The Film Noir Roots of Cowboy Bebop

The cast of Cowboy Bebop.

The animated series Cowboy Bebop is a blend of classic film noir motifs mixed into a futuristic setting that reverses the roles of gender and character.

The animated series Cowboy Bebop is a blend of classic film noir motifs mixed into a futuristic setting that reverses the roles of gender and character. Consisting of a concise 26 episodes and one movie that doesn’t drag out the story, the show managed to raise the bar for not only anime, but television in general. Taking the stereotypes from film noir and paralleling the story of Out of the Past, it bends the noir formulas of the film so that sometimes the man is fulfilling the femme fatale’s role and the woman is the doomed protagonist. It blends the formulas of both noir and anime as it takes the crooked partner story and mixes it with the classic anime buddy formula. The gloomy poetry of men walking into certain death is combined with Eastern philosophy over a backdrop of country music and Bebop jazz.

The basic plot arc of the show consists of a falling out between a bounty hunter named Spike, a crime boss named Vicious, and a woman that they fought over named Julia. The details are left ambiguous; Spike tried to leave the Syndicate and take Julia with him. She seemingly picks Vicious instead. The bitterness between Spike and Vicious is played out throughout the show while Spike’s bounty hunting partners deal with their own past. Despite the new life that he has found, at the end, Spike goes back to settle the score with Vicious. It’s essentially the same story of the classic film noir Out of the Past. Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) and Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) fall in love behind crime lord Whit Streling’s (Kirk Douglas) back, but are eventually caught. Kathie decides to betray Jeff and go back to Whit’s power and connections. Tracked down years later by Whit for one last job, Jeff decides to settle the score despite his new life. Both Jeff and Spike walk into certain doom simply because they are tired of running.

The role of bounty hunter parallels the private detective of the 1940s. Like the private detective in The Maltese Falcon or Out of the Past, these are people who live on both sides of the law and at the expense of both criminals and innocents. Raymond Chandler wrote in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder" about the hard-boiled detective, “He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man ... He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” In anime, the bounty hunter is often depicted in the same manner. Tough, set apart from the world, and yet still a part of it when the right mission calls. Characters like the ones from Cowboy Bebop are marked both by their aloof attitudes and a willingness to engage with the world when required.

Of all the crew, it is easily Jet who is the most noble. Driven by a sense of duty from being an ex-cop, he is constantly struggling to make everyone else on the ship work together. In the very first episode, he gamely calls dinner “bell peppers and beef”, a habit that remains for the rest of the series. He thinks of things as he wishes they were instead of what they really are. Spike dryly points out that there isn’t any beef in the meal, showing his own role as being one that counterbalances Jet's optimism. His is the cynical reminder that there is something missing from both the literal dish and their relationship. There are numerous moments where the crew’s loyalties fray. When Spike finds out there is a bounty on the lover of Jet’s ex-girlfriend, he decides to hunt it down without risking Jet getting sentimental. Faye steals money from Jet and Spike several times throughout the show. Whenever Spike decides to go after Vicious, Jet can’t understand why Spike would ever want to leave. Jet is the one who bought the ship that everyone stays on, who retired from being a cop for the romantic fantasy of being a bounty hunter.

As the show’s female lead, Faye is not afraid to use her sexuality as a weapon. The femme fatale of film noir is probably one of the genre’s greatest archetypes, and Faye is an interesting take on the idea. An essay on female characters in film noir explains, “Women here as elsewhere are defined by their sexuality: the dark lady has access to it and the virgin does not ... it does not present us with role models who defy their fate and triumph over it. But it does give us one of the few periods of film in which women are active, not static symbols, are intelligent and powerful, if destructively so, and derive power, not weakness, from their sexuality”. Faye always wears a revealing yellow suit, heels, and keeps a pistol tucked into her red chiffon. One of her most potent characteristics is her willingness to use sexuality like a weapon, and yet drop it just as quickly when it’s not working. After stealing several million dollars from Spike and Jet, they finally catch her and handcuff her to a bulkhead. As Spike digs through her suitcase she cocks her elbows back, adopts a submissive look, and oozes sexuality while she tries to bargain with him. Once it becomes apparent that Spike isn’t buying it, she bitches him out. The core of the femme fatale’s nature is to violate the male fantasy of the submissive and sexualized woman. Faye knows exactly what she’s doing when she arouses men’s attention, and it’s always for her own purposes.

The dynamic between Faye and Spike plays on this sexual power because Faye can’t seem to get an edge on Spike. He jokes several times that he “has already been killed by a woman.” Like Jeff’s character, who gives up everything only to be betrayed by the woman he loves, Spike has already been burned by a femme fatale. In Out of the Past, when Jeff meets a manipulative secretary who seduces her victims, her flirtations do nothing for him because they are too reminiscent of old wounds. When Spike and Faye are arguing about Jet chasing his ex-girlfriend, Faye grumbles, “He’s kidding himself if he thinks she’s still holding a torch for him.” Spike counters, “And you’re kidding yourself if you think that every woman is like you. They’re not, you know.” When Spike awakens after being blasted out of a church window, Faye is humming in the exact same way that his ex-lover Julia was after a similar accident. Instead of being drawn to her, Spike can only criticize that she’s singing off key. It’s an echo of the same hostility in Out of the Past that Jeff shows for the secretary and for Kathie when they are finally reunited. These men mock and insult these women because they remind them of their own failures.

Yet sometimes in an episode Spike plays the role of the woman being chased, and sometimes Faye or another female interest is the doomed male protagonist. As Spike continues to reject Faye’s advances, he becomes the femme fatale that she chases. In the episode "My Funny Valentine", it is revealed that Faye herself was betrayed by a male fatale and left on her own. Both characters alternate between the two roles when dealing with one another and other characters. In Cowboy Bebop, the fatale is not dependent on gender or sexuality, but rather the relationship itself. When they get into a duel over a bounty, Faye warns, “I’m not going easy on you.” A surprised Spike replies, “I thought that was my line."

This concept of bending gender roles is fleshed out in the two part series of episodes called "Jupiter Jazz". Faye is rescued by a male saxophone player named Gren when she doesn’t really need rescuing. When she flirts with him, Gren explains that he’s gay and only felt sorry for her. Gren’s role is to play the part of both the femme fatale and the wounded male lover in the film noir formula. After Faye discovers that he has breasts and cross-dresses, he explains to Faye about his gender, “I’m both at once, and I’m neither one.” Vicious betrayed Gren back when they fought together in a war, making Vicious the femme fatale for Gren. After disguising himself as a woman to lure Vicious into a trap, he confronts him, “We fought that war together. We were comrades. We risked everything, shoulder to shoulder, on the battleground of death. I looked up to you. I believed in you.” For Gren, his infatuation with Vicious leads to a plot line all too similar to the doomed male pursuing a relationship that gets him killed. Vicious is the femme fatale that lures Gren back for one last job, repeating events in the same way that Kathie and Jeff do in Out of the Past. Gren becomes the hurt lover in these moments, the doomed male protagonist who cannot move on as he tries to trap Vicious into admitting that their relationship meant something. Just as cold as Kathie is when she betrays Jeff in Out of the Past, Vicious only tells him that there was never anything to believe in.

Vicious is the show's main antagonist. A member of the same Syndicate that Spike belonged to before he quit, he is as old fashioned as he is violent. Like Whit in Out of the Past, he is driven by the need to control the people around him, women and men, so that he is always mocking Spike. After killing the Syndicate leader who raised Spike and Vicious from the streets, he posts a bounty on his head hoping that Spike will realize what has happened and come after him. When he’s making a drug deal, his choice of codename for the mission suggests their mutual interest in Julia. What makes both Vicious and Whit’s character chilling yet human in these moments is that their motivation is easily understood: they too have been betrayed by a femme fatale. Yet unlike Jeff and Spike, who genuinely want to believe that they can convince these women to love them, Vicious is content to win back Julia at the point of a gun.

No discussion of Cowboy Bebop would be complete without mentioning Ed and Ein, the young female hacker and Data Dog. The pair mostly act as comedic relief, starring in their own quality episodes such as "Mushroom Samba", but their role is also an adaptation of the deaf-mute teenager from Out of the Past. Seen helping Mitchum run his gas station, the kid eventually thwarts a hitman in a comedic manner that echoes Ed’s own shenanigans. Creeping up on Mitchum while he’s fishing, the kid spots the would-be assassin and uses his fishing pole to hook his sleeve and drag him off a cliff. Throughout the film, he is also willing to lie to cover Mitchum’s tracks. Like Ed’s hacking skills, the kid in Out of the Past is useful in his own weird way.

For anyone who has watched the series all the way through, at the core of the experience is the difficult question of why Spike has to die at the end. When pressed on the matter, he is always ambiguous, commenting that he feels like he’s watching a dream he can’t wake up from. A synthetic eye that replaced the one that he lost constantly reminds him of his past, making one eye see the present while the other looks back to his broken relationship with Julia. In Out of the Past, Jeff also struggles with understanding why he has been sucked back into Kathie and Whit’s world. He sarcastically comments to a taxi driver, “I feel like I’m in a frame. All I can do is look at the picture.” Both men feel helpless about their inability to let the past go. Vicious and Whit are both content to think of these men as just another thing that they can control. Vicious declares that, ”I told you before, Spike, I’m the only one who can kill you and set you free.” Whit echoes this sentiment to Jeff: “You see, you owe me something, you’ll never be happy until you square yourself.”

The final moments of the show depict a shaky Spike after he has lost Julia. Jet serves him bell peppers and beef (without the beef) while trying to talk him out of going to get revenge. He quotes Hemingway and comments that men who dwell on the past are trite. In turn, Spike tells a story about two cats that fall in love but that one dies. The cat that is left behind cries for his lost lover and then dies himself. Jet nervously chuckles and says that it is a good story, but like the very first episode where Spike is honest about the food, he counters with the reality that he hates the cat story. He’s tired of the same sad tale of some guy crying over his woman over and over. The whole thing has become so unreal to him that he feels like he’s stuck in a dream that he just wants to be over. When Jeff’s new lover asks why he has to go back in Out of the Past, he can only say, “I’ve got to, I’m tired of running. I’ve got to clean this up.” Spike’s last comment to Faye is to explain that, “I’m not going there to die. I’m going to find out if I’m really alive.”

Cowboy Bebop ends on this sad note. Julia has been killed, the Syndicates are no longer hunting Spike, and the very real option of walking away is presented to him before he rejects it. There is really no reason for him to go. Even Faye drops her guard and tries to persuade him to stay with her, which may be the part of film noir that Cowboy Bebop captures the best. Between the doomed male protagonists and femme fatales, a film noir is the story of people who are tired of the traditional roles that society has stuck them with. While women use their sexuality to get ahead and empower themselves in a male fantasy world, the men are driven by their own broken pasts and inability to move on. These are characters that, by their nature, don’t really fit into conventional happy endings. When Jet yells at Spike for chasing after Julia, he says that he never understood him. Spike smiles and replies, “I don’t really understand either.”

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