Jupiter Jazz and the Real Folk Blues: Film Noir and Cowboy Bebop

by criticalhit009

“Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!” – The Smiths, “Paint a Vulgar Picture”

In which I cram in a ton of plot synopsis and keep emphasizing FATE.

Cowboy Bebop, the keystone anime in the west, claims to be a “new genre itself.” A bold statement to be sure, but one that proves to be true. Bebop is an eclectic mix of music and film styles, effectively used in the show’s various vignette and plot episodes that make up the series. But throughout the show, elements of film noir are present in Bebop’s overarching plot that connects these vignettes together.  Bebop is full of noir traits such as the theme of fate, the motifs of rain, fortunetellers, tight framing, narrative  tropes, voice over narration, psychological exploration, and jazz music. This does not characterize the entire series as a film noir, as the majority of the film noir influences only dominate a handful of episodes. But it is the addition of these film noir elements that makes Cowboy Bebop such a filmic and fulfilling experience. 

Cowboy Bebop takes place in 2071, where Earth has become a terrain wasteland and most people have fled to the stars in search of their fortune and future. The show centers around a group of ragtag space bounty hunters: Spike Spiegel, a former assassin of the Red Dragon syndicate; Faye Valentine, a cunning con artist with a mysterious past; Jet Black, a former police officer who quit the force because of its corruption; and “Radical” Edward, a young girl with incredible computer hacking skills. Together aboard Jet’s ship the Bebop, they wander the galaxies in search of a quick buck and a decent meal, witnessing and participating in the various encounters that make up the bulk of the series. However, the overarching plot that connects these vignettes consists of five episodes (known as “sessions” in the show) dealing with Spike’s past, his lost love Julia, and his former-friend-now-enemy Vicious. These episodes are the primary sources of the film noir techniques and themes found in Cowboy Bebop, as the plot of this story arc deals with the theme of fate, strengthened with various motifs, using and even subverting classic film noir tropes.

The theme of fate is prominent in Spike’s back story, as the first three episodes of the connecting story arc heavily foreshadow his fate. Starting with episode 5, “Ballad of Fallen Angels,” Spike finds that his former boss, the leader of the Red Dragon syndicate, has been killed by Vicious, and decides to confront him at a cathedral. Though Jet tries to talk him out of it, Spike states he can’t and that his “past is catching up” with him. Spike approaches the cathedral through the rain, and soon is fighting Vicious in the building. Ultimately, their scuffle ends up as a draw, Vicious’ katana against Spike’s shoulder, Spike’s gun against Vicious’ shoulder. Both attack and survive, resulting in a draw. In this first entry into the overarching story arc, it appears that Spike cannot defeat Vicious without losing his own life, foreshadowing Spike’s fate, which is built upon in the next entry into the story arc.

Episodes 12 and 13, “Jupiter Jazz, Parts 1 &2,” continue the connecting story arc, focusing on the relationship between Vicious and his former comrade in arms, Gren. Two episodes that function as one, it starts and ends with a Native American noting the falling of a star at night, stating it is the “tear of a warrior . . . a lost soul who has finished its battle on this planet . . . a pitiful spirit who could not find the lofty realm where the Great Spirit awaits us all.” This prophecy connects with the motif of fortunetellers found throughout the show, their first appearance being in the very first episode. As discussed later, the fortunetellers usually are right about what they foresee, whether people will accept it or not. It is Gren unfortunately whose spirit was sent to rest. At the end of the episode, Spike and Gren take to the skies and fight an air battle with Vicious, Gren ultimately losing and crashing. Snow falls as Spike approaches Gren’s dying body, making it clear that anyone who interferes with Vicious will suffer the consequences, further adding to the sense of fate Spike faces when confronting his own past.

Finally, episodes 25 and 26, “The Real Folk Blues, Parts 1 &2,” end the overarching plot and the series. Spike finally finds and reconnects with Julia in a raining cemetery, only to have their world crash down upon them. As ex-affiliates of the Red Dragon syndicate, they are automatically suspected and pursued when Vicious launches an unsuccessful coup against the leaders of the syndicate. Although they try and escape, Julia is shot and killed in the rain. Spike escapes and visits the Bebop one last time before he confronts Vicious, who has ascended power by launching his real coup before he is about to be executed by the syndicate. Though the Bebop crew tries to dissuade him, Spike leaves and confronts Vicious at the syndicate headquarters, where they both die fighting each other. As the credits roll and the camera pans upwards to the clear sky and later into space, the final shot rests upon the stars, as a star slowly fades and disappears. In addition to fate, the ending also suggests a sense of futility, as the syndicate itself is not defeated and will likely continue on. Through the plot’s heavy foreshadowing of events in the various story arc episodes, Bebop creates a strong sense of fate for Spike from which he cannot overcome, fate being a common theme in film noir. However, it is not just the plot itself, but all the visual motifs and techniques that Bebop employs that cements Spike’s fate.

One motif used to strengthen the sense of fate in the series is the role of fortunetellers found throughout, who never appear to be wrong in their predictions. In the first episode, Spike consults a Native American fortuneteller, who successfully predicts where to find a criminal; in the final episode, Jet visits the same fortune teller, who predicts Spike’s death. Native Americans come up again in “Jupiter Jazz,” able to discern Gren’s death in the stars. Finally, the old leaders of the syndicate also used fortunetellers, helping them to quell Vicious’ first coup. All these appearances of fortunetellers in Bebop correctly predicting the future adds to the certainty of character’s fates, strengthening the sense of doom for Spike.

Another clear influence of film noir is the use of the rain, especially to add to the sense of fate found in Spike’s back story. Rain is found the majority of Spike’s flashbacks dealing with Julia and Vicious, and accompanied him when he first fought Vicious in “Ballad of Fallen Angels.” (Snow in the case of “Jupiter Jazz.”) Because no one can change the weather, it adds to the lack of volition and futility in dealing with Spike’s fate.

The film noir technique of tight framing to create a claustrophobic effect is used throughout the series to create a sense of limitations and lack of volition as well. Though the standard film noir use of reflections and shadows is present in Bebop, the tight compositions are more interesting for their variety and uses. A frequent example of the framing is the Bebop ship itself, having low door entryways into the main living room, often forcing crew members to duck their heads as they enter. Another example is in episodes 14 and 18, where Bebop crew members must pass through dilapidated buildings, often forcing them to crawl and navigate around space junk. But the best example of tight framing to cause a sense of claustrophobia is in episode 25, where in flashback, Spike recalls himself and Julia standing in front of a window, the frame closely surrounding them. Tight, claustrophobic framing, a popular film noir trait, is also present in Bebop, further illustrating the lack of volition Spike has over his own fate.

Bebop is quite interesting for its use and subversion of various film noir narrative tropes. Though many of the series’ character somewhat fit some of the standard film noir tropes, many subvert the traits, making for an interesting portrayal and commentary as a postmodern noir.

Spike subverts the fool, or the ‘sap.’ Instead of being surprised by the femme fatales duplicity, Spike always knows what he is getting into. In “Ballad of Fallen Angels,” Spike tells Jet he knows he’s entering a trap by going to the cathedral, yet goes anyway because he “has a debt to pay off” to the former Red Dragon syndicate leader murdered by Vicious. A similar type of exchange occurs when he leaves to fight Vicious for the last time. The fact that Spike knowingly enters situations that are foretold to be his doom makes his character difficult to define in terms of tropes.

Julia is a subversion of the femme fatale; although her involvement appears to doom Spike, they truly loved each other, and were only separated because of Vicious’ threat of death against her. Instead of Julia manipulating the men, she is manipulated by Vicious, as we see in flashback he demands that she either kill Spike, or she and he will both die by Vicious’ blade. She decides to flee instead, and is only seen outside of flashback in the final two episodes, “The Real Folk Blues.” Despite being a blonde, beautiful woman, Julia has none of the dangerously controlled poise of the femme fatale, making her a “genuine” love interest for Spike, themselves falling in the classic trope of the runaway couple.

In contrast of Julia is Faye, who does appear to be the standard femme fatale at the beginning of the series. Roughly in the first half of the series, Faye tends to be very duplicitous and only concerned about her self-interests, though this behavior gradually diminishes over time. Faye has an extremely attractive body, however, her clothing is very awkward and somewhat ill-fitting. In addition, her personality is that of  a strong-willed woman, who can earns her keep through her tremendous skills as a card shark. These are traits totally opposite of the typical femme fatale, who typically uses her sex appeal to get a man to do whatever she wants. As one man comments in episode 12 that her “appearance is harmful to the eyes . . ,”Faye could be a very dangerous femme fatale. But appearances can be deceiving, and this proves true for Faye. Though she has all the skills and beauty of a femme fatale, Faye seeks out a living working with the Bebop crew in bounty hunting, ultimately rejecting the femme fatale laid upon her at the beginning of the series.

Jet Black’s character appears to fit the trope of the hard boiled detective, as one theme that is common with his character is also prevalent in film noir, the rejection of corrupt institutions. Jet Black left the police force, disgusted by the corruption he found within the system, instead seeking to do justice as a bounty hunter instead. In this way, his character is very similar to the hard-boiled detective, as an individual seeking authenticity and truth over success. As the moral center of the Bebop crew, Jet’s alignment with this theme seems natural for his character. Between the characters Jet, Spike, Julia, and Faye, film noir narrative tropes are present in Bebop, while many of them being subverted as well.

Bebop also utilizes another film noir staple, voice over narration; however, the show uses this technique very rarely, and when it does, it often lead to disaster. Using voice over narration becomes a dangerous thing when introduced to Bebop because the show uses its dialogue to subtly illustrate the character development and back story of the Bebop crew, instead of direct explanations as found in narration. Because of this, episode 21, “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui,” sounds blunt, forced, and overbearing because it is overflowing with internal monologue by Jet. But when used very sparingly, voice over narration can be an effective way to convey some vital information in Bebop. The only other noticeable time voice over narration is used is in episode 11, “Toys in the Attic,” where Spike has a very brief internal monologue indicating what he suspects generated a rogue alien tormenting the crew on the Bebop. In this instance, the narration lasts less than a minute, and has a practical purpose: Spike realizes he caused the alien mishap. He keeps this secret from the crew, but through inner monologue, the information is available to the audience. All in all, though Bebop does use voice over narration, it doesn’t act as a staple of the narrative like many film noirs do.

Another theme of film noir Bebop borrows is the psychological exploration of its characters, exploring often through flashbacks, another film noir trait. At first, the crew of the Bebop seem like simple characters to understand. But as the series goes on, various episodes focus on each crew member, and the layers of the characters slowly pulled back to reveal complex, troubled protagonists struggling with their pasts (aside from Ed, who is mainly comic relief.) For example, episodes focusing in Jet gradually show that, as anime critic Hope Chapman states, “he’s the sort of man who has no place left in the real world because he’s too stubborn and tied to his convictions. He’s a solid rock, but this often leaves him lonely.” This kind of psychological complexity, specifically dealing with one’s past, isn’t ubiquitous in anime or media in general. To add to that, each member of the Bebop crew is alienated from something, either their past, or each other, or even their physical alienation in space as they drift around the galaxy. Both these elements combine to make an interesting anime, and one that is definitely influenced by film noir.

Finally, the music in Cowboy Bebop is some of the best, perhaps the best in terms of integration for anime. Bebop uses a variety of musical styles, from jazz, to bebop, to even seventies funk to support the emotions and movement on screen. Bebop’s use of jazz is reminiscent of many film noir; however, that isn’t the only musical force at play. Bebop is filled with various styles of music and film styles that also play a large part of Bebop’s construction, ultimately making film noir only one of the many different contributing factors to the series’ story.

Cowboy Bebop, for all its popularity and acclaim, deserves the credit it’s given. It takes numerous styles and genres, utilizes them, and creates something thoroughly original, entertaining and profound. Film noir gets plenty of recognition and use in the series, from emphasizing the theme of fate through plot and various motifs, to using and subverting standard narrative tropes, to other film noir elements (and this isn’t a definitive list of them.) But because the film noir elements are but one influence among many, Cowboy Bebop itself cannot be considered a film noir. But that’s okay because ultimately, Bebop is a genre of its own, worth much more than the sum of its parts.