This shit is pretty unambiguously pretentious and I don’t like it. But I don’t really hold it against the show. It isn’t just the creators jerking off. Opinionated metafiction is one convention in a set of conventions that Bebop calls upon, then shows us through the eyes of a cast that doesn’t hail from the same set of conventions — this technique is a large part of why I like the way Bebop does references so much.
The aforementioned set of conventions is, despite the year in which Bebop came into being, modernism, and it’s easy to understand why the show feels so modernist. Many of Bebop’s references and remembrances hail from the early 20th century, modernism’s heyday. I don’t intend to do a lecture on modernism here — probably we’ve done that already, and you’re sure to find it in the archives. I mean to talk about one general trend within modernism that, though it’s been present in Bebop since the beginning, began to stand out to me at about the midway point.
It’s funny, actually, to find this trend in a show like Bebop. A good deal of science fiction is, as William Gibson put it once, agnostic with regard to technology. The fictional future isn’t unambiguously good or bad — in fact, because it has people in it, it remains entirely ambiguous. Not so much in Cowboy Bebop, whose characters are indeed complex, but whose future is pretty grim. We’ve got a ruined Earth and a sequence of colonies afflicted by relative squalor. If I remember correctly, the only characters we’ve seen wearing expensive clothes have been criminals and warp gate CEOs.
The modernists, too, were nostalgic. Eventually the postmodernists would come along and dispel that, would claim that the past was never any fuller or richer than the present and we only pretended it was, but sometimes Bebop doesn’t acknowledge this. It’s funny because Bebop is nostalgic for a better past that hasn’t happened yet, but it evokes the mood of modernist works so well that it almost has to be.
tl;dr: Bebop’s present sucks and its past was better. I’ll review how each episode from 12 to 19 either reinforces or riffs upon this. Some episodes do both.
Sessions 12-13 (“Jupiter Jazz”)
Setting: a grungy city in which there are only men. These episodes are fairly straightforward, as there’s a lot of Spike angsting over his lost girlfriend and confronting his friend-turned-nemesis. Whenever Spike gets an opportunity to chase after his past, he takes it, consequences be damned.
Interestingly, it’s here that Cowboy Bebop (in all its Americana) chooses to nod toward war fiction.
When war fiction’s nostalgic, it tends to pine for the time before the war in question became inevitable, the time before the world went mad. For obvious reasons, I suppose.
Not so, in this case. Instead we get a character who seems not to mind having been shot at, as it meant he could participate in the camaraderie he holds in such high regard. He thinks of the past as better, though his is a past that might have killed him. It’s not the same, certainly, but it’s a little reminiscent of war propaganda, quite a lot of which coincided with the modernist days (because, you know, imperialism and World Wars). We don’t really see the opposition, nor do we get any political background; we see one group of soldiers shooting at nothing, dodging explosions with relative ease, and kicking back in camp. It’s creepy, and, while Gren does maintain the nostalgia thing in an odd way, he’s creepy as a consequence.
Session 14 (“Bohemian Rhapsody”)
This episode does and doesn’t invert the trend. On one hand, Hex was at the top of his game in his youth. He was a genius programmer and a chess prodigy, and now he’s a senile old man. On the other hand, the entire episode relates the much-delayed resolution of Hex’s striking back at the sorts of things he had to worry about when at the forefront of space innovation. He may well be happier in his senility. His biggest concern now is losing at chess. And death, maybe, though he doesn’t seem the sort to ruminate upon his own mortality. His happiness may be of an empty or involuntary variety, but that doesn’t seem to bother him any.
Session 15 (“My Funny Valentine”)
A strange episode for the purposes of this post, as Faye has no past, in a way. She remembers only the grim universe of the present, in which twenty-year-old amnesiac women are played for all they’re worth, even when they don’t own the clothes on their backs. And yet she retains a certain affection toward Whitney. Con man though he may be, he was briefly a part of her life, and she feels she owes him something for that.
Or we could think of it this way: Whitney was always lying to Faye, but she experienced a brief period of happiness, and that was his doing. This doesn’t let him off the hook, by any means; he’s still an asshole. But she was happy. But…this is complicated.
Session 16 (“Black Dog Serenade”)
This episode is more postmodern (maybe the last was, too). Yes, Jet was happier in the past, and now he’s something of a lonely old man. We learn here that some of his fond memories depend upon fabrications, that in fact his partner was responsible for the loss of his arm. Like Faye, any nostalgia he might express for a past happiness dependent upon his limited point of view or his lack of information would feel somewhat inauthentic. This sort of story cuts to the heart of nostalgia, and I appreciate that Bebop takes the time to do this even while weaving about itself a distinctly modernist vibe.
Session 17 (“Mushroom Samba”)
I can’t decide whether this episode isn’t terribly relevant to my present purposes, or whether it’s so relevant that I experienced an initial sensory overload that led me to conclude that it isn’t terribly relevant.
It continues an occasional, distinctly un-nostalgic theme, a general disdain for the drug culture of the 60s and 70s. Users of traditionally illegal drugs in Bebop aren’t terrible people, necessarily, but they’re depicted as pretty ridiculous. We saw this back in episode 14, too. It’s a stronger indictment if you choose to include all the Red Eye stuff as part of this.
It nods toward colonialism. See the screencap above; “Western World Development” makes me think of nothing so much as Manifest Destiny.
Giant flying blonde white woman bringing the light of pastoralism to the brown-skinned peoples of the frontier! Except instead of a giant flying blonde white woman it was a bunch of white dudes with guns and smallpox, and instead of bringing the “light” of pastoralism they just killed a lot of people. It’d be hard to sympathize with anyone who felt particularly nostalgic about this.
In “Mushroom Samba,” though, space-Kansas is where two or three blaxploitation movies collide. I thought there’d be something to say about this (sub)genre having been removed from its usual urban setting — nostalgia for the city, in other words — but, as it turns out, there’s a western (sub-)subgenre within. Suffice to say that the space-frontier isn’t wholly dominated by white people.
I guess this episode is an inversion, if it’s anything.
Session 18 (“Speak Like a Child”)
If not for the crazy space shuttle business of the following episode, I would’ve ended this post here, as, after a whole handful of variations, it brings the earnest nostalgia back. For all intents and purposes, our heroes spend the entire episode (hilariously) chasing after the means of unlocking Faye’s past, the time when she was happy. Because, remember, her present troubles began only a short while after she awoke from suspended animation. Arguably they began immediately after she awoke, or a little earlier, as she was the victim of a scam all along. And, again, that’s all she knows. She’s lost the good times completely and irrevocably.
We also get a 20th-century-tech otaku. Nice.
Session 19 (“Wild Horses”)
Easy. The space shuttle, one of the earliest reusable spacecraft, saves the day! And with an old man at the helm, no less.
Nothing in Bebop is simple — clearly, as it took me over a thousand words to justify the statement “Cowboy Bebop is nostalgic,” and to try to finesse my way through those instances in which it doesn’t entirely apply. The variations are the point, though. I’m happy to have discovered that the sense of nostalgia about the show doesn’t come across as an accident or a reference to a bygone movement simply for the sake of reference. What we get instead is a kind of dialogue between the time in which the show was made and the period that it nods toward so often — another example of Bebop’s catechismal quality, its talking to itself.