Okay, I think Cowboy Bebop is brilliant. And I think Cowboy Bebop is flawed.
Those beliefs don’t have to be inconsistent. What it says is that the strengths are so strong that they make the flaws easy to overlook. So, the facts that the ending is incomplete and some of the characters are not developed well (and those are facts) are drowned out, deluged, by the strengths of the series.
One strength is Shinichiro Watanabe’s direction. He is a spectacular director with amazing visual sense.
One strength is Yoko Kanno’s score. It’s brilliant and you know it’s brilliant. Can you listen to the opening theme (“Tank”) and not reach for the air bass guitar? And what is that crazed freaking instrument at the end? (A soprano saxophone.)
And one strength is the main character, Spike Spiegel. As a character he’s extraordinarily well constructed, in ways that give him real depth that resonates with viewers, and with history (or at least film history).
The name is Spike, Spike Spiegel.
So let’s figure this out. How do you make a Spike Spiegel?
When we look at characters, a quick way to start is by looking at three basic characteristics: looks, brains, and personality. That may be superficial and an easy road to take, but at the same time you have to start somewhere.
Spike is a handsome man. No, not just handsome: he’s drop dead gorgeous, and I say that as a straight guy who watched the series once just to see if Faye’s costume ever slipped. (In the movie it turns out that her clothing defies physics to protect her modesty.)
He has classic features, piercing eyes, great hair, and great clothes. Whoever designed him needs a prize for something.
He is also skilled physically. We see him practicing martial arts numerous times, plus he fights in a number of episodes. And he’s not just good…he knows he’s good. He smartmouths his opponents, taunting them as he whups their asses, Muhammed Ali with Jeet Kune Do moves.
At the same time his physical nature is flawed. As smartass and self-confident as he is, in episode five he meets Vicious and ends up in the hospital. He gets his ass kicked by Mas Pierrot in episode 20. And one of his eyes is slightly different in color from the other: he lost one in a fight and has an artificial eye. He is not invincible. The flaws create a narrative tension inside his portrayal as a physical hero.
And a physical hero he is. Let’s be frank. When we get to the brains dimension, well, Spike’s clearly not stupid. He’s witty and articulate, quick on the uptake, and has decent analytic skills.
At the same time he’s clearly dumber than a rock in certain ways. Did you ever notice that neither Spike nor Jet nor Faye ever figures out that Ein is a data dog worth millions of woolongs? Despite the fact that they regularly watch that TV show that says he’s worth millions of woolongs?
In the first episode Spike seems to be unaware that while he’s earned a substantial bounty, he’s used it all up destroying property. It implies certain holes in his mental processing and specifically his ability to judge risk and reward. This pervades the series. He makes crazy risks for financial rewards that don’t pay off, so they are always broke, and he never figures it out.
Notice the trend here: he’s really attractive but flawed. He’s really smart but flawed.
Now, how about personality?
He’s clearly the strongest personality of the Bebob crew, the alpha male of their herd. Jet is big enough to break Spike in half, but Jet always yields to Spike. Faye falls for him (not too hard, not too quickly, but by the end of the series she’s in love with him), but he leaves her behind to go to his death. In the first episode Katarina clearly loves him despite her association with Asimov.
Yeah, he’s cynical (I love it) and detached. He has a strong streak of IDGAS (I Don’t Give A Shit) that stretches from here to the asteroid belt. He’s a mercenary bounty hunter, and that implies a certain moral neutrality: “I don’t care who’s right or wrong so long as I get paid.”
But as a mercenary he’s flawed as well, and that is that he still has a sense of honor and it’s tied to the old gang he left behind. Ultimately, when Julia calls he comes running, and when Vicious seizes control of Spike’s old gang Spike has to redeem the honor of the gang.
Do you see what’s happened here? Spike is strong physically but beatable. He is bright intellectually but doesn’t see what’s in front of his face. He is detached emotionally but still wedded to his gang and Julia.
In every element of his character he is strong. That makes him a protagonist and a good one. He drives the story to completion and allows the viewer to identify with him.
But what makes him interesting is that while he’s strong in all three elements, he’s also flawed in all three elements. That creates tensions in him as a character, and since he’s the dominant member of the crew, it creates tensions in the show as well. Because he’s complex, with strengths and weaknesses that spread across the spectrum, you can’t quite be sure what he will do until he does it, or whether he will succeed if he does. And so, since many of the things that surround him are engaging – the other characters, the music, the setting, the visual sense – you wait to see what Spike will do, and when he does whatever it is, it makes sense and drives the series forward.
What a great, damned character, so appropriate to a great, flawed series.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.