this post contains spoilers for Cowboy BeBop
I’m a known troper. I frequent a website called TVTropes, which is a compendium of narrative devices across mediums and nationalities. TVTropes is useful not only as an amusement source for idle time, but also for any aspiring writers. It can inspire you for characters, plotlines, plot twists, what format you want to tell a story in, anything. It also gives you a fresh vocabulary to use; a shorthand for fiction. This is all very cool.
What TVTropes also does is act as a gateway drug. It leads anybody who spends enough time there watching series solely because they come up so often in trope pages and sound interesting. Cowboy BeBop was one for me. Its reputation as America’s gateway to anime as a medium leads to a lot of raving praise over at TVTropes. Because it was the first series everyone saw, it gets a nostalgia filter applied to it. Everyone who edits an article to include a Cowboy Bebop example will portray Cowboy BeBop in a positive light. This is because it was the first show that told them that animated series can be serious, have consequences and character arcs, that stuff from Japan isn’t always badly dubbed.
My first anime series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, was likely a bad place to start. Does it too, deserve the high praise heaped upon it? I’m not really a good judge of that, am I. While I’ve seen quite a few series afterward, I would hesitate to call any anime I’ve seen after it better. But I can’t say that it’s the best I’ve seen, because I’m seeing it through rose-coloured glasses. While I can watch my first series again, and see faults in it and doubt my opinion as to whether it’s really the best, I’ve found that guys who get into anime through Cowboy BeBop can’t.
“WHAT PROBLEMS?!” says Straw Troper. “I DON’T SEE ANY PROBLEMS WITH COWBOY BEBOP! THAT SHOW’S BRILLIANT! THAT’S A MASSIVE GENERALIZATION! I HAVE A FEELING YOU JUST SAID THAT SO YOU CAN DEFEAT M–”
“Shut it, Straw Troper,” I say, devilishly handsome and hair flowing in the breeze, putting on a pair of sunglasses. “This is my rant.” (YEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAH)
When I first saw Cowboy BeBop, I gotta say, it wasn’t because I really wanted to. I’d seen a few complete series, incl. the first series of Ghost in the Shell and every other one I’ve ever mentioned, but this one just didn’t grab me. Naturally, I watched the English dub while doing other things like surfing the web or talking to Chad. Two reasons: the English dub is considered the definitive version by the director and I just wasn’t that into it. The premise never quite hooked me.
After about eight episodes, I asked Chad when these bounty hunters were ever going to turn in a bounty head for cash. He assured me that it would be soon. What I was really asking was “What type of morality is this series operating on?” It’s set in the spaceflung future. Its influences were stated by other tropers to be strictly Hays Code Hollywood genres, when it was being dark and dramatic. Back in those films, crime never paid and anyone who was shown participating in crime or to have participated in crime must face the consequences. Petty crooks go to jail. Guys who worked for big evil syndicates got killed.
It’s the future. Bounty hunting is legal and encouraged. Spike Spiegel used to work for a big evil syndicate, but pulled out, showing genuine remorse. He’s already lost his best friend and the love of his life. It’s the future. It’s the cryogenic freezing, spaceflight future. Bounty hunting is legal. Spike has already been punished, and over the course of the series, he gains capable and hot-blooded friends, who grow closer to him than family. The kind of friends that pull you out of the toughest scrapes, time and again. The kind of friends who love you, despite your criminal past, working for a big evil syndicate. It’s the future. Bounty hunting is legal. Spike Spiegel has a network of people who could track down his ass through the galaxy, no matter if he wanted to be found. The kind of friends who would risk their lives to save him.
It’s the future. Bounty hunting is legal. What they do is not a crime when the series is set. It’s frowned upon and not exactly legal when the series was made. It’s a crime back in the Hays Code days. It is not a crime to them or to their fictional universe. Spike has friends that will save him, and have before when it looked impossible.
Spike dies. Last episode. Last possible second. Right before a smash to black. “Bang.” He’s killed by his old criminal best friend from the big evil syndicate, whom he kills at the same time. The ex-cop and the reformed con woman who are his friends? They live, because they’re good people deep down. Spike worked for a big evil syndicate at one point. He deserves to die for this, according to Cowboy BeBop.
Why is that good? Why is that artistic? Does anybody want that ending? Does anyone think that’s a fitting ending for a series that spent its entire run saying “You can become a better person if you work hard to change”, only for it to turn around and say “It’s useless to try to outrun your past”? It’s bullshit. And if the series had ended with the five episode Vicious arc, one after the other, it would be filed under Gainax Ending. It breaks the rules of its setting, the genre by the time it was produced, the ethical code established in all the episodes with the full cast on the BeBop.
The series is so busy quoting the 70s for artistic references that when it throws us back into CRIME DOESN’T PAY at the end, it’s not tearjerking. It’s not sad. It’s a cheat. It’s not following through on the themes established in the work, it’s killing off the main character out of a misguided duty to being “artistic”. It’s a cop out to end the property with no chances for a sequel. There’s a reason I always felt like the Vicious arc didn’t fit in with the series. While the rest of the series was an ode to 1970’s B-Movie sci-fi, that arc was the only remnant of its noir pretensions.
Except Sam Spade didn’t die.