Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cowboy Bebop vs. Ernest Hemingway; Harry dies, Spike Lives.

            The children sing of the Messiah as our Hero lies motionless on the steps. Friends and enemies alike stand in reverent silence. Doves fly heavenward. But wait, can’t you see?  Spike is not dead!
             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,”

           But Spike hates the story. He is not the cat any more than Jets is Harry in Kilimanjaro. Spike is not trapped in the past any more than Faye is.  Neither Jet or Spike die.  Faye comes back to Bebop and so will Spike. They all overcome their destiny. 
           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. 


Eric said...

I'm glad that you wrote an article on this as I have always thought that it was very cliche for spike to die at the end of the series, especially since he is consistently torn apart in so many of the episodes. I agree with your logic and also your disdain for modern literature. Great post.

Anonymous said...

This article is amazing. I have been a fan of philosophy and literature for a few years now and see that there is a certain depth to it; a certain resonance, which awakens its reader to truths about the world we live in today. Cowboy Bebop is a medium, a sort of quintessential medium, to explore this new world, a world still fighting its past but is in the present, and presently, it has thinkers of a caliber capable of producing works of art such as cowboy bebop, as well, as articles on it, such as this one.

Anonymous said...

Wow. You're right dude. Why should he be dead 'this time' after all the other times? The closing screen says something about "carrying that weight". What does this mean? Could it mean the 'weight' of carrying on 'Bebop' the series? Did it mean Spike's weight since he died? Anyway, I always imagined Spike waking up on the Bebop bandaged-up per usual until I read the Wiki page that clearly states "spike dies" --and you know Wiki is 'always accurate' ;-)

Anonymous said...

Get over it. You are projecting your psychology on to Bebop. Old man bull forsaw his death ('you will meet a woman, and then, DEATH'), HIS STAR FADES AWAY, he went to Vicious to see if he 'was really alive', but he wasn't. He was the Tiger-Stripped cat that 'never came back to life', Jet story tells him to 'turn back' because 'men only think about their DEATH right before they die, as if their frantically searching for proof they were alive' (why would Jet even bring up the story about death). Faye cries because unlike EVERY OTHER TIME he flew off (e.g. le fou) she knows he's going to die.

Spike is the existential hero. He was the tiger-stripped cat. He went to Vicious to 'find out if he was really alive'. And he wasn't! Without Julia, he is no more! You want him to just end up becoming an old man chasing bounty through the stars? You have got to be kidding me.

To your points:

* Why would we assume Spike's character is flat? We don't! He's Syphus, he's Camus, he's Kierkeggard! Why would you ASSUME that a 'flat character' is something that contradicts your own assuptions and provide no evidence. This is not literary criticism.

*"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." This is just completely MADE UP! You don't reference the text at all!

You do this time after time, you don't address any of the other points I made about bull, about the star, about 'carrying that weight' you just believe what you want to believe and then you try and fit the story to it.

The story is not post-modern it is existential. There is no confluence of forces, there is no humanity as a victim of circumstances, there is no crumbling of meaning (in fact you argue for the opposite). There is a search for meaning in Spike's life.

You do what everyone who say he lives does: you take something deep in your psychology, something that you can't accept. Like a 9-11 truther who's identity is so intertwined with something else that they refuse to believe what is right in front of them. Never is this more evident than in your final paragraph:

"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"

Really? It does all this? Really? All of it? Because he dies, it is all just a joke? Really? You have got to be kidding me. You just need to get over yourself and face the facts: SPIKE IS DEAD

Captain said...

When you say I am projecting my psychology onto Bebop, you are exactly right. I admit it in my essay. But there is nothing wrong with that.

First, because everyone who watches Bebop, or any TV series or movie does the same. For that matter anyone who looks at a painting, reads a novel, or has a casual conversation with another person, projects his or her psychology. I don’t even think scientists who study the physical world, full of actual truths and facts, can escape that inevitability.

Second because Bebop is fiction. When a scientist lets his bias affect his interpetation of data he is in the wrong, but Literary interpretation is entirely subjective – by design. It has to be. Any critic who claims to know the “truth” of what happened to fictional characters is delusional.

To your points: Yes Spike is destined to die, that is why he can’t die. The idea of Bebop as I pointed out with ample evidence is that the characters break free from their destiny. I’m not going to repeat the argument but look above. Every character breaks from his or her destiny. The more Faye claims to want to be alone, the more she seeks out others. The more predictions and allusions point to Spike’s death, the more I believe he lives.

Now to your points on my points

Spike is a flat character:
If Spike begins by being destined to die, moves toward death, and then dies, then he has only moved in one direction, along one plane, he is flat. There is no contradiction in his character, no conflict, no change, no depth. Where is your evidence that he is not flat, what about his character is deep. Again you’re right, this is not literary criticism, (thankfully.)

Your next point makes me wonder if you read my post. I referenced the text. Each clip shows a break in the standard modern pattern.

Your next few points are just angry rambling. I don’t think you are qualified to comment on my psychology seeing as how you have never met me. The 9-11 truther thing is also a big jump.

I openly admit that my opinion is not based in fact, it is based in fiction. The fact is the story doesn’t say that Spike dies or that he lives. I created my idea of what happened to fit what I wanted. Every critic does. Most writers accept and expect it. That is why they leave ambiguities.

Face the fiction Spike Lives!

MrsSpooky said...

I love this! I am with you, I did not see Spike die at the end. I found plenty of reasons for my thinking and I'm gratified to see that there are even more than I thought.

Good for you for posting this. Would it be ok with you if I added this to the links column on my blog?

Captain said...

Sure post it!

Nissl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nissl said...

Interesting stuff. One other thing to sort through is the end of Sympathy for the Devil. After Spike shoots the kid, the kid monologues about how life was so heavy and now death feels so light, he is released, do you understand? (I don't remember the exact phrasing sorry, I'm at work.) Spike says, "yeah, I understand. if!" then he tosses the kid's harmonica in the air and says bang.

Watanabe has said that the ending is deliberately ambiguous and that much of the series is about Spike's karma. Obviously Spike killed a lot of people back in the Syndicate but he does a number of selfless things throughout the series that save dozens of lives. To second-hand borrow a comment from MrsSpooky's Bebop blog, Spike's biological status may in some ways be less important than the fact that he is free from his karma. I would posit that the kid's death *doesn't* free him because he hasn't repented for his actions. That's the meaning behind Spike's comment.

Franky said...

A very interesting interpretation, and an interesting conversation here in the comments. Cowboy Bebop only keeps growing on me!

Comet said...

Cowboy Bebop has a very special place in my heart. It was the first anime I ever watched, and I loved every minute of it. I thought your post was very interesting, but, as you stated multiple times, it is very subjective.

I do not think that a heroic death is a wasted life. Sometimes, the sacrifice makes the hero. And I do hate to point this out, but if being destined to die, moving towards death and only moving in that single direction makes a character one-dimensional and flat, then everyone and every character is flat. Everyone is destined to die. That's something that all heroes must address, the possibility of death. The inevitability and the sacrifice is what make death so powerful. Those of us left here after the hero has "moved on" are left with a finality that makes us (or at least me) uncomfortable.

Spike's lives his life very Zen, and he does seem to have a code of honour. I think it's worth noting how he thinks he's living in a dream (remember Julia's last words?) and that in dying he may finally wake up. This is a popular idea in bushido. It is my opinion that finally dying would not go against Spike's character at all. I think Spike is very far from flat as a character, regardless of what happened at the end.

Corny said...

Thanks for that well-written article. Cliché or not, I'm not entirely convinced that he doesn't die, but I came across a lot of hints and reasons why he doesn't.
It's really great to discuss and interpret the ending when people acknowledge that the ending is, in fact, ambiguous and when there aren't two sides just posting "He's dead/alive! It's the truth! Can't you see it?" in caps.

Sgt. Pepperjack said...

Great article! I think Spike is alive, for many of the same reasons you listed. And I agree. I'm rather tired of modernism/fatalism.
I just wanted to answer two of the points that came up earlier.
-Yes, Laughing Bull says that Spike will die. However, one of the central themes of the show is the comparison to jazz, the creation of a new, unique story and genre, in direct defiance of what came before. This applies to mysticism as well as modernism. (Remember the Hideo Kuze-esque cult leader that shows up?)
Bull speaks Bull, and Jet shrugs. He doesn't really listen, why should we?
-The 'carry that weight' is a line from the Beatles song by the same name, off 'Abbey Road'. 'Carry That Weight' is the second part of a three-part song near the end of the album.
In the first part, the singer laments that there is no way to get back home, and then invites his (lover?) to sleep, and that it will all be all right.
The only line in the second part is: "Boy, you're gonna carry that weight, carry that weight a long time..."
The third part of the song is significantly more upbeat musically than the last two. Its words are rather representative of a sense of closure: "Oh yeah, all right, oh your gonna be in my dreams tonight... Love you, love you..."
I think that within the context of the show's story, the allusion to the Beatle's work indicates that Spike still has a ways to go. He'll be carrying the weight of Julia's death for a long while more. And don't forget the third part. He'll always love and remember Julia, but perhaps he can be happy at the same time.
I dunno, just my two (three or four) cents.

Matthew said...

Great article! I for one KNOW Spike is alive,i mean bebop is an art form of it's own and for Spike to die would make it part of the art form pattern we've seen a ton of times,but bebop follows it's own pattern.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I felt like Spike embodies the existential hero role. I can see your argument about him having to escape his fate, but the thing is... in existential literature, the main character does not escape his fate. Take for example Grendel, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In both, the main character(s), the existential hero, searches for meaning, and questions fate and destiny. But regardless of this drive to write their own path, they always succumb to the predestined fate set by the universe they occupy. I feel the same goes for Spike.

This is purely my personal interpretation of course, I'm not denying the validity of your piece.

Shaw said...

Thank you!

Captain said...

Well this is interesting

Jimmy said...

Thank you very much for this analysis. I have now seen Cowboy Bebop around 12 times over a long period of my life. I would say for the initial five times I believed Spike had died. After that though I started to firmly believe he had lived and have convinced my friends as well. I have my own thoughts/analysis and I love how in depth you go. It is a whole different facet I can share with people. I do understand why a majority of people believe he died. I used to think like that. But with repeated viewings and a deeper analysis I believe there is so much more to it. It is irritating to me when people present articles stating his death as if it were fact when it has always been up to the viewer's interpretation. It was always meant to be ambiguous.

Anonymous said...

The existential interpretation is, I believe, the most useful in this analysis. The theme of fate is indeed central. For Nietzsche, fate was the same thing as chance. If you drop your pen, that's fate. What happens becomes set in stone as soon as it happens and changes you irreversibly. Because existentially, time is also being interpreted by the existing individual. For Kierkegaard, when the Prince meets Her his past is revealed as having always led up to this point in time when he meets her. This is to do with fate : the prince could have meet her or her or her but no he met Her and after that point (in hindsight) it could only ever have been Her (the particular becomes a universal). Thus chance is fate and fate is chance. What's this what to do with fate? You say that Spike fate was to die, and because, in being simplistic, he's "postmodern" he obviously doesn't die because that would predictable in a modern narrative. This is where the postmodern approach falls short. You have to look at it existentially. He's fate is to die. So what does he do? He identifies himself with his fate. He takes his fate upon himself. He could have done otherwise (he could have ran away), but he doesn't, he chooses to die, he chooses his fate. He doesn't choose to go along passively with his fate, he chooses, he decides to bring his fate into his own hands and die as he chooses to die (i.e. where and when). This allows me to bring in Heidegger. For Heidegger, authenticity comes upon realizes the meaningless (I'm being simplistic again but anyway) of conformism because of the discovery of death. Consequently, you begin to live authentically when you live towards your death. Whose death? Yours, because only you can die your death. Thus, Spike dies authentically by choosing it, just as Michel chooses to die in Breathless. Like Michel, Spike makes his death a spectacle, it has a mise en scène, a grand location, a grand finale. (See how I didn't mention Sartre.)

I don't like adding this because it very undramatic but I need to explain why the "but he was wounded loads of times before and didn't die" doesn't work. During the 26 episodes he is, according to himself, living "a dream". He is passive : half-dead, a ghost in the limbo that is Bebop. During this time, he goes on crazy suicide missions taking stupid risks, but he doesn't die. He is like the cat with a million lives. When Spike doesn't care if he lives or dies then he just can't die. But at the end, he awakens, he wants to see if he "is truly alive". And that's when he dies. He dies precisely when he starts living, when he takes his life into his own hands, when he lives actively.

Anonymous said...

OK... I should probably have re-read my comment. I'm sorry for all the errors, I am English (really) but it's actually quite late at night where I am. No, that's not bad faith. DAMN IT ! I REFERENCED SARTRE !

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to have found this post, as I've only recently watched Cowboy Bebop. I know- I'm late. But I've already gone every which way on Spike's "death." I think he had to die, not necessarily physically. As someone mentioned, the series is about Spike's karma. So, let's look at karma. Unlike what most people believe, karma isn't something to be experienced in the current lifetime; it passes over to the next life. His activities and choices with the syndicate shaped his life after his first "death." He says to Laughing Bull that he's already died once in the first episode, so we can start analyzing the series as his second life. This life is plagued by all the bad choices he previously made, but he also begins forging a new perspective. We see instances of his caring nature developing throughout the show, so this is now new karma to be carry over to his next life. The life after he "dies" at the end of the show. Regardless if he actually died or only metaphorically did, his life after this moment will now continue to shape around the new karma. I think in the end, Spike learns that the past is not something to run away from but embraced as a part of him. That's when he can truly be free. And ultimately, I do believe an actual death would have diminished this lesson. As you've said, it turns him into a martyr for a tragic hero consumed by his past. And that's boring.