There you are, at the local Con’s dance night, sitting alone at the Ramada Inn’s bar. You’ve had one too many Cardassian Sunrises. Out of the corner of your eye you see a cosplayer dressed as Miss Faye Valentine. The two of you hit it off, and just as things get good you notice…an Adam’s apple on your favorite female bounty hunter. Don’t feel too bad, champ. Gender bending is more frequent in your favorite genre than you first thought.
J’naii, “Star Trek: TNG”, Episode “Outcast”
The planet J’naii is home to an androgynous race of people with one gender. While at first this seems like a fluff piece for the franchise that celebrates diversity, things turn dark quick when it is revealed that those who live on the planet as a male or female are treated for insanity and brainwashed. I guess the Enterprise can’t please all the people all the time, unless Kirk is still leading.
Flea, “Chrono Trigger”
Flea is a master at magic attacks, a powerful fiend working under Magus. While your team mates are quick to point out that you shouldn’t allow her feminine wiles to trick you, she’s quick to point out she’s really a “he.” At least you don’t have a whole lot of time to feel awkward about this, as s/he is quick to start attacking you and your team. The upside? Ayla’s flirt still works on him, giving you a pretty decent piece of armor.
Gren, “Cowboy Bebop”, Sessions 12 and 13, “Jupiter Jazz”
The aforementioned Faye Valentine has stormed off the Bebop and winds up on Jupiter’s moon Callisto, a place with no women. While this may sound like the best Spring Break ever for her, the saxophonist she goes home with has had his gender changed accidentally from experimental medication. While this enrages the drunken space cowgirl, he’s able to subdue her long enough to go after Vicious, the antagonist who has somehow pissed off literally everyone in the galaxy.
You really do feel sorry for the guy; he fought alongside Vicious in the war, and on top of that he (along with Spike) had a thing for Julia. Not to mention the whole transgender thing. It’s one thing to actively want to become a woman (or vice versa); it’s a little different when it’s an unknown side effect from medicine. I would love to hear the announcer give that list of side effects on a television commercial.
Sheik, “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time”
When people are on the run, they typically cut and/or color their hair, grow a beard, or buy a fake ID. The lone Princess of Hyrule goes a different route. Through some use of her magic powers, she transforms herself into a male persona: the mysterious warrior Sheik. The graceful and elegant aristocrat is now a gruff and agile nomad, not even revealing her true identity to Link. Sometimes a princess has to do something other than wait around to be saved.
The Dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park”
Unless you’re competing against one on Rupaul’s Drag Race, it’s not every day a tranny tries to kill you. But when it’s a hungry T-Rex, things are a little different. It was explained that all the dinosaurs were engineered to be female so that they could be impregnated and give birth to more dinos; however, the frogs used for DNA do have the natural ability to switch genders, which was unknowingly passed on to the residents of the worst theme park ever made. The heart wants what the heart wants, and apparently when your raptor farm wants babies the old fashioned way, they’ll turn to Mother Nature for help.
Bender the Gender Bender, “Futurama”, Episode “Raging Bender”
Everyone’s favorite robotic jerk temporarily had a professional wrestling career with a persona similar to the Rock. But when his merchandise sales were down, he was forced to become Bender the Gender Bender, fighting in a tutu and blonde wig.
NiGHTS, “NiGHTs into Dreams”
Technically, NiGHTS, and all other Nightmaren, is androgynous. Created by Wizeman the Wicked, it has traits of both, but is neither (although the voice over when it is hurt is female). Still, it leaves a bit of confusion during game play. As a society, the game’s protagonist is almost always male, and here you are flying around in a purple body suit. And according to the Wiki, it is referred to as “he” by a couple of characters.
NiGHTS is sort of like a Mardi Gras version of Peter Pan, only instead of abducting children, it saves them from nightmares. And they say there are no positive role models for the LGBT community.
But of course he isn’t really dead. He gets up in the second part of the episode, and we’re told that Lin was using tranquelizers or something… I don’t know. It seems more probable to me that Spike, like the demonic kid from “Sympathy For The Devil,” is in some kind of ontological freefall due to a past trauma that cannot be resolved until he revisits and violently recapitulates said trauma, and as such is effectively immortal. You know, kind of like Harry Potter and Voldemort: each can only be killed by the other. (Two guesses as to who the Voldemort figure is in this case, and they’re both “Vicious.”) To be clear, I don’t think that this is actually literally true within the universe of the show – although I suppose it’s possible, since it is sci-fi – but it’s definitely the symbolism that they’re going for.
Gren, left. Vicious, right. Knife, phallic.
Anyway, the second part of Jupiter Jazz is really all about Gren. Like any good Cowboy Bebop character, he’s hiding from a mysterious tragic past, which in his case has to do with trench warfare on Jupiter’s desert moon Titan. He knew Vicious there – in fact, the show very coyly suggests that he knew Vicious in the biblical sense. (Although, does that phrase really work if it’s two dudes?) At the very least, he idolized Vicious. But when Gren made it back home, he ended up arrested for treason, and apparently because Vicious had sold him out. (That music box is somehow involved in this. It’s not quite clear how.) Then, while in jail, Gren was exposed to some drugs that changed his body to its current form. Depending on whether you believe the subtitle translation or the dubbing, this was either because prison drove him to become a drug addict, or because the government was doing secret tests on prisoners, so this isn’t very clear either… but it hardly matters. The causal chain that we’re supposed to follow, I think, is
1) Gren falls in love with Vicious
2) Vicious betrays Gren
3) Gren is physically transfigured by this betrayal, losing his masculinity.
Now, if we wanted to judge this episode purely on whether its politics are “correct,” it would probably be a pretty bad episode. Being differently gendered is presented to us as this catastrophic wrong that has been inflicted on Gren; furthermore you could read it as “punishment” for having the “wrong” sexual orientation to begin with. Neither of those is great, to put it mildly. I mean, the conflation of homosexuality and intersexuality is pretty bad all on its own, right? I could try to defend the show – point out that Gren is allowed to have narrative desire in the sense that Callot brought up in a comment thread here, point out that he is if nothing else a sympathetic character, and point out that a problematic treatment of LGBT issues is still better than no treatment at all. But I wouldn’t want to sweep the troubling aspects under the rug. They’re there, and if we want to enjoy this show, we need to acknowledge them. We don’t necessarily need to dwell on them too much, though. The specifics of Gren’s backstory – gender change – are a lot less important to the plot and to his character than the simple fact that he has a long simmering grudge against Vicious, even though they used to be quite close.
With Gren’s backstory established and Spike back up on his feet, the stage is set for an epic confrontation between Spike and Vicious. Except that’s not really what happens. Instead we get a confrontation between Vicious and Gren. And this is one of the things that I really like about “Jupiter Jazz:” it’s not Spike’s story, or Faye’s or any of the other regular cast members. It’s Gren’s story, and the crew of the BeBop are just supporting characters. Gren has arranged to sell a load of drugs to Vicious, just as a pretext to get close enough to confront him about his betrayal. Vicious is unrepentent, and when Gren brings up their status as old brothers-in-arms, he just laughs it off. (The dialogue is pretty overblown here – Gren: “I believed in you!” Vicious: “There is nothing to believe in, nor is there a need to believe.” – but I feel like the show has earned it). It turns out that Vicious’ business on Callisto was as much about killing Gren to clean up loose ends as it was about buying drugs: the suitcase of money that he tosses over turns out to be a bomb. But Gren dodges this, and then Spike crashes the party, and they end up in a three-way spaceship dogfight. Vicious is getting the best of this, when suddenly the bag of drugs that he got from Gren also turns out to be a bomb and explodes (which is kind of awesome), crippling his ship and forcing him to beat a retreat. Even so, Vicious lives to fight another day (presumably until the series finale, at the very least), while Gren is mortally wounded by a stray round. As a last request, he has Spike carry him into his spaceship and set it on autopilot for Titan, the only place where he’d ever been happy in his crazy, mixed up, differently gendered, saxophone playing life.
But there’s more to it than that, which I can’t get into without doubling back and talking about the way that music has figured in this episode from the beginning of “Jupiter Jazz part 1.”
Generally in Cowboy Bebop, episodes have a lot of music. They also tend to have lots of different kinds of music: goofy funk here, a haunting music box there, stride piano in a third scene, etc. “Jupiter Jazz” is fascinating, because while the scope of the narrative, and even the scope of the action scenes in this episode is so vastly expanded, the sense of musical space is rigidly confined. The very beginning of the first episode is pretty normal, in that we hear a few different things: pseudo-Native American chanting in the opening scene, a menacing Blade-Runner-era-Vangelis synth pad for some scenes with Vicious’ mafia bosses, etc. But in the scene where Gren is introduced, we hear him playing the opening bars of a smooth jazz ballad on his sax… and once this music appears, it is essentially all you hear, as underscoring or otherwise, until the very end. Well, that’s not entirely true, come to think of it, but it’s not far off. Adding to the sense of claustrophobia is the fact that it’s usually played by saxophone alone, without even the piano accompaniment that supports the theme in its first appearance. It’s always at-pitch too (by which I mean, they don’t create musical variety by transposing it up and down). But it’s not just the same recording over and over again – you can hear the performer adding different little ornaments and playing with the rubato – so we can assume that this was a conscious choice, not a cost-saving measure.
The melody figures into the plot, too. Gren learned it from Vicious. Specifically, he learned it because it’s the melody played by the music box, which he got as a gift from Vicious during the war, and Vicious in turn may have received as a gift from the mysterious Julia. And when Gren met Julia, years later, and told her how where the music box came from, she instantly realized that Vicious used it to set Gren up: he’d been using a beacon inside the music box to transmit troop movements to the enemy, and by giving it to Gren he was framing another man for his own crime. (Or something like that. I’m still not %100 on the details.) This means that in the second episode, we also get to hear the theme played on a music box… and that musical texture has a certain resonance on this show. Nifty.
Okay, so back to the climactic dogfight. When the bag of drugs blows up in Vicious’ back seat, it’s triggered by the music box, which Gren used as a timer. And the music box doesn’t just explode: it plays the beginning of the melody first. And when Vicious hears it, this shakes him to his core. He flashes back to meeting Gren on Ganymede, to the camaraderie and (if I’m reading the subtext right) love that the two of them shared. So yeah, Vicious wins the fight, and Gren gets killed. But Gren wins the argument. Vicious really did care about him, and there is something to believe in. D’awwwwww…
Oh, and another thing about the melody: the A section, which is usually all you hear, sounds almost exactly like the introduction to Maria from West Side Story. You know, the part that goes “the most beautiful sound… that I ev-ver heard…” At first, I assumed this was accidental, and unfortunate. Looking back at it, I’m not so sure. The significance of the melody, to both Gren and Vicious, is its role as a trigger for memory. So maybe by choosing a melody that strongly evokes another familiar melody, Yoko Kanno puts us in the paradoxical position of already remembering the Jupiter Jazz theme even the first time that we hear it. It’s not something that’s new, it’s something we’ve always known – that is, our relationship to it is the same as Vicious and Gren’s relationship to it. (But the fact that the B section bears an even stronger resemblance to the bridge from The Christmas Song – “You know that Saaaanta’s on his way… He’s loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh…” probably is an accident. And the fact that we hear this part for the first time during a dramatic pan to a snow-filled sky is decidedly unfortunate. I don’t think that my reaction to Spike getting shot was supposed to be a guffaw at the underscoring.)
In most of my Cowboy Bebop posts so far, I’ve given you a video clip with a music clip to listen to. I’ll give you one here too. It’s the very end of Jupiter Jazz part II. As the music begins, you’ll hear a version of the theme that I’ve been talking about. But as the closing sequence continues, this expands into a strange, Peter Gabriel-esque texture that blends the Jupiter Jazz theme together with the “Native American” chanting from the very beginning of Jupiter Jazz part 1. And eventually, during the credits sequence, we hear some fairly nifty smooth-jazz sax work – the first music that could pass for jazz (in the sense that all true jazz involves improv) over the entire two-part episode. I warn you, this one isn’t as immediately appealing as the show’s main title theme or the “In the Rain” from episode five. You have to be able to stomach Peter Gabriel style “ethnic” cheese. You have to be able to stomach smooth jazz. But man, if you can swallow those pills, this is an epic use of film music. You have two seemingly unrelated cues combining in counterpoint. You have a rigidly circumscribed theme established as a leitmotif throughout the episode suddenly bursting into full and rapturous song. You have the delayed expectation of “jazz,” established by the episode’s title, finally fulfilled during the closing credits. (Also worth noting: “Jupiter Jazz part 2” is the only episode so far that has its own special closing credits sequence. This in itself is kind of a stunning moment.) And becuase this is all set over an image of Gren’s ship burning up in re-entry over Titan, his ashes sprinkled across its desert like snow, the explosion of melodic exuberance from the sax (Gren’s instrument), and the (admittedly cheap) spiritualism of the chanting, combine to form a frankly glorious image of the liberated soul as it escapes from this tortured world of woe.
I mean, look, Cowboy Bebop doesn’t ever talk about religion or the afterlife, and I’m pretty well an atheist here in our world. But after hearing this cue, I believe that Gren got to heaven.
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