Once again, I am blogging the Blog of Shame for not re-watching with you more reliably. As penance, I’m offering you a two-fer: the entire “Jupiter Jazz” series in one post!
The two “Jupiter Jazz” episodes mark the season one finale and season two premiere of Cowboy Bebop. (In Japan, a traditional season length for an anime series is thirteen episodes.) They’re the fulcrum episodes of the series. As such, they return to the series’ most important plot, the one that gives the entire show its theme: Spike’s past, the hold it has over him, and its impact on his future. Along the way, they illustrate the importance of comradeship to each of the major characters. The bonds that hold our disparate crew together are more powerful than even they can know or comprehend, and these episodes highlight that unspoken strength in sharp relief.
The episode opens much as the pilot did, with Old Bull meditating. The child sitting with him mentions a shooting star, and Old Bull tells the boy that this was no ordinary star, but the “tear of a warrior,” a signal from a lost soul morning the fact that his duties were unfulfilled before his journey came to its end.
Cut to a group of very swishy ships, where Vicious is meeting with the top generals of the Red Dragon clan. In stark contrast to the Three Old Guys who appear as a running gag throughout the rest of the series, they’re three identical old men wearing old-fashioned Chinese imperial robes, seated on daises behind delicate veils. They’re also very worried about what happened to Mao Yenrai in “Battle of Fallen Angels.” They seem to know that Vicious was behind Mao’s murder, although when asked he answers with a question about why he would kill his mentor. All three men agree that Vicious is “colder than the eye of a snake about to strike,” but he’s also about to do a major drug deal on Callisto (the second largest moon of Jupiter), and they must really need the revenue. They let him go with a warning: “Remember, Vicious: a snake cannot eat a dragon.”
He walks out smiling.
Aboard the Bebop, Spike wakes from a seeming nightmare, soaked in sweat. Faye has stolen the anti-freeze necessary for the ship to cool itself, as well as the contents of the ship safe, and has skipped out. She left a note begging Spike and Jet not to look for her, but Jet wants his cash back and he’s got Ed on the case. Ed is looking at all the transmissions leaving the nearest port, Callisto, and finds one code-named “Julia.”
Spike loses it.
“It’s a common woman’s name,” Jet tries to say, but Spike is already grabbing a ridiculous puffy coat (more on that later) and cramming himself inside the Swordfish II. “I’m gonna go look for my woman,” Spike say. “You can look for the other one.”
Whoever Julia is, she still has a mighty strong hold on Spike. And that hold, which Spike refuses to explain but which still controls his most important decisions, finally drives a wedge between him and Jet. Jet turns into everybody’s over-protective dad, telling Spike that if he leaves now he can’t come back, and that at least he’ll be able to keep some food in the place now, and that all this time he thought Spike was the one who was lonely. He’s clearly haranguing Spike just to keep him around a little longer, because he doesn’t know if he’ll ever see him again. It’s one of the rare glimpses we have into Jet’s heart, and it turns out that heart is very soft and very big, with enough room for a self-destructive maniac like Spike to fit inside. His ranting exposes all the tensions that have undergirded his relationship with Spike over the past three years: all the things he could not or would not say to his affectedly goofy partner. Spike smiles softly, as though he understands this, and then he takes off.
On Callisto, Faye is sitting at a bar called the Rester House listening to a very beautiful man play a saxophone. We learn that the man playing, Gren, is naturally quite popular with the few women who spend any time on Callisto, which is a frozen wasteland of parkas and Soviet architecture. Spike decides to find Gren, but Gren is busy rescuing Faye, who has attracted some predatory male attention. It’s worth noting that inside of an hour on Callisto, both Spike and Faye find themselves embroiled in fights: Faye with possible rapists, and Spike with a group of men who want to interrupt a drug deal they’ve heard is going down—Vicious’s drug deal.
My major criticism of this episode is that it hinges on far too many coincidences. Callisto is the same size as Mercury, but apparently the terraformers only bothered to plant one town on its surface, and that town is the size of Lake Woebegone and everyone knows everyone else’s business. Later, we learn an important piece of information because of a well-timed phone message and a photograph on a wall. (Really? A printed photograph? And an answering machine? It’s 2071, and the series was made in 1998. No excuse.) Moreover, we’re expected to believe that this one time Spike heard the name “Julia,” he thought it worth barrelling out of the Bebop. If he thought Julia was traveling under her own name, shouldn’t he have been pinging every network from here to Titan for that information? Couldn’t he have given Ed that task, the way Jet did with Faye? He’s a bounty hunter, you know. His whole job is finding people. So either there’s nobody else in the solar system named Julia, or Spike never looks for her, or every time he finds a Julia he flies off the handle. None of it reconciles with the internal logic of the series whatsoever, and while it’s a beautiful story it’s also one that rests on a narrative house of cards. Look too closely to it, breathe on it wrong, and the whole structure falls apart.
The coincidences keep piling up, because it turns out that not only does Gren have a big bounty on him for escaping a military prison once upon a time, but he was also going to sell Vicious the lunar Red Eye in that drug deal. Spike learns the latter from the guy he pummels when a) he says “Julia” sounds like a cheap tart’s name, and b) he mistakes Spike for Vicious. It’s actually a really lovely fight scene, with Spike taking on over five guys in a snow backalley, and utterly demolishing them in a rage-fueled feat of prowess.
As Spike directs his frustration outward, Faye focuses it inside during her conversation with Gren at his place. He serves her a hot vodka and water, and she opens up about why she left the Bebop: “I end up worrying about things I shouldn’t. You know, me being such a prize, and all.”
“You were afraid they might leave you,” Gren counters, “so you left them first.”
Cut to the ill-fitting jacket Faye’s been wearing this whole episode: a dark brown corduroy number with a lambswool lining. Remember when I said that I would bring up Spike’s puffy pink coat? Well, Mr. Ashby and I have developed a theory about it, and why Spike wears it: Faye stole his other jacket when she left the ship. Check out this picture of Spike from the flashback clips in the end credits. Now look at this one of Faye on Callisto. Here she is again. Look at that lambswool. Doesn’t that jacket belong to Spike? Why else would we cut to the jacket at least three times, unless it were telling us something important about the nuances of the dialogue? Faye’s words take on a whole other meaning when you consider that she stole the jacket. So does her note, begging not to be chased. Was this Faye’s attempt at sticking gum in Spike’s hair? Did she want to piss him off just enough for him to follow her and have it out in an impassioned knock-down-drag-out-pants-off fight? More on that theory later.
Faye may or may not have a thing for Spike, but at the moment she has bigger problems to worry about: Vicious leaves a message on Gren’s machine, telling Gren when and where to meet him. Most people would run at this point, but Faye takes out her gun and demands answers...while Gren is in the shower. Turns out there’s more to Gren than meets the eye: his imbalanced hormones have given him breasts.
And now, a moment about Gren’s sexuality. Gren tells Faye when they first meet that he’s not interested in women. This is not the same thing as saying you’re gay. Nor is keeping the breasts you receive as a side-effect of medical testing inside a military prison, or keeping your hair long, or dressing as a woman to dupe the guy who utterly betrayed you and got you thrown into that military prison to begin with. (Oh, Vicious. You never met a pal you couldn’t screw over, did you?) Those elements might code Gren as feminine, but they may mean nothing to his sexuality in particular. When we really sense that he may have loved Vicious is when he tells the story of Vicious saving him from a scorpion and then giving him the wind-up mechanism from a music box during their tour of duty on Titan. Naturally, because this is Vicious, the music box was bugged and all part of Vicious’s plan to discredit Gren as a spy—possibly to throw the MP’s off his own scent. Who twigged Gren to this fact, years later? Julia.
Julia is also the subject of Spike’s reminiscences, after he meets up with Vicious and Vicious’s lieutenant, Lin. Vicious goads him, taunting him that “Julia was right here, you know, right here in this town.” Spike wants to continue their fight from the fifth episode, but Lin gets in the way and shoots him with a tranquilizer dart. Lost in the haze, Spike remembers more about Julia and Vicious: Julia telling him that “women are all liars,” and Vicious saying that he’s the only one who can let Spike live, and the only one who can kill him. Then we hear Spike asking Julia to come with him “when this is all over.”
Cut to a montage of Callisto’s icy surface against “Words That We Couldn’t Say,” a song uniquely appropriate to this episode. Jet has arrived on Callisto, and he offers Spike a chance to come back to the Bebop if he catches Gren. During his own search for Gren, he finds Faye, now handcuffed and hung over. “Oh,” she says, upon being rescued, “it’s you.” Her disappointment is almost palpable, and it’s basically confirmed when she asks who Julia is as Jet tows her zipcraft back to the ship. Jet seems to understand the finer points of emotional subtext by now, though, and asks if her leaving the Hammerhead and the Swordfish untouched was some sort of test. (Why yes, Jet, it probably was. Sadly, you were not the intended taker.)
Back on Callisto, Gren achieves closure with Vicious, anticipating his sudden but inevitable betrayal and kicking a suitcase full of C4 right back at him. “We were comrades,” he says. “I trusted you. I believed in you.” Vicious is quick to remind him that “There is nothing in this world to believe in,” which makes him sound more like one of the Nihilists from The Big Lebowski than a compelling villain. (Villains: they always ruin it by opening their mouths.) But as usual, Vicious gets away, and everyone else has to pay the price: Spike doesn’t manage to nab him, and Gren begs Spike to help him back into his craft so he can die on the way to Titan. Before that journey can begin, however, Spike asks about Julia. And it’s clear from Gren’s recollections that whatever may have happened between Spike and Julia, Julia still talked about him all the time, still remembered him fondly, still couldn’t get over him. “You must be him,” Gren says. “Your eyes are different colours. Julia said you get a funny feeling, when you look into them.”
That funny feeling must afflict everyone in Spike’s life, because when he sidles the Swordfish II up to the Bebop’s hull, Jet takes him back in. This is one of my favourite pieces of dialogue in the entire series:
Jet: “What are you bringing with you?”
Jet: “...Well, hurry up and get in. We’re about to take off.”
This moment illustrates exactly why the crew manages to stay together through all the hurt and failure and frustration. Spike, Jet, and Faye have nothing else, no one else, nowhere else to go. They have yawning voids at the cores of their being, empty spots where things like self-esteem and self-preservation are supposed to go, and when they’re together these gaps align and compensate for each other and make a functional unit. These are not healthy people. They are not well, or even particularly happy. But they are doing the very best that they can, for as long as they can, and in the end that kind of relationship is worth telling a story about even if it doesn’t end the way you think it should or the way most others do.
As though to remind us of these kinds of endings, we watch Old Bull make the same “tear of a warrior” speech that opened these two episodes. The credit sequence eschews “The Real Folk Blues” for “Space Lion,” and the end footer reads:
DO YOU HAVE A COMRADE?
Madeline Ashby will be at SFContario, if anyone wants to say hi. (There’s a Tor.com kaffeeklatsch!)