Getting Existential With Cowboy Bebop
Late night — Adult Swim — September 2nd, 2001. A sequence of text flashes on the screen as multiple horns play, followed by a bass riff and percussions. Images of different animated characters appear on the screen, and then the horns come back triumphantly to accompany the bass and percussions. These characters are running, firing handguns, and smoking cigarettes. This combination of jazz music and imagery exudes “cool.” This introduction sequence is, of course, for the iconic Cowboy Bebop.
Tonight (or tomorrow morning) at 3:00 AM ET on Toonami, Shinichirō Watanabe’s classic series is returning to the same airwaves that helped legitimize a genre (anime) to Western audiences and helped define its lasting legacy in popular culture. Cowboy Bebop isn’t simply one of the best anime series of all time, it’s one of the best television series of all time. However you want to order your top-10 list for television series, you’d be hard pressed to come up with 10 shows better than Bebop.
I know the previous claim comes off as hyperbolic. You may have even come across critics, fans, or your friends tell you that the series is a masterpiece. To a degree, the skepticism is understandable; however, the praise is truly warranted. Watanabe created a visually stunning tale detailing the lives of outlaws as they tackle issues of morality, romance, and their past, all shot like an independent film. At the time, and even to this day, Bebop was unlike anything both the genre and television had seen before.
You cannot pigeonhole the series into one specific genre. Wikipedia lists Cowboy Bebop’s genre as “neo-noir, space Western.” It does have neo-noir and space Western elements. It also has science fiction, Hong Kong action, comedy, and exploitation elements. All of these cinematic elements are blended together, accompanied by a soundtrack that moves seamlessly through genres — from jazz to blues to rock to funk to pop to country and back to jazz again. It’s quite shocking to know that one individual, the brilliant Yoko Kanno, composed all of it. Furthermore, Cowboy Bebop’s episodic storytelling and very few plot arcs really hammer home this amorphous, yet all encompassing nature.
In the almost 20 years since its original release, critics and fans have left no stone unturned when it comes to Bebop analysis. For those who have watched the series, we know that the main characters are bound to their past lives to the point where they aren’t able to move on — forever trapped in a time that no longer exists. We know that Spike loves what Julia represents more than Julia herself. From telling the story of how the best way to handle the misery that life brings forth is to just carry on, to asking an important existential question — “does life actually have meaning ?” — to a deep dive into its influences, the key questions and themes have been analyzed extensively.
In conjunction with the in-depth analysis, there are numerous many memorable moments throughout this episodic adventure. There are Spike and Jet arguing over bell peppers and beef, Spike’s first encounter with Vicious, Ed and Ein eating mushrooms, and Jet looking for closure on Ganymede. Probably should not forget to mention Spike teaching Rocco fighting moves everything related to Mad Pierrot as well. I could continue reminiscing about these scenes as there are so many to choose from. The show is truly filled with that many.
Of all the Cowboy Bebop scenes and moments, there is one that stands out more than the rest. It’s a scene where you realize that we take our memories and our past for granted. Without our past to define us, then who are we in the present? The scene I’m referencing and want to discuss in the ending of “Speak Like A Child.”
To set up the moment, let’s go back to the ending of the previous episode “Mushroom Samba.” During the preview for “Speak Like A Child,” Jet gives his thoughts on what we, the viewer, should expect from it: “The story doesn’t go anywhere. At first glance it’s pointless. The action’s on a small scale and the ending is forced.” Jet’s assessment of the episode is quite accurate. “Speak Like A Child”
“Speak Like A Child” begins with Faye receiving an anonymous package. It freaks her out as it may be someone or something from her past coming back to cause problems. Unfortunately for Faye, she was involved in an accident that forced her to be cryogenically frozen, which was detailed a few episodes before this one (“My Funny Valentine”). When doctors woke her up, it was roughly 50 years since the accident, and Faye was in serious debt due to the medical expenses. Furthermore, she has no recollection of her life prior to being frozen as well as the hospital lost all information on her.
With Faye out of the picture, Spike and Jet decide to open up the package. What’s inside is an artifact from days of yesteryear — a Betamax cassette. Spike and Jet have absolutely no clue what a Betamax is, so they travel around the galaxy searching for a Betamax player to play the content of the cassette. From a vintage store where the player stops working to scouring a large, abandoned mall on Earth, Spike and Jet are determined to watch what is on this tape. They find a player on Earth and return to their ship, only to then learn that they brought back a VCR player. Conveniently, another mysterious package arrives that happens to have a Betamax player. The crew setup the Betamax player just as Faye comes back from her gambling adventures.
Here’s how that plays out:
Heartbreaking, isn’t it? Every time I watch this scene, I get choked up. It’s one of the saddest, if not the saddest moments of Cowboy Bebop. The mysterious video sent to the crew of the Bebop is a recording Faye made for her future self when she was in boarding school in Singapore. The message is full of encouragement and positivity. Broadly speaking, Faye tells her future self that no matter what, she will always be there for her.
Here’s where the agony and pain come into play: Faye doesn’t remember. She recognizes that the girl in the video is her, but she has no memory of anything that occurred in the video. It’s as if her childhood never existed, and it effectively didn’t. And because those life experiences of growing up in Singapore were lost, they did not define or shape who Faye currently is as an individual. Faye’s past starts from when Faye was awoken from cryogenic sleep. She is shaped by the experiences of being exploited, in debt to the point where she needs to rob and extort people for money. The Faye we know is apathetic due to a cruel life, and we can never fully know who Faye was because she no longer exists — that girl in the video died in that accident.
You really get that punch to the gut when young Faye is doing a cheer routine. “And now a big cheer from my heart. Let’s… go… me, alright! Do your best! Do your best! Don’t lose me!” As this cheer is going on, the camera pans straight into Faye’s face, grief stricken and saddened as she cannot remember. To top off the emotions, the play on words in young Faye’s cheer is masterful. “Don’t lose, me!” reads as if young Faye is telling her future self to not lose in anything she is doing in life. “Don’t lose me!” reads as if young Faye is telling her future self to never forget her, to not “lose her.”
Watching Faye lose her only self in real time is nothing short of tragic. She is lost and trying to survive in a world completely foreign to her — and to top it all off, she doesn’t even know who she actually is. Watching this scene as a child, you’re not going to quite understand the gravity of the moment. “Speak Like A Child” has a profound impact on older individuals because we all were that girl in the video once. We were all once full of joy and hope, living in youthful ignorance and ready to accomplish greatness. Some of us do achieve that greatness, but many become jaded by the reality of adulthood and how our lives did not necessarily turn out as we once imagined.
But unlike Faye, we are fortunate to have our past shape who we are today, and even use the past to learn from mistakes and grow. We have the luxury of knowing who we are. And having that ability to use our personal history to help shape our future is what ultimately gives us hope that one day, life is better. That security of knowing who we are is taken for granted, and seeing Faye not have that security makes you realize this. It allows me to be myself in the present and enjoy the current life I’m in. And in, say, 10 years, I can reflect on my Holyfield days, either to reminisce about the early days of building up the website or use it as experience in a potentially different venture I am in. Time will tell, of course, but moments we experience in the present will define who we are in the future.
Because of that, I do have a message for my future self. It’s something young Faye said to end the episode, and something we should all tell our future selves. You never know when you need a bit of encouragement from someone who loves and cares about you:
“In your time, I’m no longer here. But I am here today and I’ll always be cheering for you right here…cheering for you…my only self.”