Many people were disappointed, even saddened, by the abrupt ending to the 1998 Anime series Cowboy Bebop. The finality in Spike’s last gesture to the camera, the sense of a family lost just as it was solidified, a hero destroyed just as he defeats his enemy, finally freeing himself from the past, to many it was crushing. But I maintain that to assume Spike died at the end of the series is not only unwarranted but absurd.
Spike’s death would go against his character, the presented story line, and the very essence of Bebop as a post-modern Japanese masterpiece. Now, I know that all literary interpretation is biased by the attitudes and preconceived ideas of the reader. I do not pretend that my analysis is any different and I do not claim to understand the “truth” of what happened at the end of the series, but my interpretation is supported. Here’s how:
First, Spike’s character:
Many who interpret the last episode of Bebop as a death scene point to Spike’s melancholy, recklessly-pessimistic attitude about life and fate, claiming that he somehow desires death. When he charges Vicious’s fortress, they assume he is acting on that desire. They believe he is on a suicide mission, bent on bringing the world down with him, but this assumption is false, as is this characterization of Spike. Remember that in Bebop every character is multidimensional. Each lives behind a mask.
Jet – On the outside he appears disillusioned, an x-cop, a fallen public defender. Through the first few episodes, it is easy to assume that he quit the police force because he no longer cared about justice or issues of right and wrong. He handed in his badge and became a hired gun. But, as the series progresses, we learn that his sense of justice is what made him leave the police force. He quit the corrupt system to continue fighting. He claims to act only for himself, yet he faithfully serves and protects his crew, cooking the food, fixing ships and acting as a general father figure to Spike, Faye, Ed and even Ein. He claims to hunt bounty heads for the money, but he does not, we know his intentions are noble.
Faye –She pretends to be completely self-absorbed, untrusting and deceitful, alone in time and independent in space. Yet, we know she craves companionship. She joined Bebop on her own, without any invitation, and her frequent runaway acts are a desperate attempt to get Spike and Jet to chase her. She’s the oldest and least connected character in the show, yet acts like a child in her desperate plea for a family.
Ed – Her split character is the easiest to identify. She appears idiotic yet she is really a genius.
Ein – Even the dog has two sides, a worthless animal, not even strong or fierce, yet somehow he’s intelligent, he can identify criminals, understands computer systems and even plays chess.
Spike – If we recognize that all the characters are double layered, why would we assume Spike’s character is flat? He seems reckless but he’s careful, he seems to care about nothing but he does care, deeply. It would be a shallow interpretation to take Spike at his word when he says he wants to die. When Jet asks him if he’s going to meet Vicious “for the girl,” and Spike replies simply, “she’s dead there’s nothing I can do for her,” he’s lying. He is doing it for her, but dying does not serve her memory. He must avenge her and go on living. He is not committing suicide, he is destroying the path fate has outlined for him, deigning his death, and improvising his own ending to the song. We catch glimpses of the true Spike throughout the series but he shows himself completely only once, in the final episode, when he speaks to Faye of his eyes. (Faye and Spike)
In this scene his façade falls, he explains that one part of him lives in the past, one part lives in the present, but the dream of the past is over, the costumes are off, for the first time, he opens up and tells Faye the truth, he is NOT going to die; he is going to see if he is truly alive.
Some argue that Spike must die because he’s a parallel to Vicious. Vicious also claims this parallel but it is false. Spike is not Vicious. Spike quit the syndicate, he is not hungry for power, or thirsty for blood. Vicious thinks they are reflections of each other, but they are not.
If you think Spike is Vicious, you don't know what Vicious is.
Second the story itself;
Many still insist that Spike dies, because he gets cut with a sword and falls face down on the steps. That is the cheapest interpretation of what happened. I submit the following Clips;
Spike’s chest is torn open, he is strangled, crashed through a window, shot through the chest and drops a hundred feet or more out of the train but he doesn’t die. We can tell from his sarcastic remark to Vincent, that Spike thinks the whole “dying and going into an endless dream” thing is cliché. So do I. Jet is also wrong, Vincent doesn’t die in this scene and neither does Spike. They are not “dead from the beginning.”
In this next clip Spike denies that he is destined to die and explains to Vicious why they are not the same.
Spike is shot, stabbed and falls from a window onto the asphalt yet doesn’t die. Vicious can't understand why Spike is still alive but we do. It's because of Bebop. Compare this scene to the first clip. It is only reasonable to assume that, in both cases, Spike will wake up to Faye’s off key singing, bandaged from head to toe by Jet.
Faye’s words to him are also important. First that he’s been asleep for three days( resurrection symbolism, underlining Spike’s immortal nature) Second that he should be “Glad she came back.” Faye puts up a front that she doesn’t care but she came back, Spike puts up a front that he needs to die but he doesn’t. They both escape their fate.
The various plots in Bebop all focus around the same timeless theme; can a person escape his or her fate? Jet alludes to this theme when he recounts Ernest Hemingway's “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
But Jet hates that story. He has a hurt leg, he is flying over the desert, but he isn’t dying. He escapes his fate, Bebop saves him.
Faye also feels destined to return to her home on earth, to “find where she belongs,” but she turns away from that path. She finds herself at home on Bebop.
Spike’s destiny may be to die at the hands of Vicious but, for the story to be truly Bebop, he has to break free from that fate.
In the final episode Spike tells the story of “The Tiger Striped Cat,”
Third the essence of Bebop;
Some may be surprised at my insistence that that Spike lives and by invocation of “Bebop,” as a type of story, but let me explain. I, like Jet, hate the story of Kilimanjaro. I have grown tiered of the entire twentieth-century modernist pattern of stories. There is nothing more typical to modern literature, than a doomed hero fighting tooth and nail against fate, but dying all the same. Hemingway rehashes it over and over again, from Harry in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, to Catherine in A Farewell to Arms, to Cantwell in Across the River and Into the Trees. Jack London plays on the old storyline in, To Build a Fire, and Faulkner in, Barn Burning. Many a university student has spent semesters reading about men sealing their fate in their own blood.
Bebop sprang from the modernist movement but transcends it. After World War II, modernism became central to Japanese literature and film. The "film cowboy" of the twentieth century was a mixture of Western folklore and Japanese Samurai tales. (Bebop nods at this in episode #22 Cowboy Funk.) The first Japanese Nobel Laureate, Yasunari Kawabata, wrote several notable books during this period. All his characters live under an ever-present, looming death. A terrible and inescapable, “Sound of the Mountain.” This Japanese/Modernist mix produced countless characters in Japanese literature, cinema and television, all marching on toward the inevitable and extremely predictable death. Hemingway and Kawabata were so obsessed with the inevitability of death that they both committed suicide.
But Bebop is a post-modern creation. The way it blends traditional music, art and theme, with pop culture; the way it plays with and challenges archetypes; the vivacity and humor, the color and eccentric forms are all post-modern. Just as post modern art and architecture broke free of the bleak modernist conformity, Bebop spares its character’s from a modern fate. Bebop gives us a Cowboy who likes Jazz, who doesn’t follow the same tune but improvises, who writes his own story.
In the end we never see Spike wake up, so I suppose you can believe him dead, if you want, but if Spike dies, then his dynamic character deflates into a cliché tragic hero, the intricate story loses all its innovative forms and plot lines, and Cowboy Bebop turns from a artful, humorous, and deeply complex Anime masterpiece, to one more tiered example the modernist fascination with death and the inevitable. I say Spike lives.