but still.


  14. Melissa #

    For Toys in the attic, I always saw it as a dream that Ed was having. (Which would explain the ridiculousness of the episode) Towards the beginning of the episode she’s asleep and you hear her mutter, “I can’t eat anymore” At the end she says the same thing.


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