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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Friday, February 22, 2013

So Long Space Cowboy: The Doomed Past in Cowboy Bebop

You enter the pub, as has become habit, and are greeted with the usual scent of fresh beer and old sorrows. It's comforting in its own way. You head towards the back of the bar, fully realizing that your chair will be taken by the redheaded man, but honestly, that's comforting, too. The chair on the opposite side of the table has become almost as comfortable as the old one, though you sometimes wish Keeper wouldn't steal it quite so often. As you reach the tables in the back, you smile warily as you see Keeper--but what's this?

Someone else is in your new chair.

The rotund, bespectacled man motions you over. "Oh, hey! This must be who you were telling me about! Pull up a chair. Yeah, you'll be in the aisle, but that's okay. I was just about to start talking about some things..."

And the work which has become a genre unto itself shall be called: Storming the Ivory Tower
So, there's a writer of comics named Christopher Priest. You've probably never heard of him, which is a damned shame, because he was mainstay of cape books for ages and his Black Panther run was one of the best comics Marvel released in the Aughts.

But it's actually his work as an editor that's germane to this discussion.

For a long while, he had the guidelines that he had on his now archived website posted that he used as an editor at DC Comics (though I can't find the document now, the whole website is worth a good, long read). And in there he breaks down storytelling in a way I've never forgotten and never quite heard anyplace else:

"The story is two things: what the story is about, and what the story is really about."

The fancy term for this is, of course, the story's theme, but that's not quite all "what it's really about" actually encompasses. It can encompass allegory, motif, symbolism, commentary... basically, all the things that the story is talking about without it taking place in the plot1.

Theme and its subtextual friends may actually be the most versatile tools in the storyteller's box. It can work with the brute force of a sledgehammer (The Matrix, even the phenomenal first film, likes to smack you around the head with its religious parallels) or it can be as subtle as a straight razor (Black Swan can be interpreted as the struggle to create art thanks mostly to the very last line of the film).

So, with all that in mind, we're going to dissect what one story is really about: Cowboy Bebop2.

Personally, I think this is what the show's really about.

Obviously, there's a lot of thematic stuff going on here, and most of the obvious ones are well known. Look at any description of the series and they'll mention the style-over-substance aesthetic, the homages to 70s and 80s film, the haunted pasts of the main cast, and (according to Wikipedia) its examination of existential ennui3. The series is all of those things. But it's also about the end of a way of life.

Look, for example, at the jazz, bebop, and early rock-and-roll influences that defines so much of the show's world.

It's like that.
One the one hand, yes, it does serve to align the Bebop crew with counter-cultures and trendiness, and one can't deny the slick, stylish visuals. On the other--would a punk rock aesthetic not have made an equally unique setting and still hit the thematic notes?

Well, not necessarily. Punk-rock visuals would have happily gone with the "lawlessness" vibe that permeates so much of the work, but punk is A) a much more recent sub-culture and musical genre that 2) sublimated much, much differently into the larger culture than jazz did. The bands following in the Clash and the Sex Pistols' footsteps incorporated various bits into their music and their acts, so while the movement itself is not really a going concern, the various parts that make it are familiar.

Jazz, however, lives on as an artistic genre, but less of a commercial one. The music and style have evolved beyond easy recognition, and the term "Bebop," sitting happily in the logotype, calls to mind images like this:

Charlie Parker, bebop artist, playing at a local Callisto tavern
When we see Wen playing his mouth harp in that nightclub at the beginning of "Sympathy for the Devil," it immediately connects us to nostalgaic, time-lost ages. We're being told as the viewers to associate this with a lost age4.


Those kinds of associations with lost ages are all over Cowboy Bebop. They are the foundation on top of which the whole story is built. But it's a very specific sort of lost age that the series goes out of its way to associate itself with. Spike Spiegel's mastery of Jeet Kun Do associates him with Bruce Lee, who died young.

The episode "Heavy Metal Queen" (a tribute itself to Convoy) makes heavy use of a system similar to CB radio, even using actual trucker CB terms on an interplanetary shuttle. The CB system is tied to a good deal of nostalgia since its golden age was brought low by overuse and the advent of cheap and wide-ranging cell phone technology.

The final episode features (amongst all of its other symbols of endings and passings) an altered ending title card. "You're Gonna Carry That Weight," a reference to one of the last songs on the last album the Beatles recorded.

Each of these are eras with distinct ends, or what the popular imagination thinks are distinct ends. The Beatles break up, CB radio falls out of favor, the arrival of rock ends the jazz era, an actor's death immortalizes him, the mob's time of honor and family is destroyed by compromise and infighting.


Most telling of all, though, is the Western theme.

The show's bounty hunters are called "cowboys," an epithet that calls to mind the Old West. That time period's probably been warped in the popular imagination more than any of the lesser time periods listed; when audiences in '98 or viewers in '12 think of the Wild West, we think of heroes and outlaws. We think of bounty hunters and criminals and sheriffs fighting battles for morality and survival against the backdrop of the lawless frontier. And we think of progress, symbolized by the railroad bringing those days to an end.

In our heads, in the mythos of the cowboy, there's an implied but usually unspoken tragedy that the battles fought by these larger-than-life figures are, ultimately, pointless, because history is going to wipe the slate clean, and everything they fought for will be for nothing.

We can infer that the same thing is happening in the background of Cowboy Bebop. I believe we can legitimately interpret that the action of that series is taking place in the waning days of the bounty hunter. The way of life of the in-universe cowboys is about to end and the solar system is about to experience stability5.

Consider Andy.

Keeper has Lord Humongous, but I have ANDY!!
Andy, by all appearances, seems to be a funny throwaway character late in the series, a guy who takes the whole "cowboy" thing a bit too far (up to and including riding a horse on a sci-fi elevator. Andy's amazing). However, after his encounter with Spike, he decides to give up on the cowboy thing. He still hunts bounties, but he changes his gimmick...

... to a freaking samurai.

Even changing his whole persona, and he can't escape the implication that he's doomed by history.


So, at this point, you're almost certainly telling me that my conclusions are obvious and I'm the last one to realize them. That, or you're telling me to wrap this up.

Keeper never told me you were this rude.

So, we know that "The Real Folk Blues" establishes and points out all sorts of juicy symbolism and foreshadowing about endings and deaths, and it's certainly tempting to just assume that all of that deals with individual characters, particularly Spike. But it also shatters the Bebop crew, destroys the Red Dragons, and cancels Big Shot.

Never have I been so sad to be so wrong.
Endings are all over the place. The series is about endings, in a sense.

If those endings were just about characters and lives, it would still be one of the best animated series of all time.

But all of those are taking place in a context. Almost all of the context we've been given establishes this way of life, this circumstance, as one ultimately transitory and doomed by history. That's what the theme does. It provides us context. It's the filter in which we view everything else in the story. And it's one that ultimately renders the struggles of their Bebop crew and their foes important personally but meaningless in any sort of grander form.

The hosts of Big Shot might be the last people you'd expect to metaphorically tell us what's going on in wider CB universe, given that they're mostly played for laughs and are generally content to tell us what's going on explicitly. But, other than ANDY!! they're the most "cowboy" thing in the whole of the anime.

And then Big Shot gets cancelled.

We next see Punch, looking like just another extra. He's going to be taking care of his mother. His co-host is getting married. He's settling down to an utterly mundane life. His cowboy days are long behind him.

It's hard to imagine that he's going to be the only one.

Jon Grasseschi is the author of urban-fantasy webcomic EverydayAbnormal. He doesn't usually write like such a pretentious boob, nor does he often natter quite so badly. He thinks it's your round, buddy.

1 When your story is not talking about things not present in the plot, you get the Transformers movies.

2 Sweet Jesus, will you scoot in? The poor waitress has customers and needs to get by, buddy.

3 Basically, it's a Wolverine comic. Zing!

4 And no, not the age where the Stones created good music, though that age is never coming back.

5 Ed's father, if you'll recall, has a pretty amazing speech about imposing order onto chaos late in the series...

1 comment:

  1. Well done, spot on, good show, well done! I especially enjoyed the way you placed your critique in shell of story.


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