Confronting the Past in Cowboy Bebop
A quick introduction before the introduction. I am not too thrilled with this little essay as it stands now. I don’t know if I want to continue on with doing analyses (or if I do, just do them in a vein similar to that done in The Cimmerian). A lot of the problem, I think, comes from the heavily episodic nature of Cowboy Bebop. My argument would work better in a serial type series in which Spike has more episodes to mope and be concerned about his past rather than the three episodes (two of which are two parters) that he does confront his past. Anyway, here is my admittedly flawed piece.
Confronting one’s past is a constant theme in the anime series Cowboy Bebop. An episodic series focusing on the struggles of a group of four bounty hunters in the mid twenty-first century in a solar system colonized by humans, Cowboy Bebop is always looking to the past. Be it in musical inspiration (the most recent musical genre used as inspiration being Heavy Metal), the punk-retro world building, or the individual characters’ struggles with their own pasts in uncertain futures, the viewer cannot escape a feeling of nostaglia even in a futuristic space adventure. This confrontation with the past is perhaps best explored in the person of the series’s main protagonist, Spike Spiegel. While each main character has his or her own centric episode where they confront their past or uncertain background, it is only Spike’s confrontation that structures the series itself. Spike’s confrontation with his past leads to the inescapable conclusion that one can never truly bury it.
Unlike Faye Valentine who wishes to know where she came from, Spike is typically apathetic to confronting his past. Indeed, it is often thrust upon him as he randomly encounters his old friend turned mortal enemy Viscious. Before joining the Bebop with bounty hunter Jet Black, Spike was a member (probably high ranking) in a criminal orgainization called the Red Dragon Syndicate. After falling in love with Julia, Visicious’s girlfriend, Spike fakes his death and leaves the organization. In the series itself, he has three encounters with his former friend and syndicate.
The first encounter comes in Session Five, “Ballad of Fallen Angels.” In this episode, Spike goes after a bounty on Mao Yenrai (his mentor in the Red Dragon Syndicate). However, Mao had already been killed by Visicious for attempting to make peace with a rival syndicate. In what looks to have been a set up by Visicious, Spike goes to see another old friend and later must rescue Faye from Visicious. The second encounter comes during the two part episode “Jupiter Jazz” in which Spike learns that Julia had been on Callisto for a time. In this episode, Spike’s desire to find and reunite with Julia begins to strengthen. The final encounter comes (obviously) in the final two part episode “The Real Folk Blues” where Spike briefly reconnects with Julia and has his final showdown with Viscious.
Each confrontation with Spike’s past is arranged or sought out by a specific character. In the first confrontation, Visicious lures Spike to Mars with the intention of killing him over several vendettas (Spike stole Julia from Visicious, Spike left the syndicate, the two are each other’s shadows, etc.). Spike responds to Visicious’s trap because he feels that he owes Mao vengence. The second encounter is initiated by Spike after he learns that Julia has been on Callisto and mistakes the real Julia for the codename Visicious is using in a drug deal. Here we begin to see that Spike is willing to sacrifiec everything for Julia. The third and final encounter is arranged initially by the Van (the elderly leaders of the Red Dragon) and taken up by Visicious as he seeks to end his conflict with Spike. Spike knows by this time that he can no longer run from his past (and he must finally avenge Julia, Mao, and Annie).
There is a problem, however, in Spike’s confrontations with his past. Before the final showdown with Visicious, Faye confronts Spike to try and get him to give up what she views as throwing his life away for something that should remain buried. He tells her about his artificial eye and claims that the artificial eye only sees the present while his real eye only sees the past. While his statement is a powerful cronstruction of the conflict within him, it is hard to ignore the fact that he never mentions his past or seems to be all that carring about it until he is sought out by Visicious and learns about Julia from Gren (in “Jupiter Jazz”).
Keeping this in mind, one has to draw the conclusion that Spike’s confrontations with the past are more about a lost love than any sort of internal conflict. Indeed, it is Visicious who is the usual instigator of Spike’s confrontations with his past. It is Visicious, Spike’s double/ shadow self, that cannot let go.