Thursday, August 16, 2018

Lessons and the Alien

Several episodes of Cowboy Bebop are homages to specific genres. One of my favourites of those episodes, and of the series in general, is the horror homage in the eleventh episode. But it isn't simply a stand alone piece that uses the characters to tell an entertaining story referencing a certain kind of film (primarily Alien). It builds on the characters and the show's overall philosophy and it's the first episode to feature the entire crew without focusing on a single character.

Session Eleven: Toys in the Attic

The title is likely a reference to "The Trial" by Pink Floyd since many episode titles refer to songs or music but the expression "toys in the attic", meaning crazy, pre-dates the song. Featured on The Wall, the song is about an individual whose perspective is at odds with an oppressive culture. What can this have to do with a story about what Edward (Aoi Tada) dubs a "mysterious alien" that stalks and incapacitates the crew one by one? Well, the concept of alternate perspectives used to navigate reality is very much a part of the story and we see how well each character's perceptive, stated in the form of "Lessons", equips them to respond to the menace. Each one ends up being miniaturised versions of the character's overall story throughout the series.

The first lesson comes from Jet (Unsho Ishizuka) after he's lost his clothes to Faye (Megumi Hayashibara) playing Cho-han in a sort of fan service turnabout. "Humans were meant to work and sweat for their money after all. Those that try to get rich quick or live at the expense of others, all get divine retribution somewhere along the way. That is the lesson." Then he adds, "But one thing about humans is that they quickly forget the lessons they just learned." This might be Jet's way of accounting for the fact that he so often breaks from his professed hardline morality. Not just in gambling with Faye but in constantly caring for precisely the misfits he claims deserve "divine retribution".

Very quickly afterwards, we hear Faye's lesson, hers naturally having more weight as she has emerged victor in her contest with Jet. His lesson is stated in direct contradiction to the fact that Faye, at least in this instance, has won doing precisely the sort of thing he says you shouldn't do. "'Survival of the fittest' is the law of the land," she tells us. "To fool and to be fooled is the reason we live. I've never had anything good happen to me when I trust others." When we learn more about her a few episodes later we'll see it makes a lot of sense she's of this opinion. Her lesson is also directly framed in terms of perspective, to "fool and be fooled" is all that matters. As she tells Spike (Koichi Yamadera), she believes being able to see through cheats is simply part of the skill involved in a game so she doesn't feel any guilt about using a magnetic anklet to cheat Jet. Even the fact that she's so often the subject of fan service fits in this philosophy--and her outfits and strategies confirm that she is very deliberate in utilising her appearance to manipulate others. But ultimately, this philosophy, as in her overall story in the series, is not enough to see her through.

Then we get Edward's lesson as the younger girl explores the ship, trying to find the elusive creature whose bite has rendered Jet and Faye comatose. "Lesson, lesson . . . if you see a stranger, follow him!" The original line in Japanese, "教訓、教訓。知らない人にあんたらついてきましょう", does not specify gender, literally translated it means "Lesson, lesson . . . let's follow the stranger." The word for stranger in Japanese is "知らない人" which combines "知らない", "I don't know", with "人", person. In other words, let's follow the person of the unknown. Edward's lesson is unique in that it makes no reference to prior knowledge or experience and embraces a lack of knowing. Edward's lesson is also unique in that it's the only one that definitively assures her survival. She proves Faye's point that life is "survival of the fittest" and it's also another case of defining reality through interpretation. The creature, which is a quick moving little black blob, is finally defeated when it wanders too close to a sleeping Edward who, still asleep, grabs it, calls it "Manju", a food, and swallows it. This literally demonstrates the Darwinian concept--whatever strategy allows one animal to safely eat another counts as a win. The key difference between Edward and Faye's philosophy is that Edward buys into her own asserted configuration of reality while Faye's deliberately sets up a barrier between the maker of an illusion and the audience or victim. Edward dreams the creature is food and she eats it, thereby making the impression a reality for the creature as well.

Though in contrast we have a humorous moment earlier in the episode where Spike tries out a remedy on Jet which apparently stinks--Faye says it smells like "a rag soaked in milk left to spoil" while Spike says it smells more like "rotten soy beans", two perspectives that do nothing to improve Jet's reality or appetite.

Finally, there's Spike's lesson; "You shouldn't leave things in the fridge." As usual for Spike, there's a certain cool understatement in the line. The previous lessons take on a new meaning when we think back to the theme already introduced in Spike's story--what separates human beings from beasts? Does anything? Is it all just "survival of the fittest"? Spike finally remembers that he's left a lobster in a storage fridge a year ago and totally forgotten about it. He opens the door and in an inspired combination of effective comedy and effective Lovecraftian horror we catch a glimpse of some kind of wild, weird growth of sea life within. Significantly, we never learn for sure if this mutated lobster has anything at all to do with the creature. It's an interpretation Spike comes up with and accepts, and he might as well because he's not likely ever to get a better one. But unlike Edward, the experience reminds Spike that things must be confronted that aren't necessarily pleasant. Though if he'd eaten the lobster right away, like Edward immediately ate the manju, everything would've been fine. You can't always put things on ice and expect them to be what you want them to be later, everything keeps growing and changing. Edward, who remains a child throughout the series, never has to face this problem, but Spike most certainly will again.


This entry is part of a series of entries I’m writing on Cowboy Bebop for its 20th anniversary. I’m reviewing each episode individually. My previous episode reviews can be found here:

Session One
Session Two
Session Three
Session Four
Session Five
Session Six
Session Seven
Session Eight
Session Nine
Session Ten

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