The Power of Three: Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop is one of those things that’s so unique in construction that it’s hard to see the pieces it’s built out of. That’s one of the reasons it’s brilliant.

But it is built out pieces, no matter how brilliantly they’re disguised. For instance, you have to look at it a lot (a pleasure, let me tell you) to figure out that the plot is Tragedy. You don’t have to look hard to see Spike is the main character, but you have to watch twice to be sure the story is really only about him. You stare at it and stare at it and after a while it dawns on you that Ed and Ein don’t really do anything.

Seriously, you know Julia has a greater influence on the plot than Ed, right?

There’s still something going on with Spike, Jet, and Faye, though, that bothers me. They’re clearly a stable group of three.

Now, you can be a stable group of three without being one of the trope trios. Like, here are a few they are NOT:

Eternal triangle
Father, mother, child
Princess, protector, protagonist
Hero, sidekick, girlfriend
Mind, body, soul

You can try to make some of them fit, but when you do they slip between your fingers. Spike and Jet are Hero and Sidekick, but Faye? Girlfriend? Don’t make me laugh. And she’s not a Princess, either, so don’t go there.

The guys aren’t hot for her and she’s not hot for them, so forget the Eternal Triangle. I tried at least three times to force them into Mind, Body, and Soul, but whenever I thought I had it figured out someone would slip away. Like this: Jet is the smart one, the guy who keeps track of the money and contracts and stuff (Mind). Spike’s does all the active stuff and fights like Bruce Lee (Body). But Faye slips away again. Faye the emotional driver of the group? She’s more like a duplicate Spike.

That was what finally put me on it. Faye is, in terms of the relationships on the ship, is more like a duplicate Spike, except that his physical strength is his fighting style and her physical strength is that spectacular body.

But watch the two of them together: They bicker and tease each other; they race to catch the same bounties; they fly their ships to cooperate when they need to or to compete when they want to.

There’s the really telling moment after Spike has escaped Vicious and is lying in the hospital. He wakes from unconsciousness. Faye is sitting at his side, waiting for him to waken, singing quietly to herself. She actually sings quite well, but what does he tell her? That her singing sucks. His teasing is MERCILESS.

Does that look like a familiar pattern? It should. You know what it is?

Sibling rivalry.

That works, right? Brother and sister. In fact, since for almost all of the series Faye could have as easily been a boy, sure, brothers-in-arms.

And you know what that makes Jet, and that works, too: He’s the parent. And he is. Jet’s the stable one, right? The person who keeps track of the money, the one who cooks and cleans, the one who stays home in the Bebop while the kids run out and play, er, hunt bounties. He’s the one that is stable, that warns them to be careful out there.

Parent and siblings. That’s who they are.

I think the reason it’s hard to see that pattern because they are so few stable parent figures in anime, especially stable parent figures with multiple children that play large roles in the story. I mean, if you really try you can sort of force Shinji Ikari and Rey Ayanami into a sibling relationship, but Gendo is such a dick he’s not really either of their parents.

Elsewhere you see single parent with single child. Sachiko and Satoru from Erased. Sojiro and Konata from Lucky Star. Yasuko and Ryuji from Toradora. Kamon and Naota from FLCL. It’s been frickin’ years since I thought about Speed Grapher, but there you’ve got Shinsen and Kagura.

But stable, single parents with multiple children? And especially multiple children who get equal air time? I did think of one set: Yaeko Nishimiya and her daughters Shoko and Yuzuru from A Silent Voice. But as siblings Shoko and Yuzuru aren’t rivals; instead, Yuzuru has set herself up as Shoko’s protector.

But generally that pattern is really just too stable to be interesting, unless it isn’t real. Spike and Faye aren’t REALLY Jet’s kids. Of course. Obviously. But those are the social roles they play, and it works. It works because Spike and Faye can go out and do crazy kid stuff while Jet (in the Bebop) provides a stable home, a place they can go back to when it’s time to wrap up the story, someone to take care of them and kiss their boo boos.

It was a really smart call, too. By making Spike and Faye the equivalent of siblings, what that does is take the elements of sexuality and romance out of their relationship. Faye as a character required that, demanded it. If Spike and Faye were romantically united, the three would fall into the far more familiar pattern of Hero-Sidekick-Girlfriend. That would reduce Faye to girlfriend, and if that’s all she was, she wouldn’t be Faye Valentine anymore.

The three of them form a stable triad. We knew they did. We could feel it as we watched the show. We just couldn’t figure out how it worked.

Okay, I couldn’t figure out how it worked. Color me stupid. But why didn’t anyone tell me? Parent and siblings. Yeah, that works.

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.

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