In the very first blog post I ever wrote here on WRL, I said I wanted to do something epic someday. I said I wanted to consume everything ever referenced in Cowboy Bebop, a show that I’ve come to believe to represent so much of the aesthetic I’ve come to call “remembering love.” Part of this, is paying tribute to a previous work by incorporating an element of it in the subject work towards creating new significance. I had said then that I’ll probably never get the chance to do it because I would only get busier.
It’s indeed true that I got busier, but when I had time on my hands I didn’t get it done anyway. So I can’t use that excuse. This is a bucket list kind of feat and I’m doing it here, I’m doing it now. I’ll be blogging every episode of Cowboy Bebop with the view of commenting on every reference (at least the cinematic ones) it makes from popular media culture. Why this objective? I think so much is already said about the show. I don’t disagree with the writing that establishes its merits, and I’m not a popular science fiction novelist that I can get away with saying hyperbolic statements while knowing very little of the tradition from which Cowboy Bebop comes from.
I intend to make a tangible contribution to public discussion of the show, although I may at times refer to some academic writings I’ve encountered thanks to suggestions and contributions of fellow fans of the show. I will start with a couple of these first, as a key to understanding my approach in rewatching and analyzing the show.
Cowboy Bebop is meta, or, it uses many other things to give some things in it particular significance.
I am purposely avoiding post-structuralist concepts such as intertextuality, hypertextuality, and the like. I think of ‘remembering love’ as something author-centric and deliberate. It is a purposeful editorial decision, as opposed to something ‘found’ in the text by an active reading. It is closer to allusion, without allusion’s burden of carrying meaning that is more or less “important” to the subject narrative. A whole lot of remembering love is non-integral to the narrative, and are presented as “Easter Eggs” – that are, rewards for fans who are so inclined to find them, and have a relationship with the referenced work1.
It is not the case as with some humorous work: sketch comedies, parodies, Lucky Star, etc. wherein the referenced subject is some kind of punch line, the value in itself after some set-up. We won’t find anything in Cowboy Bebop that has a reference that figures so significantly in the narrative so as to be the primary source of meaning and value. Cowboy Bebop can be fully enjoyed not knowing a single reference or allusion the show is making.
I wager that it won’t matter if a viewer doesn’t know anything about Bruce Lee and Jeet Kun Do and how Spike Spiegel’s martial arts style is clearly derived from these. It could be just another martial art like Karate or Tae Kwon Do for all the viewer is concerned. But if that viewer is aware of, or more – a fan of Bruce Lee, the viewer may feel rewarded for making the connection.
The Spike Spiegel Allusions Database Ver. 1 (by row): 1) Asene Lupin III; 2) Bruce Lee (Way of the Dragon); 3) Clint Eastwood (A Fistful of Dollars).
What I Don’t Know
Sometimes Cowboy Bebop goes beyond simple allusion of a singular element, and adopts an entire style of a movie, and/or a cinematic director. I don’t know if whether the success of the scene or episode is critically dependent on that reference. I don’t know whether Cowboy Bebop is figuratively standing on the shoulders of giants. I don’t know if Cowboy Bebop is subverting the source by the deployment within the show. I don’t know if there is any further significance should Cowboy Bebop indeed subvert the source material it references.
These are gaps in my knowledge that I will attempt to fill in each episode. So we arrive at the very first, “Asteroid Blues,” which references the Robert Rodriguez film Desperado featuring Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek.
Episode 01 “Asteroid Blues”
Tijuana is an asteroid settlement. It’s a frontier town. Why would Cowboy Bebop start here? Well, it doesn’t quite start here. The show starts in Spike Speigel’s memory. We find out later that it’s a memory of Mars, a haunting memory that figures in Spike’s personal narrative which is accepted as the show’s main narrative. Therein lies the answer.
Spike’s narrative is more a Hong Kong Triad film than it is a western. But this is the show’s first episode, and it is only fitting that it begins in a frontier town, to establish the Cowboy element in the science fiction setting. Tijuana is not just a frontier town, it’s a Mexican town in Earth’s history. But the bounty is not of Mexican descent – Asimov Solensen is a name weird enough to be at home in a Gundam show.
It is Mexican only enough to pay homage to the referenced material: Desperado, a film wholly set in Mexico (and A Fistful of Dollars; by Sergio Leone featuring Clint Eastwood). I watched this film and it had quite a memorable gunfight inside a bar in broad daylight. Asimov Solensen got into such a gunfight – albeit he did not use guns. What did Cowboy Bebop do with its referencing:
- In Desperado, the hero was hunting down the bad guy with the help of a woman companion and love interest.
- In Cowboy Bebop, Asimov was the villain, and was running away from the drug dealers with a woman companion pregnant – presumably with his child.
- Asimov was a drug dealer himself – the drugs were his currency for freedom (to Mars where “they have everything”).
- In Desperado the hero gets to live and ride into the sunset with his woman. Asimov and Katerina die charging into a police barricade (actually, Katerina kills him first, then throws Spike a forlorn look that carries with it the very state of the Solar System in this narrative).
On one hand, Cowboy Bebop is dependent on the coolness of Desperado’s barroom gunfight scene. I’d say it’s standing on the shoulders of this film in this regard. However, it distinguishes itself with the use of science fiction elements: the Bloody Eye drug turned the prosaic gunfight into a super villain rampage.
Portrait of a tribute (by row): 1) The bartender gets shot in the head by accident; 2) Big ‘ol battle in a bar in broad daylight (with automatic weapons); 3) contrasting rides into their respective exits.
Desperado lionized El Mariachi as a hero of vengeance. A just and righteous killer of criminals. It overlooks its protagonist’s murderous intent and habits: a disregard for his own life and of others. Asimov is more authentic in this fashion: he just wants out of his game, and for that he needs to make a big score, and he’s willing to kill whoever stands in his way.
We have instead an amoral, devious ‘hero’ in Spike and a corrupted villain in Asimov which I argue is more morally authentic than the righteous murderer El Mariachi. But I won’t argue too hard, since it smacks of asserting that Cowboy Bebop is in some way superior to the referenced work – which is never the intention in this series of blog posts. I do prefer Bebop’s story though, since it gives the opposite of hope. It gave a very, very bitter end. Katerina shoots Asimov in the head, ending her own hopes and aspirations by her own hand, though perhaps not on her own terms.
It’s a spectacular first adventure, carried by the superb production values (taking into account the action choreography so evocative of the source materials). It establishes many world-building touches, including how hyperspace gates work, Mars as the economic center of the Solar System, the necessity of bounty hunters to augment police work, while grounding the show in very 20th century elements: fast-paced close-quarter gunfights, martial arts street fights, and a car chase.
When Katerina dies in a hail of police bullets, we see the lie that was her pregnancy. Her womb only held contraband – there was never going to be a future for her and Asimov, only hopes built on the continued selling of the past. It’s not so different from Cowboy Bebop itself. This show was never going to be the future of anime. It’s just a show selling us shells of references of the old and past glories of 20th century culture. It’s science fiction, but it’s meaningful eye is always looking backward, it’s other eye is blind to the emptiness and nothingness of its present.
1I am quite aware that there are works in English that have allusions so obscure that it’s highly questionable whether they are integral to the reading of the work: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. I have only read the former and I do think that so much of it went over my head and I do blame the allusions I did not understand. I missed so much of the references in Cowboy Bebop without any loss of enjoyment or understanding of the work.