Every so often now, I think of how great Cowboy Bebop was. The first time I watched it, I did not get it (young and dumb). The second time, it became my favorite anime. The show was not about some crazy plot driven story or the interweaving of histories and characters into action packed events, say Game of Thrones or One Piece. At a surface level glance, it seems like that is the takeaway for Cowboy Bebop. The takeaway being, it is a fun adventure of some people that end up on the same space ship, the Bebop, trying to get by. While this is true, it is not the idea I found so revolutionary.
Compared to Game of Thrones and One Piece, the “plot” was severely lacking. Spike had a violence filled past as part of one of the most powerful mafias. Jet was a cop that dealt with said mafia and the chaos that is intergalactic crime. Faye was a hustler who had no recollection of her past. Ed was a carefree hacker. The story could have went and leaned in on these elements, creating something that was of the level of Game of Thrones (or maybe something closer to Full Metal Alchemist due to length constraints). But these were rarely touched on, just about a few episodes each, Spike having a little bit more time on his. Most of the show was spent doing odd things at odd places for seemingly no reason. The feeling I got the first time watching it was that it was fun, but ultimately it fell short of the potential. Me being wrong, I did not realize that the show was deliberately aware of this, and made the choices despite that.
The show was focused on these seemingly nonimportant plot elements because the nonimportant plot elements are where you see the true personalities of the characters. The time spent chasing some space monster on the ship shows more about the inhabitants of the Bebop more than a battle scene. Furthermore, most of the intense moments of the show are not historically driven. Being bounty hunters, they run into random scenarious with their own ethical dilemmas where their character shines brighters. It is easy to see what a person should do given their future plans. If you are trying to be on the iron throne, you are going to do things that get you on the iron throne. But for the Bebop crew, there was only a loose sense of obligation to complete the bounty so they can eat. This sense of obligation was only rooted in the present, with no past or future goals.
The lack of past and future weighing in on decisions is an overarching theme of the series. Spike has a rich past and goal that is in his sights it turns out at the end of the show. Jet has a past, but no future plans. Faye literally had no past as she could not recall anything due to an accident. Ed had no past and no future, in that Ed was too young and had to abnormal of a childhood it seems to really dictate what she wanted to do. Despite all the cases being enumerated, none of the characters really were controlled by the past or the future. Spike, who had all the archetypal main character qualities, ignored his past and future to just live in the present.
If Spike’s mafia related goals were truly his goals, he would have never found himself in so many life and death decisions. At the end of the series, due to internal mafia politics, he decided to reenter the mafia scene for one last hoorah. The famous quote is “I’m not going there to die, I’m going there to find out if I’m really alive”. It seems that he still had this feeling that living in the present is not enough, that he had to go do something haunted by his past. The other adult characters, Faye and Jet, both get angry and confused as to why he is going to leave, since what they have now should be good enough.
I too share this sentiment with Faye and Jet. There was no reason to have the past and future control his actions. Who he is now is what matters, However, part of the human condition is having this sense of self, this sense of obligation to things that we do not rationally have an obligation to. People can waste their lives on the arbitrary histories they find themselves in, unaware that they can leave at any moment. Your religion, values, your relationships, etc. can all be products of just the place you were born. This sense of self is what a lot of people relate to, that we are the sum of the actions and events that happened to us and happened from us. This is the sense of self that Spike could not escape.
Faye had the opposite sense of self and this idea of the present was shown most strongly through her. All of the Bebop crew was not particularly interested in the pasts of each other, and learned about who each person was by viewing them as who they are now, their current actions. All of the crew felt this in some sense, they never really got too personal, but would still give out praise or blame based on their current selves. The crew got a tape of when Faye was a child, which child Faye was eerily directing it towards future Faye. However, due to the accident, Faye had no memories from before. The child Faye was completely disconnected, a separate person, from the adult Faye. Faye got mad at Spike in the ending episode when he mentioned his past since it was so abnormal.
So in the scene where Faye is so angry and confused with Spike to the point of putting a gun to him, asking him why he is leaving for the mafia and some girl in the past, she is saying this from someone who percieves her self as a person in the present and not someone with a past that dictates its future. She truly cannot understand why he is leaving what they have for something else, that may throw away the present by dying. Spike truly lives in the present, however, and realized that it would also be irrational to be scared of death since then you are living in the future as well.
Spike represents that belief that if we discard the past’s effects on us, then there really is no reason for living and it is as if we are dead. If you have a past and care about it, your wants and desires and goals seem to be grounded to something. When someone says they want to have nice furniture or nice clothes, you can accuse them of being greedy or living in excess. If the reason they want the nice clothes and furniture is because growing up they never experienced that comfort, their reasoning starts to make sense.
Part of living is wanting to be acknowledged for the person you are now, not the person of past who made mistakes, like different things, or was in your eyes a worse person. As the crew on the Bebop showed us, you can go through life living in the present without any goals and enjoying the now. You can have conversations and live with people for months without knowing an iota of background knowledge, and get to know them more intimately than anyone else ever has. There is a sense that this is true freedom, not being bound to any person or reasons, even if that person is your childhood self, your self of 10 years ago, or even the self of yesterday. But to entirely eradicate that past and its control on the future, leaves humans with a sense of emptiness, a sense of purposelessness.
Look at my eyes, Faye. One of them is a fake because I lost it in an accident. Since then, I’ve been seeing the past in one eye and the present in the other. So, I thought I could only see patches of reality, never the whole picture. I felt like I was watching a dream I could never wake up from. Before I knew it, the dream was over.”
Each member of the Bebop had to deal with their past self and their present self. Ed was not confronted with this until they synced up with Ed’s father in which she decided that she wanted to be more of her past self. Jet was constantly confronted with his past as a detective and was also confronted with his past lover, but he seemed to get over it. Faye ended up wanting to be her past self, she thought she knew where she belonged, but that place was no longer there for her and she could not live with her past self. Spike was different. In the words of Vicious, “I’m the only one who can set you free”. After Julia dies, Spike’s past could only be confronted by either killing Vicious or him dying. This hold on him was too strong.
As Faye started to realize this, that where she belongs is where she is now, that she should stop searching for some other way to live her life, Spike went the opposite direction. The final scene between the two is where these two competing beliefs about existince are clashing. Maybe it is irrational for Spike to go back to the mafia where he most likely will die, but for him, discarding all of Spike of past’s troubles and experiences would be to not only kill the Spike of past, but to kill Spike Spiegel altogether.
It’s all a dream.
Yeah, just a dream.