SEE YOU SPACE COWBOY: The Ending Cards of Cowboy Bebop
by Mara Wood
Cowboy Bebop broke the mold when it came to anime series. Though no central ‘anime canon’ exists, Cowboy Bebop would an undisputed cornerstone if one was formally developed. This 26 episode series from 1998 featured science fiction that was accessible to a general audience presented in a Western style. It is palatable to non-anime fans as well as a favorite of long-time viewers of the medium.
Part of what makes Cowboy Bebop so universally appealing is the character development within a short series of episodes. Spike, Jet, Faye, and Ed all battle their personal demons as they travel together through space. Hardly ever on good terms, each character brings their baggage on the Bebop, and their past directs the actions they take as a crew and as individuals.
Cowboy Bebop gives viewers an added layer of complexity through the ending cards, the final image presented before the ending credits. Each card is black with white, italicized capital letters delivering a brief message. The message keys viewers into what Bebop is about as well as provides a final thought on the episode itself.
SEE YOU, SPACE COWBOY…
Instantly recognizable, these four words are at the end of most Cowboy Bebop episodes. Generally, they set the tone for the series as well as frame who exactly we are talking about. The SEE YOU is easy to understand; the casual goodbye establishes the carefree living the Bebop crew enjoys. We don’t know when or where we will run into the crew, but we do know that the crew will cross our path once more.
The other two words pack more meaning. SPACE COWBOY. On a surface level, the words seem to contradict one another. Forward-thinking exploration paired with old West style of living. It is certainly a novel term, one that still carries some relevance today (Firefly fans know what I’m talking about!). SPACE COWBOY may sound like an oxymoron, but the nomadic lifestyle of the bounty hunters and their odd journeys throughout the galaxy can be described in no other way.
The cowboy has long been an enticing figure. The freedom, rugged masculinity, and bravery associated with these cattle workers are features worth exploring in film and literature. Cowboys are an uniquely American phenomenon, much like jazz. While other cultures have long histories of monarchies, America’s recent history of open country and exploration have just as much influence on other cultures as tales of princesses do on Americans. Japanese cinema’s ties to Western culture have been around since its inception, and the cowboy lifestyle fits in surprisingly well with the samurai mentality.
EASY COME, EASY GO…
Poor Faye. Her life since waking up after her accident has been a series of misfortunes. One of her trademarks is instant gratification. Faye does not make long-term plans. She takes life as it comes, going as far as telling Spike she is a Romani, a gypsy in the stars. Her lifestyle sets her up for loss. Faye lacks stability in her life, and, at times, appears to regret some of her choices. In Jupiter Jazz part 1, she recounts her feelings of loneliness and shrugs off the interpretation that she rejects people before they have the chance to reject her. Her connections are weak and surface-level – until she meets Spike and Jet. Despite their verbal hatred with each other, Faye is deeply entwined with these two men. Every time she leaves, they follow. She attempts to shut them out of her life, but their bond is forged over trials and cannot be let go so easily.
DO YOU HAVE A COMRADE?
After a brief look into Vicious’s past relationship with Gren, we can see just how manipulative and twisted this man is. Before Jupiter Jazz part 2, we get brief glimpses of how evil Vicious is. A confrontation with Spike, a flashback with Julia, and a short look at his dealings as a gang member show us a Vicious that is not out to make friends. His past interactions with Gren on Titan reveal a much different Vicious.
Gren reflects, “We don’t need comrades, but I’m attracted to that word. To the point of tears… That’s what we were on Titan. Comrades” (Jupiter Jazz part 2). When Gren confronts Vicious, the music kicks in with a sad melody as he spits out that he and Vicious were comrades.
A comrade is an equal, a person you can count on no matter what. Gren counted Vicious as his comrade and felt a deep, lasting connection to him. Spike regarded Vicious in much the same way. He, Vicious, and Julia were a team, a group within a gang who relied heavily upon each other. Or they did until Vicious betrayed Spike like he betrayed Gren.
The placement of this ending card, at the end of episode 13, prompts viewers to reconsider the crew of the Bebop and their interactions with their present and past world. We can perceive Vicious as a comrade gone bad, especially after his treatment of Gren. Spike, Jet, Faye, and Ed all grow to consider each other as comrades even after taking into consideration their vastly different backgrounds and goals. Even in the end, as Spike leaves the Bebop to face Vicious alone, the anime shows shots of Jet and Faye as they reflect on Spike’s outcome.
Faye’s journey throughout Cowboy Bebop is especially tragic. She was once a well-off rich young woman. An accident decades ago left her nearly dead. She was kept alive for years upon years with the idea that reviving her could lead to a fortune. A doctor takes advantage of the sleeping beauty, waking her up to collect a debt for keeping her alive thus far.
Faye’s awakening is anything but a fairy tale. She is lost in a different time and taken advantage of by a con man. Her life quickly spirals out of control as she runs from her debt and her unknown past. The SLEEPING BEAST is a play on Sleeping Beauty. Faye, as the snoozing subject, wakes up to a mess of a life. Her personality shifts drastically to a ruthless bounty hunter with no future or direction. In comparison to her previous life, her current state is ‘beast-like’. She panics over who she was, and that uncertainty follows her until she makes the decision to leave the Bebop for good (or until Julia shows up and the two women have the best car chase ever).
Cowboy Bebop, with its extremely limited cast of women, forces us to constantly compare Faye to Spike’s love, Julia. With Faye presented as the Beast, Julia is by default the Beauty. Additionally, switching Beauty for BEAST further alludes to Faye’s life as a fairy tale gone wrong.
LIFE IS BUT A DREAM…
Mushroom Samba is more or less Cowboy Bebop’s anti-drug PSA. Ed feeds the crew hallucinatory mushrooms, the three adults are out of commission for the duration of the episode, and Ed runs around barefoot in a desert. Spike, Jet, and Faye all experience confusing, horrifying, and convoluted hallucinations. Their experiences reflect their current environment (walking up stairs, flushing a toilet, and trimming bonsai trees), but are interpreted in surreal ways. Each hallucination is not only strange, but also a reflection of the mental states and needs of each individual. Spike is unable to reach his destination (Julia). Faye is out of her element; alternatively, swimming in debt. Jet’s life is unfulfilled as long as he surrounds himself with people who cannot appreciate the things he enjoys.
SEE YOU, SPACE SAMURAI
Spike meets a literal Space Cowboy in episode 22, Cowboy Funk. Andy the Cowboy takes the rugged cowboy lifestyle to the extreme. He dresses as a cowboy, rides a horse everywhere, and talks with a “cowboy accent”. His incompetence irritates Spike to the point of outright aggression.
At the end of the episode, Andy is seen riding his trusty steed. However, his getup has changed. Gone are his boots, chaps, vest, and hat. In their place, Andy is dressed as a samurai. Interestingly, Jet comments that the cowboy schtick is unbelievable. He suggests that Andy should become a samurai. The comment could be interpreted within the culture of the creators. Romanticizing cowboy culture prioritizes Western culture over Eastern. The brief re-introduction of Andy as a samurai instantly prompts the viewers to think about space exploration with heavy samurai influences rather than the cowboy culture. Andy is somewhat presented as an alternate universe version of Spike.
ARE YOU LIVING IN THE REAL WORLD?
The Cowboy Bebop movie occurs near the end of the series before Faye, Ed, and Ein leave the team. The feature film deals with hallucinatory side effects like Mushroom Samba, but the ending card evokes introspection rather than humor. ARE YOU LIVING IN THE REAL WORLD? asks viewers to consider their perspective on event within their lives. Vincent is immune to a virus that kills those exposed. As a result of that immunity, he constantly sees hallucinations. Vincent is unable to tell reality from his dreams. Vincent is presented as confused and radicalized. It is hard to tell to what extent his viral exposure has driven him mad. Revenge and insanity are not a great combo.
At the end of the movie, two characters witness the same hallucinations: Faye and Spike. While Faye is driven by her uncertainty of her past, Spike is driven by revenge for past events. It is interesting to think about Spike’s last push to find and kill Vicious with the knowledge that he may not be able to fully separate dreams from reality. Asking this question this close to the end of the series also brings to mind the impact of the past on the present and future and how harmful it is to continue to dwell on unchangeable events. It also foreshadows an important moment between Spike and Faye in the final episode:
“Look at my eyes, Faye. One of them is a fake cause I lost it in an accident. Since then, I’ve been seeing the past in one eye, and the present in the other, so I thought I could only see patches of reality, never the whole picture.” (Real Folk Blues part 2)
SEE YOU COWGIRL. SOMEDAY, SOMEWHERE.
Episode 24 marks the last appearance of Ed. It is appropriate that she leaves at this moment, especially since the last two sessions of the series are extremely heavy and emotionally-driven. Ed is an unique character in Cowboy Bebop. She sticks out like a sore thumb. While the series is dark and gritty, Ed is a ray of light that just does not belong.
Ed carries many characteristics of autism spectrum disorder. The first impression, her clothes, are indicative of a sensory processing deficit. She has trouble wearing shoes, too. Ed spends the majority of her time on screen wearing flexible, comfortable clothes. Ed’s communication skills are lacking; she cannot consistently engage in reciprocal, meaningful conversation. Many of the things she says are echolalic, and she speaks in the third person. She speaks in the same manner to the Bebop crew and Ein. She does not always seem in touch with her emotions, and the reintroduction of her father into her life seems to make Ed respond with confusion over her feelings more than anything. Ed shows unusual sensory input (remember when she ate that thing in Toys in the Attic? Ugh.). Additionally, restrictive interests, patterns of movement, and hyper-focus are trademarks of autism spectrum disorder.
Showing how different Ed is from the crew represents just how different some people with autism feel when compared to their peers. Ed may be different, but she is confident in who she is and the life she wants to lead. The choice to leave the crew and start a new journey with Ein gives us hope that Ed will continue on her own path rather than ever conform to the bleak lives of the Bebop crew.
The ending card for Ed’s final episode, SEE YOU COWGIRL…SOMEDAY, SOMEWHERE refers back to the default card (SEE YOU SPACE COWBOY…) with the added emphasis on Ed’s journey continuing past the events of the final two episodes. Ed was spared the bleak ending and given hope instead.
YOU’RE GONNA CARRY THAT WEIGHT.
Break out the tissues. This is the moment we have been waiting for 26 sessions, the moment when everything in Spike’s life comes to a head. His past life with Spike and Julia are fleshed out in more detail. The emotional weight of Julia’s reappearance is all over Spike’s face as he cannot believe she’s in front of him. The impact of his past involvement with the Red Dragons haunts him at every corner. Spike has been running away for years, and he finally runs to his past to finally see if he is alive.
Spike running from his past is different from Faye’s and Jet’s. Jet moves on to become a better person, to continue taking in criminals and bringing peace to the galaxy. Faye runs from her past because it is unknown. Spike runs from his past because he knows it too well and knows he may be unable to survive it. His life weighs on him in ways that the others do not understand, in part because he does not share his burden with others. It is only after the reintroduction of Julia that Spike realizes that he must finally confront his past head on.
Spike’s final moments in the series are heartbreaking. He risks it all to defeat Vicious, the man he helped create and did not stop. He must finally accept the weight of his past. Spike’s face, before he falls over, shows a man that is genuinely happy and no longer troubled by his inner turmoil.
That is the view if you think Spike dies at the end of the series.
Some fans believe that Spike merely passes out, in which the ending card has another meaning. With Vicious, Julia, Shin, and the three previous leaders dead, Spike is obvious choice to lead the Red Dragons. Spike has shown no interest in returning much less leading the gang. YOU’RE GONNA CARRY THAT WEIGHT could mean that Spike is able to face whatever is thrown his way with Vicious out of his path.
Personally, I see the ending as a mantra, a realization that you can face your burdens successfully. Your well-being may be in the balance, but you are able to fix the pain you have caused. If you die, you die knowing that you were able to change the world before you left it.
Cowboy Bebop presents viewers with a hectic mix of characters that, on the surface, do not mix well together. When presented in the right context, they play off each other in ways that propels the entire ensemble forward. The ending cards, seemingly insignificant parting thoughts, cue viewers into the important parts of the characters and the series.