Cowboy Bebop (1998) is many things, one of which is a love letter to the 20th Century. Its production approaches the turn of the millennium and it was a good time as any to look back at the history and artifacts of contemporary human culture. Science Fiction often indulges such obsessions, and in this show it’s pronounced so starkly in such decay.
The setting is a post-apocalyptic solar system, but there is no grand narrative that is tethered to the apocalypse and the time before it. There’s talk about the hyperspace gates, and there’s Faye’s fractured past, but otherwise there’s no direct statement on how things were prior to the Gate Incident and how important these are to whatever’s happening in the present.
Instead we are immersed in nostalgic settings. We’re shown the Hong Kong of the 1980s triad films since episode two. We’re shown frontier towns from Cowboy Westerns since episode one. We’re shown lonely bars and diners from a multitude of ‘80s films I watched through the years. We’re shown an entire treasure hunt involving obsolete/archaic technology even by 1990’s standards.
I argue that there is a concentration of this kind of nostalgia in such remarkable doses here on this session. “Wild Horses” brings the big guns for this party and the episode is a masterpiece for doing this well, for doing this in the best of ways. From Tank! to The Real Folk Blues. Let’s Jam!
The nostalgia trip is comprised of the following elements:
- Star Trek
- Machines (love for the old, the obsolete, and making them serviceable)
Baseball is a manly sport well-suited for contemplative narratives. I’ve watched my share of baseball films and liked a lot of them despite not being a fan of the sport itself. The thing that this episode reminds me of, in its use of Baseball, is not so much from film but from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and The Sea,” a rather masculine novel that in its way is also a nostalgia piece on what it means to be a man.
This episode’s trio of bounties that got away are named George, Herman, and Ruth. This is a double reference. One, it references Macross’ method of using three different characters to communicate a joke: Warera, Rori, and Konda were the three Zentraedi spies who became Minmay otaku. Their names combined (as is Japanese practice) becomes “Warerarorikon” or, “We are lolicons.” Cowboy Bebop first does this with its half-assed Greek chorus of old men: Anton, Carlos, and Jobim – named after the Brazilian musician and composer known for his contributions to the Bossa Nova musical tradition. In this case, the pirates’ names combine to form the legal name of “Babe” Ruth, the legendary home-run artist of the New York Yankees.
Even more interesting is how Miles, the dedicated baseball fan in the episode (the assistant of Doohan) is a fan of the Blue Sox – which is an obvious expy of the Boston Red Sox. This particular team has a particular history with the New York Yankees and Babe Ruth in particular; notably called “The Curse of the Bambino.” Ruth had played for the Sox, but won all his championships with the Yankees.
Like “The Old Man and The Sea,” the baseball references would come and go, notably on the radio, which is a great anachronism in this episode and is tied into the general nostalgia that I talk about. More on this later.
Star Trek is a franchise that cannot be ignored by science fiction fans. I am not a fan of the franchise, having seen only The Next Generation in my childhood, and two of the more recent films (Generations, and the reboot – both of which I liked, but my doing so may earn me derision from some Trekkies). The references in this episode do not come to me obviously, but it is not far-fetched to think how anime science fiction creators as Star Trek fans. I’ve read how Kawamori et al sneaked in Star Trek references in SDF Macross, so I’m not surprised to find some here.
So what’s here? The mechanics are references to Star Trek engineers.
Doohan is a shout-out to James Montgomery Doohan, the actor who played Montgomery “Scotty” Scott from the original TV series. Yes, he’s the “Beam me up, Scotty” guy. Miles the apprentice and baseball nut is a reference to Miles O’Brien from Deep Space Nine, and the character design evokes that of Geordi La Forge from The Next Generation. The parts supplier Reggie, is a reference to Reginald Barclay from Voyager.
It’s a romantic thing, to name these characters after Star Trek engineers, to evoke characters who boldly go where no men have gone before.
Doohan is the most important, the original designer of the Swordfish, Spike’s old racer spacecraft. Spike visits him for a tune-up which really becomes this major overhaul given the kind of abuse Spike has put this bird since the first episode. The thing to note here is that everything revolves around the old and perhaps the obsolete machines, but in Doohan there is an obvious and palpable love for these things.
The Swordfish itself is an old, retired racing craft that’s modified with armaments. They constantly refer to her as old, and the parts Doohan requests for it are old. Miles makes a fuss about the part being obsolete and how nobody uses it anymore. Doohan prattles on with some wisdom:
Do you want to use a machine, or do you want the machine to use you?
This implies that the slavish pursuit of the new and cutting edge realigns the purpose and utility of the machine. While upgrades and changes are always done in the name of progress and doing things better, it may run into conflict with customization. The Swordfish is customized for Spike, and to use a new part for its own sake may mess up this beautiful thing between the Swordfish and Spike.
While Spike was having the Swordfish overhauled, Jet and Faye have all sorts of trouble with the bounty. These pirates use harpoons and cables to infect target spacecraft with a virus that messes up the navigation and control systems. As is Cowboy Bebop’s way, the whole thing is more of tremendous inconvenience and extreme frustration for the Cowboys than it is mortal danger.
Spike in the retrofitted Swordfish joins the hunt, but this time, in order to overcome the liabilities of a truly networked system, Spike goes analog (or something similar) in his controls, so as to avoid the virus. This is again, another act of nostalgia by the text. If there was any doubt, the navigation system picked up the broadcast of the baseball game as if an FM radio.
The hunt is pretty much a disaster, and the newly worked-on Swordfish is trapped in the Earth’s gravity well, too far from the Bebop to be picked up by it. Doohan does the unsurprising epic thing: He rendezvouses with the Swordfish using his fully restored hobby project: The Space Shuttle Colombia.
The Space Shuttle Columbia is the first space-worthy shuttle in NASA’s space shuttle program. Cowboy Bebop picks it’s nostalgia rust-bucket sure-handedly. Construction started in 1975, and it flew its first mission in 1981. It would fly 28 missions and orbit the earth over 4,000 times. Interestingly enough, it disintegrated during re-entry in 2003… 5 years after the airing of Cowboy Bebop. It’s ironic and funny how Bebop turns out to be not only nostalgic, but optimistic. Doohan, Miles, and Spike all survived a ridiculous re-entry. Columbia’s mission 28 crew was not so lucky.
At 14:04 EST February 1, 2003 (19:04 UTC), President George W. Bush addressed the United States: “This day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country … The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors.” Despite the disaster, Bush assured Americans that the space program would continue: “The cause in which they died will continue. [...] Our journey into space will go on.”
The image of the trio on the crash site, to me… is the height of nostalgia – complete with instagram-ready photograph. I would call it even hopeful and optimistic, but I know how the whole thing ends. As I mentioned, I think this is the most nostalgic, elegiac episodes so far in the show. However, the show deals with all of this in such an unsentimental way. Nothing lingers. Everything moves in a brisk pace. This is a high action episode, reminiscent of the pace of the 2009 film Redline. Lots of slow moments, nostalgic flashback moments, but is otherwise incredibly paced and full of ridiculously awesome set pieces. This makes the show hard, hard-hitting, strong. The drama is muted by the pace. There’s no time to wangst and wallow, to feel pity, for tears to be jerked from you like some cheap piece of cry-porn. There is an ocean of emotion here for those who choose to look, but it’s not drilled into your eye sockets. This is why this show is brilliant. I’ll see you, Space Cowboys.