As a twenty-six-episode series, Shinichiro Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop is a play at non-conformity, where certain episodes have little to do with what came before or after it, and the core plot is only ever revealed in snippets. Yet, for as anecdotal and non-linear as Cowboy Bebop may be, each episode shares a common novum: Humanity diverged from Earth and scattered amongst the stars an undisclosed amount of time ago, and since then, space has become an endless nesting ground for crime and those who seek to hunt those who enact crime. Well, there is one outlier — episode eleven, aptly named Toys in the Attic. In the anime Cowboy Bebop, in the episode “Toys in the Attic”, creates a unique fictional world that works only for that episode through scrapping the shows main novum for that of a more singular, specific one; only through cognitive empiricism and the viewer’s own agency towards food-focused colonialism is this novum defined and bolstered within the world of the twenty-two-minute episode.
The eleventh episode of Cowboy Bebop breaks away from the core novum of the main series, creating a new novum, and this novum only works for this specific episode. The novum for Toys in the Attic is that food, when left untouched and cared for, has the ability to turn into a parasitic monster. This novum shows up nowhere else in the television series and is tightened to focus only on the interior of Bebop ship, as the ship itself becomes its own world. In establishing a new novum, Watanabe allows himself to uproot conventional science fiction values, while adhering to others through homage. It is through the viewer’s agency of greater sf media that the episode’s tension works as well as it does. Toys in the Attic is a quirky and fast-paced riff on Ridley Scott’s seminal science fiction film Alien. It is a play on the claustrophobia and fighting of an unknown predator that made Alien such an important work. That is where the comparisons begin and end; Toys in the Attic is interested in different forms of fear than Alien. But the sense of familiarity that comes with using well-worn tropes from Alien is inherently tied to the importance of Cowboy Bebop as an sf text: “The sense of the familiar is emphasized and reinforced by the continual pop culture references throughout the series.” (Baigent 92). Through a specific form of cognitive empiricism does the core novum at play in Toys in the Attic feel more grounded, more believable. In the grounding of this new novum, the viewer is pulled into the episode through a sense of familiarity that will be challenged at every turn. Now that the core novum has been defined and its establishment has been made concrete can its importance be broken down and studied in greater detail.
Cognitive empiricism is how one relates themselves to an sf text through seeing their own personal experience in the experiences and motifs at play in any specific sf work. Many episodes of Cowboy Bebop play on the viewer’s use of cognitive empiricism, as most of the planets that the Bebop crew visits are a facsimile of Earth as we know it (or knew it to be in the late 1990s). Yet, episode eleven plays on a different relationship that viewers have to Earth and thus, a different form of cognitive empiricism occurs. This episode is about food. It is also about the human relationship between food and wastefulness. The core narrative of the episode is that Spike Spiegel purchased a rare lobster (Ganymede Rock Lobster) and hid it away in a rarely used refrigerator because he did not want anyone else to eat it. But he forgot about it and in forgetting about it, he created a monster — the meat festered and from that miasma of decay a monster was born. And this monster started hunting the crew and making them sick via a bite. This relationship between food, rot, and sickness should seem familiar. Everyone buys food they expect to eat and then a few days, weeks, or months later a funky smell will begin to seep from the refrigerator — the food has gone bad, rotted. Yet, knowing that it smells bad is usually enough to get one to throw their old food away and to not eat it, and old food — in reality — lacks the scientific capacity to turn into a monstrous lifeform. But it is in this relation between food in reality and food in the sf world of Cowboy Bebop that cognitive empiricism between the two becomes so important: “In many science fiction films, these differences are amplified in food scenes. Familiar foods serve as an anchor in an altered world (evoking both nostalgia and parody), whereas unfamiliar food may become one of the clearest measures of how far we have journeyed from the present.” (Retzinger 2). The act of Spike’s exotic lobster morphing into a monster after a period of rot acts to amplify the difference between reality and Cowboy Bebop’s fictional reality, and it is in this unfamiliarity where the familiar shines through. Having the lobster rot in a refrigerator that looks like any old refrigerator allows the fictional world of episode eleven to slip into the viewer’s reality, as the sense of familiarity both relates to the viewer and allows them to find the humor in the heightened absurdity of forgotten food returning with villainous sentient intent. This is bolstered by swapping the novum in this specific episode, as the various shades of Earth and the solar system are swapped for the cramped confines of the Bebop, affording the new novum room to seep into the viewer’s subconscious.
It is in this structural system of checks and balances of novum(s), affordances and rotting lobsters that proves how the medium of television is the proper canvas for Toys in the Attic to exist in and on. Most sf televisual programs rely on one core novum to carry them through to their inevitable end. But Cowboy Bebop allows for two novums and this is due to the fact that the show acts as a fractured narrative with a wistful sense of short-term memory loss. Rarely do any episode arcs bleed-over into what came before or what follows, and this is most easily seen in Toys in the Attic. Having an episode stand out so starkly from the rest of the show goes to show how malleable sf can be and how, in that malleability, an episode within a greater series can have its own novum and prove that extraterrestrial life exists within the confines of Cowboy Bebop’s structure, as well as the content therein: “If we were to identify life on worlds within a few dozen light years of the Sun, we could reasonably conclude that life as we know it is common in the Universe.” (Wolf-Chase 5). Grace A. Wolf-Chase’s excerpt from “Theology and Science” grapples with the line between science fiction and science fact; an argument in which Cowboy Bebop has no interest in, but her words help to align what makes the show so important in relation to its medium. Television tends to follow a core structure of single narratives interspersed with cliff-hangers, but Cowboy Bebop side-steps that in the fact that each episode ends in moments of finality. At the end of Toys in the Attic, young Edward declares everyone else dead and that she will command the ship from then on. Yet, in the next episode, all exists as if Toys in the Attic never happened. Incorporating finality and an episode that is so starkly its own — as if it is an extraterrestrial lifeform — proves that Cowboy Bebop is inherently tied to the medium of television while, at the same time, a post-modern attempt to bend televisual tropes. Television as we know it is immensely common, but television is an endless galaxy and where there is endlessness, there is always the unknowable outlier — such as Cowboy Bebop. Despite all of the work that Toys in the Attic does with cognitive empiricism, novum-substitution and playing with its medium, it also finds the time to study mankind’s inherent relation with food and exoticism.
There will always be an Other. Shinichiro Watanabe knows this and his work in Cowboy Bebop signals this. The Bebop and its crew are usually seen as this intergalactic Other, unwanted wherever they end up and their closest thing to home is the ship with which they travel from planet to planet — where they are constantly reminded that the galaxy has little use for them. But this does not free them from the capability of othering someone or something else. They other an Other in Toys in the Attic, as shown by how the Bebop crew, Spike specifically, treats food and is treated by food. He finds an exotic piece of food and out of want he takes it for himself, and only himself. The exoticism with which the Ganymede Rock Lobster is presented shows that there is a sort of food-based colonialism at play within the episode — the lobster itself is never seen in its natural state as the camera only ever alludes to its existence by seemingly random shots to a fridge, and the tonal build-up to the visual revelation of what rotted in the fridge. The camera transitions from a wide-shot of an isolated fridge to a close-up of the pulsating thing that resides within the fridge. The Lobster is taken for culinary pleasure, it is stowed in a prison of a refrigerator far away from its home, forgotten, and it revolts against its captors. It infects them with sickness, much like explorers and colonizers infected various natives on various continents with disease in a form of second-hand (and sometimes first-hand) genocide. In a way, it was chemical warfare. The Ganymede Rock Lobster enacts this method of warfare against its captors, against its culinary colonizers. It is through this gaze that the episode comes to unsettling life: “Europeans mapped the non-European world, settled colonies in it, mined it and farmed it, bought and sold some of its inhabitants, and ruled over many others. In the process of all of this, they also developed a scientific discourse about culture and mankind.” (Rieder 2). In relating the colonialism at play in Toys in the Attic to the colonialism enacted by Europeans from the 1500s onward, shows that the two are almost one in the same. Spike does not question taking this lobster for himself and he does so selfishly by hiding it away from the others aboard the Bebop and in his hubris or ignorance, he forgets about it — much like how Europe divided Africa based off of their own want and hubris, forgetting about the numerous cultures and ways of life therein. And, in some way, colonialism of food proves the ignorance of the colonizer. The colonizer will rip you from your home, take your land and still find the time to commend how well your food tastes. They will then take this knowledge for themselves and bolster it elsewhere. Yet, the Ganymede Rock Lobster fought back. It spread its sickness among the crew as an act of revenge or in attempt to free itself from its captors. It is through this that the two-sided ignorance at play aboard the Bebop comes into stark relief: “…MacLeod’s Trotskyist solidarity with independence movements from the global South negotiates Scotland’s status as both a postcolonial and a settler nation within the modern world-system, since the region helped to maintain the British Empire while simultaneously identifying with global subaltern struggles against a hegemonic colonizer nation.” (Winter 90). In relating the sf works of Ken MacLeod and Iain M. Banks to their politics and the politics of their homeland does the two-sidedness of the Bebop crew become defined. Macleod’s works stood in solidarity with movements and freedom ideals in post-colonial nations all over the world stands in contrast with his Scotland status, as it was part of the British Empire. Much like how the crew of the Bebop are a bunch of vagabonds, lost and unwanted, who stand with those who are also lost and unwanted and yet, their view towards exotic foods and creatures negates their prior status of nebulous anti-colonial for one of a colonialist’s, as they conquered the exotic for its cuisine within Toys in the Attic.
But how did the Bebop crew conquer the Ganymede Rock Lobster? They ate it, or more specifically, little Ed ate it. In the final moments of Toys in the Attic, Spike has discovered that the monster stemmed from the lobster in the fridge and, after hunting it in vain, he attempts to shoot it out of the airlock. It does not go as planned as Spike is seen holding on for dear life in a wide shot framed from the open airlock so that we see his struggle from the perspective of what he is precisely struggling from — space itself. Following that, a closeup of Spike’s struggling face accentuates his struggle as the camera pans to the infectious purple bite on his arm — he, the culinary colonialist, also seems to be damned by that which he harbored. Next, Tchaikovsky starts playing as the beings within the ship float in zero gravity and the camera ebbs and flows through the corridors of the ship, only to end up focusing on a sleeping Ed who looks more relaxed than scared, young and unknowing in his ignorance. They wake up as the writhing monster comes into focus and, surprisingly, Ed grabs it. He exclaims, “Oh a pudding!” and simply eats it. The colonial cycle is complete. That which started as food ends as food, its revolt is rendered meaningless and inconsequential as the piece of the Ganymede Rock Lobster is digested inside of Ed. It is through these actions and the idea of culinary colonialism that this episode’s specific novum finds a core meaning and a reason to exist; this diversion from the rest of the series, which at the start may have seemed trivial, ends with a final act of violence that, while not grotesque, becomes the most unsettling act of violence displayed in Cowboy Bebop’s entire twenty-sex episode run.
Cowboy Bebop is seen as a core sf text for many reasons, but its capability of swapping novums for one specific episode is immensely overlooked. Toys in the Attic stands out for that reason. It stands out more as the episode is read as its own sf text, with its own novum, and the ways it evokes cognitive empiricism. It acts as a damning condemnation of food-based colonialism from a nation whose food has been spread abroad and forever changed. The Ganymede Rock Lobster is sushi, is ramen noodles, and most restaurants are Spike. But, most damningly so, we are Ed. We blindly eat this food that has been rendered null from its birthplace and from the culture that created it.
Baigent, Robert, Review: Cowboy Bebop: Complete Sessions Collection. Graduate Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies. pp. 92–94. 2004.
Retzinger, Jean P. “Speculative Visions and Imaginary Meals.” Cultural Studies, vol. 22, no. 3/4, May 2008, p. 369.
Rieder, John. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Wesleyan, 2012.
Winter J. Science Fiction, New Space Opera, and Neoliberal Globalism : Nostalgia for Infinity. Cardiff: English Language; 2016.
Wolf-Chase, Grace A, New Worlds, New Civilizations?. From Science Fiction to Science Fact, Theology and Science, 16:4, 415–426, DOI: 10.1080/14746700.2018.1525221