Although we’re still 53 years away from the culture-melting, planet-hopping 2071 in which the show is set, last month marked 20 years since the premiere of the anime classic Cowboy Bebop. The show spawned a generation of creators who regularly cite its influence, including colon aficionados Bryan Konietzko (Avatar: The Last Airbender co-creator) and Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi director). Even so, in the two decades since the world first saw Bebop, there’s still never been anything quite like it.
Cowboy Bebop is (rightfully) most remembered for its wild blend of genres and styles, due in large part to the eclectic soundtrack by Yoko Kanno. A typical sequence might go something like this: after a fragmented, dramatic film-noir flashback, the ragtag crew of bounty hunters has a western-style standoff with their quarry, before jumping into spaceships for a laser-fight chase-scene set to a manic jazz tune. It’s as confident as its iconic opening credits, which declare “the work, which will become a new genre itself, will be called COWBOY BEBOP.”
Less crucial to the show’s legacy, but beloved by its fans, are Bebop’s characters. Along for the ride on the Bebop (an old hunk-of-junk spaceship) are Jet, the hardened-yet-fatherly ex-cop, Ed, the eccentric wiz-kid hacker, and Ein, the genetically modified corgi. It’s an ensemble piece to be sure, but the ostensible protagonist is Spike, the endlessly cool former crime syndicate member whose occasional bluntness is more than made up for by his proficiency with guns and spaceships. An ace pilot and a trained killer, Spike has left his past (including his nemesis/rival, Vicious, and the one that got away, Julia) behind. Or has he?
Director Shinichiro Watanabe and writer Keiko Nobumoto clearly intended for Bebop to be framed around the tale of the green-haired, mysterious Spike. A series of intense, backstory-laden episodes are placed at crucial points in the show’s 26 episode run. Episodes 5, 12-13, and 25-26 are about Spike’s past life catching up to him, and the show’s final image is intended to bring both Spike’s story and the series as a whole to a close.
But – and I know you were waiting for the but – what about the Faye Valentine of it all? The final remaining member of the Bebop crew, herself a more complicated mix of archetypes than any of the other characters, is in fact as close as this show gets to a main character. Though history (and to a certain extent, maybe even the show’s writers themselves) refuses to admit it, Faye’s story is the most complex and impactful aspect of Bebop’s narrative.
Bebop is set in 2071, where the existence of a hyperspace gate has allowed humans to populate Mars, Venus and the moons of Jupiter. Decades prior, during the gate’s initial construction, a devastating explosion destroyed Earth’s moon and turned humanity’s home planet into an apocalyptic wasteland. Spike and Jet, who in past lives were on opposite sides of the law, teamed up to chase criminals across the solar system and cash in on their bounties.
We meet Faye in episode three, “Honky Tonk Women.” A gambler with deep debts to the wrong people, she’s enlisted to facilitate the transfer of a valuable computer program, covertly placed inside a poker chip. When Spike, coincidentally at the same casino, bumbles his way into the middle of the plan, things go awry, and Spike and Jet end up kidnapping Faye, learning she has a bounty on her head. From its very beginnings, Spike and Faye’s relationship is a flirtatious one. Their playful competition in this episode is capped off by Spike muttering to himself, “she beat me again,” as Faye escapes off into space with all of the money.
The gang runs into Faye again in the following episode, “Gateway Shuffle.” Floating helplessly in space after her ship runs out of fuel, Faye is again captured by Spike and Jet. They soon become entangled in a plot by an eco-terrorist group to turn all of the inhabitants of Ganymede into monkeys via a specially crafted virus. In the episode’s edge-of-your-seat climax, Faye offers to bail Spike out and save their tails if set free; she and Spike ultimately make a narrow, top-speed escape into a closing hyperspace gate.
Here, in the end of episode four, is where we get a first clue about Faye. After her and Spike’s close shave, she returns voluntarily to the Bebop, where she casually and brightly encourages the crew: “we’ll get the next one,” she says, before deciding to take a shower. “Is she saying what I think she’s saying?” Spike asks. Without much fanfare or any real opposition, Faye adds herself to the group.
At this point in the run, any viewer would be forgiven for seeing Faye as nothing but a newly-added side character. The next episode, “Ballad of Fallen Angels,” almost seems to confirm this, by dipping into Spike’s troubled history and relegating Faye to a damsel-in-distress situation. And for a while, Faye pretty much is just a side character, joining the gang on missions and chiming in with sardonic comments. But before we get into what makes Faye such an important piece of the Bebop puzzle, we have to address the scantily clad elephant in the room.
The way female characters are drawn and animated is the original sin of anime: present from the start, and still damning movies and shows to this day. Countless works that are otherwise masterpieces of this uniquely visual medium are marred, often beyond redemption, by the sexism running throughout them. I’m thinking specifically of the Gainax/Trigger family, whose inventive shows Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gurren Lagann, and Kill la Kill all view their young female characters through a deeply fetishized lens.
2013’s Kill la Kill is perhaps the most complex and interesting example of this, as it purports to directly address and engage with these criticisms. It’s a show where clothing itself is the battleground, and the ridiculously scant schoolgirl uniforms are super-powered fighting enhancers. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg situation, where defenders of the series will claim that its gratuitous near-nudity is a meta-commentary on the medium itself. Plus, the guys get naked too! Does that sort of narrative and thematic lamp-shading give the animators a free pass to spend 26 episodes portraying high school girls in increasingly lewd situations? That’s probably a discussion for another article, but suffice it to say, it seems like an uphill battle to argue that Kill la Kill is able to comment on sexist anime culture without also benefiting from it.
Fifteen years earlier, Cowboy Bebop used Faye Valentine as its resident object of exploitation. The camera repeatedly takes a slow tilt upward to show her body in full, an absurdly on-the-nose example of the cinematic male gaze. While anime style is probably the driving force here, the stew of Bebop’s filmic influences also contributes. Faye’s character draws partially from the archetypical film noir femme fatale, who uses her feminine charm to get one over on male characters. More often, though, her attempts fail, such as in the episode “Heavy Metal Queen,” where she accidentally seduces the wrong man, allowing her bounty to escape.
Especially when viewed in the broader context of anime’s portrayal of women, Faye’s visual treatment is one of a few low points that complicate Bebop’s legacy. However, on a story and character level, she is not the victim of the dismissive stereotyping or sidelining that has plagued female characters for all of film history. The series does not look down on her in the way so many movies and shows do, and this very well could be thanks to Bebop’s female head writer, Keiko Nobumoto. Faye’s personal story, as it unfolds in the latter half of the show’s run, is the show’s strongest character work.
We see hints of Faye’s restless nature in the episodes prior, but the first important Faye storyline comes in the show’s big midpoint two-parter, “Jupiter Jazz.” It begins with Faye cleaning out the Bebop’s safe before jetting, abandoning her crewmates. She lands on Callisto, in a town with no women, and wanders the cold streets by herself, inviting the city’s men to try and attack her. Her goal is to “blow off some steam,” and she casually puts on gloves while preparing to beat the shit out of a group of men who’ve cornered her, lest she “chip a nail.”
She ends up meeting Gren, a saxophonist from a local bar whose own past intersects with Spike’s, via their mutual frenemy, Vicious. Gren’s story, one of involuntary hormone manipulation and gender transition, ought to be the subject of all sorts of discussions, but is way too much for us to get into here today. For Faye, though, Gren serves as a sort of therapist. Faye vents to him about her crewmates: “I don’t need any comrades … instead of feeling alone in a group, it’s better to have real solitude all by yourself. When I’m dealing with them, I swear, it’s nothing but trouble.” Gren, apparently not one to mince words, cuts straight to it: “you were just afraid they’d abandon you. So you abandoned them.”
Throughout “Jupiter Jazz,” Spike fervently chases a half-hearted lead to Julia, his lost love. It turns out “Julia” was just a code name used by Vicious for a drug deal, and in the end, both Spike and Faye return to the Bebop, dejected and unfulfilled. Faye has a wistful look as she thinks about Julia, the woman who possesses Spike so.
Having seemingly accepted that she has nowhere else to go, Faye stays with the crew, and in episode 15, “My Funny Valentine,” we finally hear her backstory. An interesting note – this episode is spent mostly in direct flashback, whereas all of Spike’s flashbacks throughout the show are fragmented, black and white montages. It’s a choice, no doubt, to hold Spike’s history at a distance, playing into the dark, film noir vibes of Spike’s mysterious past. But spending real time with Faye in flashback really helps invest us in her story and gives her decisions a meaningfulness missing from Spike’s.
In “My Funny Valentine,” we finally learn that Faye’s memory begins when she was awoken from a cryogenic slumber. Having no idea who or where she is, she’s told that she was the victim of a spaceflight accident 54 years ago, when she was 20. The medical technology of the time was not sufficient to save her, so they put her in a freeze, and woke her up in the year 2068. On top of that bombshell, Faye is told that she owes the medical service over three hundred million woolongs for her revival.
Only one man is kind to her during this earth-shaking revelation – her lawyer, Witney Hagas Matsumoto. He promises to help her through this time, and set up a plan so that she can eventually pay off the debt. However, in the end, he fakes his own death and wills all of his own debts to her, increasing her total to an astronomical number. This is the origin of Faye’s epic debt, as well as of Faye’s inability to trust and preference toward working alone. She’s spent the past three years running away from debt collectors, forming a personality as a criminal gambler escape artist, all while still having no memory of her prior life.
Three scenes, spread across the last nine episodes, form the heart of Faye’s personal revelation. In “Speak Like a Child,” a mysterious package is delivered to the Bebop. Refusing to pay Jet back for the charges on the package, Faye leaves, and Spike and Jet decide to try and hawk the package’s contents to make their money back. It contains a strange object that Spike and Jet don’t recognize – a video tape. They go to great lengths, eventually including visiting a “technology museum” on the ruined planet Earth, to find a device that will play the tape. After a mishap involving the difference between VHS and Betamax tapes, they finally acquire one, plug it in, and insert the tape.
It’s a home video showing a younger, early-teenaged Faye, giggling with her friends. It shows glimpses of a mer-lion fountain (familiar to present-day viewers as a famous Singapore landmark), and we learn that the young Faye made the tape as a message to her future self. It’s one of Bebop’s most poignant, powerful scenes. Faye is given a look at a past life she can’t touch, seeing and hearing a version of herself that seems like a different person entirely.
The second of the three crucial scenes takes place in the show’s third-to-last episode, “Hard Luck Woman.” It begins with Faye watching the video tape, pausing it, trying to remember. Ed (the young girl computer genius weirdo) claims to recognize the fountain in the video, saying she’ll take Faye there.
In Singapore, Faye looks out over the ruins of the city. An old woman approaches her in a wheelchair, and is shocked to see Faye, her former classmate, who has not aged in the sixty years since they’d seen each other. When Faye struggles to recall her, a child runs up the hill toward the old woman, triggering a flash of memory in Faye. She sees herself running up a similar hill as a young child. Faye returns to the ship, on the verge of remembrance. Then:
The home and family and memory that Faye had sought to reclaim was already lost. She had gotten her identity back, but to no avail. Did she know, deep down, that this would have always been the result? Just as her past had been erased from her memory, any trace of it has been erased from the world. No one in this show, including Spike, faces a tragedy this sharp: in the space of one day, to be given the gift of 20 years of family and friends, and then to have the cold reality set in – everyone from that time is gone.
“Hard Luck Woman” is undeniably one of the series’ best episodes. In parallel to Faye’s loss, Ed re-discovers her father, and sets out to find him at the end of the episode. “Belonging is the very best thing there is,” Faye had told Ed earlier in the episode, and so she left, because she had something to find. Faye had something to find, but she had the misfortune of actually finding it, and having it crumble to ash in her hands.
Bebop‘s two-part finale focuses primarily on Spike, Julia, and Vicious. But Faye’s last scene with Spike, in the final episode, “The Real Folk Blues, Part 2,” might be the show’s most heartbreaking moment.
Julia has already been killed, and Spike is about to leave the Bebop to face Vicious one last time. Jet fails to convince him to turn back, and as Spike enters the hallway to leave, a gun is pointed at his head.
It’s Faye’s final appearance in the show. The family she sought is gone, and now the family she unknowingly built throughout the course of the show is falling apart as well. She’s too late to hold it together. Her Point Break bullets into the Bebop’s ceiling are pure, futile agony.
This is why Faye’s story is the story of Cowboy Bebop. If one were to summarize the whole series’ plot into a sentence, it might be this: a crew of lost wanderers end up together, but only for a time, and then they go their separate ways. That joining and separation is felt most strongly by Faye, who spent the entire run of episodes searching for a place to belong. When her personal tragedy came to its end and she realized that she had no family or life to discover, she also made another realization: her real home was the place she had left and continually returned to, the Bebop. And her real family was the Bebop crew, Jet, Edward, Ein, and Spike. Then Ed leaves to find her father, taking Ein with her, and Spike goes off to face his oldest enemy, at peace with the knowledge that doing so will kill him.
Bebop is obsessed with examining the ways in which the past comes back to haunt the present. Jet’s cybernetic arm is a constant reminder of his former life as a cop, and in one episode, he re-encounters the very criminal who was to blame for his injury. Spike’s one fake eye serves the same purpose. Having lost his eye in the battle that allowed him to fake his death and escape the crime syndicate, his replacement eye is a slightly lighter shade of brown. “Ever since then, I’ve been seeing the past in one eye, and the present in the other,” Spike tells Faye in their final meeting. She’s the only one who can fully empathize with his situation, which is why his decision to leave despite her pleas is the perfect, awful coda to Faye’s tale.
Although Bebop is and should be a standalone series, the only sequel I’d ever be interested in would focus on Faye’s life after the finale. Left on the Bebop are Faye and Jet, bound by their shared loss. Would she stay, committing to the only family member she has left? Or would she slip comfortably back into her pattern of rudderless wandering, again seeking the connections she has repeatedly lost? The 24-year-old 77-year-old, both figuratively and literally an old soul, who found something and lost it. Where would she go?
I’d say that there’s no chance of a direct, animated sequel series, but in today’s IP-starved landscape, you never know. FLCL, another influential cult anime series, is being brought back to life this year after finishing its original run in 2001. The new seasons will be co-produced by Adult Swim, the network that deserves most of the credit for the lasting and growing legacy of these anime series in the United States. The very first anime series that Adult Swim aired, on the night of its launch, was Cowboy Bebop.
Another potential outcome hovers threateningly, however. After years of rumors of a live action, Keanu Reeves-starring Bebop film adaptation, that project seems to have died. But last year, it was announced that a new live action television series adaptation was in the works. Chris Yost, a writer on Thor 2: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok (how those two movies could be even partially written by the same person, I don’t know) is on board to write the series. Yost is a veteran of animated television writing, at least, having cut his teeth on shows like Wolverine and the X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (although Bebop is far from standard fare in that regard). Sunrise, the studio that created and produced the original series, is involved in the adaptation, if only in an executive production capacity.
Live action adaptations of classic anime series are coming fast and furious these days, and the results have been pretty sketchy. Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson, was at the center of a whitewashing controversy that also grew to envelope Netflix’s Death Note movie. Both projects were critical failures. Though Netflix is famously secretive about its numbers, Ghost in the Shell also proved a box office flop. And while Cowboy Bebop is an explicitly multicultural show starring a character named Spike Spiegel, the odds don’t seem great that Faye Valentine will be cast as someone who was born in Singapore in 1994, which she was. If Major Motoko Kusanagi can be twisted into the shape of Scarlett Johansson, then a character named Faye Valentine doesn’t stand a chance.
Whatever comes next in the Bebop world will undoubtedly be the subject of intense scrutiny from all angles. Personally, I’ll try to ensure peace of mind by keeping my expectations extremely, incredibly low. I’ll only offer one piece of advice to the unlucky people tasked with reviving this singular show: to understand Faye Valentine is to understand Cowboy Bebop. Ignore her at your own peril.