For the first time in almost a year I was on the verge of tears. Of course something woefully traumatic wasn’t taking place in my life. These almost tears don’t come at those moments, instead they are always almost ridiculously attached to characters from movies that I watch.
It is slightly disturbing when one becomes accustomed to recognizing the coping strategies that we use. For me, the difficulties in my own life are displaced onto characters in films or tv shows that I identify with. So long as that character is alive in the chronology that I keep of it, my traumas will always be blunted in some way, as this attachment character remains unscathed. But, at some point if that chronology is damaged, if for example that character dies or suffers then the result is an overidentification with it. As I disidentified with my own trauma through my identification with this object, its trauma therefore becomes more than my own or its own. It becomes as the near tears revealed last night, almost overwhelming.
As a teen for example, I remember heavily identifying with the comic character Usagi Yojimbo created by Stan Sakai. My only knowledge of Usagi however came from the TPBs that the library in Hawai’i had. The library had a total of seven volumes. Me and my brothers eagerly requested all of the volumes and slowly they arrived, one after the other. Strangely enough they seemed to arrive in sequential order. The first, then the second. Third and fourth. The fifth. And finally the sixth. I loved Usagi’s character for a number of reasons, and was particularly touched by the story “Circles” from the sixth book.
It follows Usagi’s attempt to return home and start life over after his lord has died and he has wandered as a ronin for several years. Although he helps to save the son of his former love, Mariko and his childhood rival, he realizes that this place is no longer his home. Whatever life he could have had with Mariko is gone, destroyed because of both of their social commitments. Mariko tells Usagi that her son Jotaro is in reality his, and that he cannot stay in the village. It would be too difficult considering that Usagi’s rival has raised Jotaro as his own and the boy doesn’t know any different.
The final page has Usagi saying goodbye to Jotaro who has secretly met him on the road and given him some food to eat for his journey. After Jotaro has left, the final panel is a close up of Usagi’s face, looking down, shaded by the setting sun.
A truly mortal moment and one which stopped me and made me physically unable to read the next volume for fear that it would be the last one I would ever read, literally the end of Usagi. Of course thankfully, Stan Sakai continued to make Usagi well after that seventh volume, but everytime I read his comic I am nonetheless haunted by that moment and how its inevitability echoed in me.
So what was the drama last night that nearly brought me to tears? Over the past few days I’ve slowly made my way through all 26 episodes of Cowboy Bopeep (I’m fully aware that it is called Cowboy Bebop, but this is what I call it). I had seen the movie before and a few random episodes. But last night I finished it and saw the character, Spike Spiegel, through which I had formed a melancholic attachment “die” in episode 26.
One interesting aspect of Cowboy Bopeep is that the characters are actually developed when nothing happens. What I mean by this is that the distinction which Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex decided to make explicit when it named episodes either complex or stand alone is actually what makes this anime so ridiculously powerful for me at least.
For someone like me who is seeking a suitable object for melancholic attachment, the cowboys of Bebop would seem to be perfect. The characters actually actively resist development. They don’t share information, they hardly communicate, they remain devoted to ethical commitments beyond our frame of reference and sometimes it seems, beyond the characters themselves. Stand alone episodes take place and our understanding of these characters actually regresses constantly.
For example, over 25 episodes we are slowly nudged towards an understanding of Spike’s character as being driven by the signifier “Julia.” Spike is always a creature of drive, but the cool detachment through which we constantly view it is replaced when this name is mentioned and his drive then becomes hysterical, “Where is she? Where is she?” But, what happens in episode 26? We learn that a small, minute detail, which never seemed to have any impact at all, was in fact what has driven Spike all along, namely his fake eye. It wasn’t the loss of Julia that put Spike into his dream-like state of detachment, but it was the loss of his eye which forced him to deal with Julia in the way that he did. Why is his relationship to Julia the way it is? Because of the fear that she will lose the color he finds in her, that somehow the rain, the ballad of fallen angels, the grey of his dream like life will erase it some how, diminish it. That it will make that piece of reality that appears as the red in a rose will grey until it becomes like everything else. Moments like this take place throughout the 26 episodes, where the characters are continuously re-written, details which we felt we could take for granted, either become meaningless or suddenly full of meaning.
So at first glance, the characters appear extremely stable. Although they share the same space, they constantly resist admitting to this fact. Although they may share the same bounties, they continuously refuse to share information. Although we assume that they are forming relationships they nonetheless refuse to admit to this fact and even at the end when Faye is ready and willing to admit to this fact, Spike and Jet do not. They both adhere to that initial shared principle that our ethical commitments are never each others, but always til the end our own.
The last episode is especially intriguing because both Spike and Faye have lived through the past 26 episodes in a dream like state. Both of them ruled by obvious fears that should they commit to something, should they attempt to form something concrete in their lives (again!) they will no doubt wake up. Waking up in this sense however doesn’t mean being slapped in the face with harsh concrete reality, but instead the fading of their act back into this dreamlike state. To have their act, which could even just be something as simple as “I need you” or “I want you” or as the characters constantly try not to say, yet nevertheless do, “where are you?” or “where have you been?” become emptied somehow. To have the person with whom their desire for requires the act and also invests itself in dissipate slowly and become trapped between times, whether within the rift of Faye’s memories and lives or even between the gaze of Spike’s eyes. The fear of Jet becoming a just another bystrander or just another bountyhead keeps Jet from even becoming Jet.
In the final scene from Cowboy Bopeep: The Movie we see the fear of this act, when Spike is confronted with the elusive ephemereal butterflies of Vincent’s which float around his vision. The proof that the film follows the season is that Spike reaches out to the butterfly, that he is even in this minute moment willing to act to test the dream. Why this change? Because now that Spike has died, he knows that he truly lives. In his last words to Faye he makes it clear that only once he has killed Vicious can he truly live. This final stand off is the only thing that can test this dream, the only thing that can help him escape it (now that the hope that Julia represented as either failed or been lost).
The end of the film asks “Are you Living in the Real World?” indicating the shift, from questioning within the dream (“are you living in the dream world?) to now an assurance that although things may shift, Spike is now within the real world, his ability to act is once again assured. He can at last break his attachment to the vision that his fake eye always implies. Although the butterfly he reaches out for disappears, he remains. The fear of living in a dream is never truly that what I touch or what I see might disappear, it might just be a dream, but that I might disappear as well. If this world is just a tapestry woven by my slumbering mind, might I be something woven and wakened from elsewhere as well?
In the events leading up to the end of the Cowboy Bopeep season I continued to wonder over how this would end. Vicious and Spike are characters who seem linked until death splits them apart (or joins them together for ever). Of course a final face off would take place, but would Spike live or die?
Faye pleads for Spike not to go so that he might live, so that they might live, because she has finally moved herself from melancholy into the realm of grief. The loss of her life and past is at last given up and replaced through the crew of the Bebop. She pleads for Spike to make the same change, to give up his melancholic attachment to his gaze, his past, to replace it with something else (herself, Jet, Edward and of course Ein).
But in Spike’s response he realizes that the change that both he and everyone else wants can only come about through this final act. The type of change that we always hope for in our lives never comes about because we simply say so or decide so. Why are New Year’s resolutions nearly always pointless or useless? Because they are empty speech, fake acts, the don’t involve the dimension which makes possible the change in Spike we find in the film. The self-destructive and self-inflicting aspects of the act.
Solidarity does take place however in the scene right before the film’s credits. Where the statement of peculiar endearment which he makes always away from those he is endeared to, he makes to Faye herself, teasing her about her gambling problem.
The question that I haven’t answered here of course is why the attachment to Spike arose in the first place. If I had to guess as to why I tear up at the thought of Spike’s death it would probably have something to do with his relationship not to Julia, but to Electra, the girl in the orange jacket from the film.
What seemed to happen with her character was a meeting of disparate threads of desire and pain. She seemed to embody in strange ways something of my past, present and future. She reminded me of various different girls in and out of my life in a single contained figure, and somehow I created an attachment to Spike in order to deal with it.
For those confused or insane by my ramblings about this anime, you might want to pay careful attention to the words from its theme song The Real Folk Blues. I was surprised at how much of what I've just tried to say is already there in the lyrics.
The Real Folk Blues
By Yoko Kano
Too much time has passed by to
Lament that we were deeply in love
The wind keeps blowing while my heart
Cannot heal all the tears in it
Some cry for me with parched eyes
The Real Folk Blues
I only want to know what true sadness is
Sitting in muddy water
Isn’t such a bad lifeIf it ends after the first time