On Cowboy Bebop, part two

The next time we get to peer into Spike’s journey is the two part Jupiter Jazz. Here we learn more about the Vicious vs. Spike dynamic, the politics of Spike’s old syndicate, and we even get a fragment of a cosmology fit for the world of Cowboy Bebop.

By the time of Jupiter Jazz, the Bebop crew has become pretty well established and settled into the ship. So much have they grown as a team, they all split up and run away from each other. Faye takes off with the crew’s common fund and Spike and Jet “break up” in a fight over what to do about it. Spike is off on his own with a loose tip that his dream-girl is out on a moon of Jupiter called Calisto. Calisto has got to be the most depressed looking town you’ve ever seen depicted in an animated show, and their is slow, lulling jazz saxophone playing over the shots we get of it.

We hear it’s in the midst of a financial depression and it is constantly snowing (I guess the weather regulation workers quit). The mood of the place perfectly reflects the characters mood; having grown accustomed to their living situation on the Bebop, the banality of life together has settled in along with them and they can’t take it. They’ve reached that decision point where it’s a future of comradeship or taking their separate ways and they do what they’ve been doing their whole lives: flee. When Spike wakes up at the beginning of the session he asks where everyone is and gets a non-reply, he then remarks dryly, “what a depressing group.

It’s here on Calisto that Spike runs into Vicious again, but we don’t learn much from their exchanges. Instead we get a look into the psyche of Vicious via his relationship with an old war friend. With the Bebop crew scattered in their sad, frustrated city without any women, the entirety of Jupiter Jazz is centered around an old comrade of Vicious – someone named Gren. It is in their “friendship” that we can understand the contrast that Vicious offers to Spike.

Gren reaches out to Vicious for a drug deal, a deal that has brought Vicious out to Calisto. They were in the same squad in a war that took place not far away on Titan. It was there that they met and Vicious gave him a little music-box during a break in the fighting. Vicious never actually says anything to Gren that we hear, but he cuts down a scorpion walking right next to Gren’s face. During the shot, there is a moment where the viewer thinks Vicious put the knife through Gren’s face until we switch up to see that he has helped him. Anyways, they have their comradely moment and Gren thinks he’s made a friend.

Vicious however doesn’t remember things so warmly. Gren was put in military prison after the war and he learned that Vicious testified against him. Distraught by a betrayal from someone he trusted and considered his comrade, Gren reaches out to make a deal. When they meet back up for their drug deal after so much time has passed by, Gren wants answers:

“…We were comrades, risked everything together in that battleground of death. I trusted you. I believed in you.”
Vicious: “There is nothing in this world to believe in. There is no need to believe.”

Vicious shows his true colors here and why it is Spike’s destiny to cut him down. He shows no remorse and will kill anyone who gets in his way towards more power. His old war buddy is easily thrown away to the dungeon despite being friends. Vicious is saved by his bodyguard, a person whom Spike knew from the syndicate at a young age, when he jumps in front of Vicious to take the bullet. When Vicious leaves he takes the huge drug score and looks over his bodyguard’s dead body and says to himself (all alone mind you): “There is nothing in this world to believe in.”

This scene paints Vicious as a thoroughgoing nihilist. It’s not just his own statement that there is nothing to believe in that makes him so: his unflinching stare, his cold eyes that are compared to a snake, and his unhesitating use of violence without changing his expression all demonstrate his lack of care for anyone who stands between him in his search for power. No friend or lover is spared, not a comrade from war nor a best friend. He turns on Spike in the past, as we recollect from memory fragments, and calls him “a beast whose lost his fangs” who now deserves to die – must die. Vicious’s world is one of competing powers slaying each other until one reigns supreme and then must keep that power. It’s the Hobbesian world of constant war, all against all until you get to the top of the chain and subject everyone else to your will. Some might also call him a ’realist’.


Gren fell prey to Vicious’s snake-eyed beast not so much as a combatant as a romantic who believed in his old friend, wondering desperately what could have become of a relationship forged under the most trying of circumstances. He was withering away in a snowy city with no women and no future trying to make sense of what happened to him and why a friend could do such a thing and break the bond that he had thought was so strong. The cold heart of Vicious was underestimated by Gren, but he wanted closure above all else anyways – Gren knew that he was going to die soon because of an illness) so he chose to chase after the dream of his old friendship, fond memories of the bonds from war camaraderie, the old fraternity.

The state of war has effected the two characters in different ways and pushed them in different directions, despite their becoming friends for its duration. Vicious never really left a state of war. He continued to aggressively work his way up the commander’s hierarchy afterwards as a member of a syndicate. Friends are a mere stepping stone towards victory, including comrades, mentors (both Spike and Mao), lovers, and bodyguards – his own troops. The closest we ever get to a reason for his relentless pursuit of power is here in Jupiter Jazz: “There is nothing in this world to believe in.” Gren is the opposite. He covets his comrades and is “attracted to that very word.” Gren appears as a woman for the moment of exchange and represents a kind of feminine disruption of the male-fraternal military order. As a result of Vicious’s betrayal, Gren was forced to undergo some experimental drug therapy that scrambled his hormones and gave him female breasts as well as other feminine qualities. He tells Faye “I am both and neither one.” His transgender status was not his choice though, it was more of a consequence of Vicious’ willingness to throw his friends away into the dungeon for personal gain. It’s as if the feminine side of life had to be embraced to counter the affects of Vicious.

Gren meets up with Faye before the drug deal and they have an tender exchange of their own. The intervention of Gren’s story and his position as trans offers a nexus within the show that allows the two men and their woman comrade to get along without so much bickering. Whereas in previous episodes they were at each other’s throats and making essentialist claims about men’s honor and women’s sensibilities (especially in session 6), from now on they are far more lenient with each other as they explore their own personal pasts and catch bounties with efficiency. This isn’t to say they stop yelling at and complaining about each other, but their attacks are much more comradely and much less vicious* from here on out (another subtle shift you can pick up in the duration of the show). The conversation between Gren and Faye stands out in the show and deserves to be quoted in full:

Gren: “So you came all the way out here all alone?”
Faye: “I am alone. I don’t need any comrades. They’re not worth it. I end up worrying about things I shouldn’t, you know me being such a prize and all that. All the guys end up fighting over me Like dogs.
They say people are social animals – they can’t live alone. But you can live pretty well all by yourself. I swear, when I’m dealing with them it’s nothing but trouble. And I get nothing out of it, so it doesn’t matter if I’m there or not, right?”
Gren: “Your were just afraid they would abandon you, so you abandoned them. You distanced yourself from the whole thing.”
Faye: “Your a strange one aren’t you?
Gren: “I guess so.”
Faye: “I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this. I feel like I’m in a confesion booth, You’re not a preacher by any chance are you?
Gren: “No.”

Faye clearly had things to get off of her chest. As she was settling into a living situation that was oddly comfortable and just the right fit for a high-risk-high-reward person, she took off for fear of intimacy. She claims that the boys keep fighting over her, as I’m sure those in her past have, and that she’s getting no benefits from the relationship, but she’s called-out instantly by someone who actually has no one to call a comrade and knows exactly how that feels long-term (rather than merely running away from it). Gren tells her that she is the one with abandonment issues, that her disregard for comrades is bogus. She’s so taken aback that he comes off as a preacher bestowing wisdom upon her in her moment of vulnerability. And it is with this advice from a lonely trans person with a rough backstory that the Bebop crew gets over their petty squabbling and becomes a genuinely capable crew of bounty hunters. Post-Gren and post-Callisto (those embodiments of abandonment, loneliness, and depression) the Bebop crew learns to appreciate each other and solve some major (and minor) problems for the people they encounter.

This is made even more clear by the immediately following session (again) when they quit the solo search for a bounty head (with a “friendly competition” incentive) and pool their own heads together to solve a major crime. They end up getting to the bottom of a corporate cover-up that explains why the great catastrophe that ruined earth was allowed to happen. The world again undergoes a kind of symbolic healing when the man who invented the hyperspace gate technology is put to rest. The bebop crew learns who was at fault and a once brilliant old man is allowed to rest in peace.

The journey of Faye helps highlight what has happened to the world in Cowboy Bebop’s future. Her story begins when she is awakened from a long frozen slumber with no memory of any part of her past life. One might think she is like a blank slate without a past, thrust into the world to try and fend for herself in her mid to late twenties. But there is one big thing that looms large: the medical debt that has accrued from her cryogenic treatment after all of the decades. So she never really had a blank slate: her massive debt that she has no means to pay back demonstrates how nobody gets to begin their life from a neutral position in this world. Her debt is not to any community or family (whom she cannot remember and are likely long since dead) but a numerical debt that must be paid for a service she never agreed on. Her life is dominated by what modern images of human culture always seem to leave out: debt. She has been made responsible for the cost of the machines that have kept her alive. Bereft of any cultural, familial, or personal memory and dropped into this cybernetic solar system, she still must pay.

Faye’s backstory offers a complement with Spike’s: she is not tied by her past in the same way that Spike is but burdened by it nonetheless. She is tormented by her lack of memory whereas Spike is tormented by a memory that will not will not disappear from his sight. We learn in the last session, when Spike tells Faye no less, that he has one prosthetic eye that only sees the past, splitting his very perception of the present into past/present. Half of Spike is stuck in the past by his very vision; his own body’s functioning has an imprint of the past inside of it, surgically engineered into one of his eye sockets. Faye on the other hand has no memory of past but spends her time searching for a way for it to come back to her – her dream of rekindling whatever life it was that she lost.

When Faye woke up from cryogenic sleep, she ran into some bad luck. A con-artists tricked her into falling in love with him, faked his death, and subsequently placed all of *his debts on top of hers. Now she is carrying around a ridiculous amount of debt that could never be repaid. When we are first introduced to Faye she is we learn that she is a freewheeling gambler who has learned herself how to swindle and cheat in order to survive and she has no desire to pay back such massive debt. Her auspicious start to life in the predatory solar system capitalism of Cowboy Bebop has taught her how to survive such a hostile environment: cheat or be cheated. She lives the fast life of high stakes, high risks, and lavish consumption, with an unashamed addiction to gambling. Although, such a lifestyle precludes settling down anywhere legally and necessitates avoiding the police at all times, so she ends up fills in nicely in a world full of wandering souls.

Faye’s transition to bounty hunter and her addition to the Bebop crew is rocky though aided by Gren in Jupiter Jazz. She might have a long-term goal of filling the empty place in her memory and finding a place to call home, but as soon as she remembers her past in a flood of images towards the end of the show she comes to see that her old house on earth has been obliterated and nothing of her old family ties enduring into the present. Her memory comes back to her, but no connections or life remains there in the ruble. Her old home, like the rest of earth, is a disaster zone that nobody wants to clean up. People have instead settled for continued expansion into outer space with the memory of the past being to painful to sit and dwell on for very long. Faye hasn’t had the time to adjust to this new life, waking up suddenly into the inter-solar system (like the viewer), so her quest for a past ends up in the place people have long since forgotten. The home that was once earth for every person has become like Faye’s memory (initially): desolate.

The end of Ed’s story also brings her back to earth. The oddball hacker kid isn’t exactly on a quest to locate anyone in her past so much as surfing the endless sea of the internet with total mastery. Ed is not searching for anything in her past, only new websites and databases for hacking, but she runs into old family nonetheless. As soon as she helps Faye locate her old home on earth though, Ed finds her father still traversing the earth with his own obsession. Ed’s father (we never learn his real name, Ed makes one up though) is as quirky as Ed: he spends his entire life roaming around the earth’s surface and mapping the changes as they occur to it as soon as possible. The constant barrage of meteors that hit the earth’s surface change the makeup of the landscape every few hours, making a clear geological picture of the surface very difficult to keep track of. The amount of will and labor involved in mapping such a landscape is borderline insane, which adequately describes Ed’s father.

Ed’s Father: “Since the gate accident, chaos rules the earth.  How do you regain peaceful peace and non-chaos in the cosmic sense?  Only through maps, that’s right! The earth has changed so we map those changes to understand them.”

Assistant: “We’re creating maps of the newly altered planet earth so we can save it!”

Ed’s Father: “… then we update those maps, thus changing chaos to order.”

His dream of reestablishing “cosmic order” with the earth through maps will seem futile to someone whose already taken flight from the earth and into the rest of the planets, but this guy stands like a giant rock on the ground, unflinching. Throughout the show, Spike pretty much handles all of his opponents skillfully and is never outmatched by even a dozen guys, but when he starts fighting Ed’s father he is torn to shreds. His powerful kicks have no effect and his punches all flail off course. A sweep kick lands on his legs but moves it not an inch – like he was kicking a giant tree trunk rooted in the ground. This guy brushes aside Spike with ease. His strong and sturdy stature is the perfect foil for Spikes nimble dance-fighting. He holds his ground and will continue with his with project despite anyone trying to get in his way.

The desire for a reestablished earth, with a well-ordered map that will provide the ground for a more ordered “cosmos”, is certainly a monkey-wrench thrown in at the end of the show. Here someone in the show that finally has some optimism and enough charge to go right through anyone who tries to stop him. His quest consumes him entirely though; he leaves his newfound daughter behind to go chase after another meteor strike (even forgetting her gender). The dream of reordering a chaotic geology in persistent flux and a fully charted earth is intriguing but born of the chaos resulting from the mad dash into outer space. The manic obsession with order is a reaction to the haphazard colonization of anything and everything now reachable by the new technology of hyperspace travel. Mapping out the constant changes to the earth’s surface is a way of coping with the chaos of humanity’s new era of synthetic environments in the darkness of deep space. The desire for a perfectly represented surface of the earth and the stability of that old home is the same desire for the perfectly planned cities that inhabit the other planets and moons, only here it works on rubble. It’s a bit reactionary, the more and more I sit and think about it, yet another dream to add to the list in the world of Cowboy Bebop. And yet, still, his eccentricity for an earth forgotten by everyone else is charming. Unlike most eccentrics in Cowboy Bebop, Ed’s Father’s fantasy isn’t interfering with anyone else’s livelihood either.

Comparisons could be drawn with session nine, in which Ed first joins the Bebop crew. It is presumed that someone is hacking into a satellite and drawing old patterns on the surface of the earth from orbit. However, as our protagonists discover, the satellite system itself is taking its lasers and burning imprints into the ground in the form of primitive sketches of extinct animals. Since the accident that destroyed much of the earth, much of the former life on the planet has disappeared. The satellite computer (which Ed gives the name EMPU, like CPU but with empathy perhaps) has grown lonely at the absence of activity and forms it once observed. After the destruction of the earth, it seems that even the machines once used to monitor it are trying to recreate the way it used to be. EMPU’s crude drawings of animal migrations and other patterned behavior from the perspective of a satellite in orbit are similar to Ed’s father’s dream of an earth restored to order with maps. Both are using the the same point of view in looking down on the earth as a map does (order in the comic sense), while one is creating a digital, real-time representation and the other is using its memory to make primitive art of the way things once were. The computer intelligence is reconstructing the things it once observed on earth’s surface from rough memory, while Ed’s father, the human, is reconstructing the surface of the earth in the purest accuracy he can achieve in the ever-present. His dream is the image of the perfect picture of the earth, an exact image of an earth that refuses to remain true to the image.

The two-part Jupiter Jazz session described above opens and closes from the first scene to the last with an old wise man speaking with a youth out in the secluded mountains. Old Man Bull is first spotted by Spike in session one and is visited by Jet in the last session. He gives words of advice in all of his lines throughout the show and in Jupiter Jazz he speaks of Gren:

Youth: “A star just fell from the sky.”

Old Man Bull: “That is not an ordinary star, that star is the tear of a warrior. A lost soul who has finished his battle somewhere here on this planet. A pitiful soul who could not find his way to the lofty realm we here the great spirit awaits us all.”

The star was indeed Gren in his spaceship burning up on its way to the surface of Calisto. Gren wanted to go back to the battlefield of Calisto to rest in the place where he made his friends, where the intensity of combat produced his cherished bonds of comradeship. A star that has fallen. If Gren’s story has one more thing to tell us it’s that, despite the benefits of friendship and the increased joy and strength that such a bond makes, the pining for lost connections can drag us down. Gren’s old wartime bond became a kind of fetish he could not let go of, that pulled him down like a meteor is pulled down to a planet. We see this reflected in Spike’s desire for his dream-girl Julia, Faye’s longing for any memory of her past at all (a time and place where she be-longs), and Jet’s desire for a just police force. It’s the desire to fill a void with something spectral, a fantasy that one’s life will be absolved of its problems once it is reached – the void occupied. It causes a comet bursting with energy and momentum to be attracted to a massive object and burned up during the descent.

A warning coming from the wise, but once that longing for a lost dream is avoided, what comes next? We don’t get to see that until the end so sit tight and enjoy the ride. The sense of belonging that the Bebop crew has in the present is not the answer either; it would only be a further fetishizing of the crew that one has established and is a part of, that is, if the way to keep burning bright is to remain in place. Becoming satisfied with what we’ve already got and counting our eggs or blessing or whatever only transfers the wayward dream into the here and now: domesticating desire as it were.

Old Man Bull’s metaphor of life as a star is a perfect fit for the solar system world of Cowboy Bebop, where the only ones left on the home planet of earth are maniacs. A life now burns like a star to eventually burn up by the acceleration caused by a nearby moon, planet, or asteroid. Released from the bounds of the home that was the earth, we are left shooting around a constellation of space-stations at light-speed, each of us more like shooting stars than earthly creatures. Giant spaceships zip through a lightly-sparkled abyss. No longer bound to the earth and destined to be recycled into the earth’s ecosystems, we instead burn up and burn out in space.

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