Two of the world’s most beloved and most respected pieces of media in their fields: Casablanca (1943) and Cowboy Bebop (1997-1998). There is the story of eponymous café-owner and World War II isolationist residing in Casablanca, Morocco: Rick. And there is the jazz-themed science fiction story of a crew of small-time bounty hunters led by the charming and enigmatic Spike Spiegel.
These are obviously very different stories, at least from the perspective of the setting and micro-scale events. But even in these never-intersecting universes, there is a saturated point of tangential interaction. There are the parallel paths of the heroes, playing perfectly in time with one another. Spike Spiegel. Rick Blaine. They follow the same arc with the same obstacles. And with each story, we are given a microscopic look into this little piece of their lives.
Traditional Greek tragedy follows a pretty distinct arc. I like to outline the stages as being: the hubris, the prophecy, the rebellion, the tragic event, and the fall from grace and resolution (5 steps, Aristotle outlines them pretty similarly in his Poetics). If we look at Oedipus Rex, this paradigm is stringently adhered to. Oedipus offends the gods by injustice, ignorance, pride—by not punishing former king Laius’ killer who is, in fact, he himself—there is the oracle at Delphi’s prophecy that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother; there is Oedipus’ rebellion, in which he leaves his home in Corinth to separate himself from his [unknowingly] adopted parents and the prophecy, a rebellion where he builds his life with every intention to not fulfill this prophecy; there is the tragic event, which takes the form of a great reveal, where it is revealed that he has done just what was prophesied: killed his father and married his mother; and there is the fall from grace and resolution, upon which Oedipus stabs out his own eyes and departs on a self-imposed exile, a “justice” worthy of these petty Greek gods.
The stories of Cowboy Bebop and Casablanca both take place at an interesting point in the Tragic Arc. And yes, both stories do ultimately follow this same Tragic Arc. But the isolated parts of the stories that we see are located near the very last stages. Spike and Rick have both gone through their respective tragic events; it is shown that they can never be with the loves of their lives, Julia because of her relationship with Vicious and because of his jealousy, and Ilsa because she is married to Laszlow, whom she also still loves. However, Spike and Rick have not experienced their fall from grace or resolution yet. As we are introduced to the two characters, they are still holding on to the possibility, though nonexistent, that they can still be with these women. Spike and Rick have not accepted the consequences of their situation (of the tragic universe). They exist, we see, in a self-imposed exile (not to be confused with Oedipus’ self-imposed exile, which acts as his resolution and accepting his fall from grace). Both heroes exist in a frozen state. Spike and Rick run away from their post-tragic-event falls from grace, and they live in isolated fear.
“You need to realize that, in this age, isolationism is no longer a practical policy.” These words addressed to Rick have a double meaning. Of course, there is the literal context of World War II and the anomaly that is Rick’s Café, but there is also the significance of Rick’s exile and state of isolated stagnancy, in which he is hiding from Ilsa and harboring every emotion imaginable**.
Schrodinger’s Cat, so long as it resides within a closed and unobserved box, traditionally exists both in a state of life and death. It is a state of infinite tension for the unknowing anticipation and the impossible speculation. Is it? Isn’t it? And, too, so long as Rick and Spike are in their exile, it is a state of infinite tension. But when we open this “box,” the cat dies. When Spike and Rick face Julia and Ilsa—respectively—again, each and every fear is confirmed, and the laws of their tragic universes state that Spike/Rick and Julia/Ilsa can never be together.
Is the fall from grace any better than this state of tension? As far as narrative goes, yes. Yes, it is. This is justice, in some perverted sense or another, regardless of how it personally affects the characters involved. The fall from grace offers resolution and the end of the downwards arc in sequel to the tragic event. It’s literary torture to be stuck in.
So these two stories give us our tragic heroes’ shift from cynical, cool, and shut-off from the world to a new state of maturity and acceptance. They can move on with their lives, exit from their stagnant and fake sanctuaries, even though this new world necessarily offers them suffering.
“It’s about one moment. It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or to turn around and go back.” (Jason Robert Brown, referring to his show Songs for a New World, see reference link at bottom)
This exile that Spike and Rick enter is characterized by a few interesting features. It can be likened very much to Berserk (manga/anime), post-Golden Age Arc. Like Guts, Spike and Rick surround themselves by a mix of both new and old comrades.
Rick is still accompanied by Sam, an old acquaintance of his and Ilsa’s. This is very much a reminder of his past and [his] tragedy, an obvious note (pun intended, get it? Sam plays piano) that Rick holds on to his past and has not gotten past the tragic event.
Spike, however, is accompanied by Jet. And Faye and Ed and Ein. These are all new faces in the midst of his tragic arc. But when faced with Julia and Vicious, he is immediately willing to sacrifice this “lonely band of exiles” to chase after his clung-to past and desperations.
This exile is also characterized by being fake. It’s all very superficial to our tragic heroes, and it is represented as an escape from their “true” lives. But what makes one story real and the other fake? Why is it that the setting we are introduced to each story is any less real than what’s going on behind this veil?
The gods are a jealous bunch. They hold grudges and are spiteful and enjoy their exclusive rights to a hero’s life. A tragedy functions in a very particular way. It is not designed to be a perfect representation of real life, nor does everything make perfectly logical sense. Sure, there are plenty of parallels with how real life works, and the Tragic Arc could probably be attributed to a psychological pattern. But that’s not very literary, now is it? Literary convention gives us an outline of how the tragic hero regards his own tragedy: he is not free until he finds resolution. Spike and Rick attempt to start new stories before their first is finished. And they fail. It’s the Petty and Perverse Poetic Justice of the Pantheon.
The girl. It’s always about a girl, isn’t it? And the hero always ends up with the girl. No? But then she must not have been right for him. There’s always another girl. No, again? Hmm… This is most troubling.
“The unattainable, most irresistible woman” (stuff pop TTCCC blog). She’s perfect. But the hero can never end up with her. And the hero can never “attain” her, hold on, grasp her, be with her, end up with her, find himself a home in her heart. There’s some past—oftentimes mysterious, some baggage—emotional or otherwise, and some God-decreed reason, that our hero is going to end up without the love of his life.
This “trope” is seen in a number of stories but is by no means ubiquitous. A classic example I give is Lady Brett Ashley from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; and my modern reference, Denna from Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles.
Is Laszlow a villain? How does he act to thwart the pursuits of Rick? How does he lead the world towards devastation and ruin? Well, he doesn’t.
Laszlow is a situational antagonist. His presence has destroyed Rick. Has torn apart Rick. Unbuilt him, brick by brick. But Laszlow has done nothing. He lived. He survived and escaped a concentration camp. Laszlow is a good guy. And he loves his wife Ilsa. But he is the antithesis of Rick. Laszlow lives life and leads people. Rick… does not.
Vicious, obviously, is a villain. He is a crime-lord and titular lord of vice. But he is also Spike’s former comrade and friend.
Regardless, he is also the bane of our tragic hero’s existence. He is the one tangible thing separating Spike from Julia and his paradise. Spike’s whole tragedy can be attributed to Vicious.
But are the two so different? Spike may have a slightly enlarged moral compass. Spike may have the interest to disassociate himself from a family of crime. But the two are jealously in love with the same woman, and that woman has chosen Spike.
Though not entirely necessary, it does fit that the tragic hero in a self-imposed exile and strict escape from fate results in a cynical, emotionally detached [tragic] hero. They live in hostile worlds, hyper-aware and -sensitive to anything which may harm them, so it’s the obvious choice to harden their hearts and go on living as conservatively as possible. However, there are hints of their pasts, little prying voices that pop out and trigger an outraged response from our tragic heroes, Spike and Rick. At any mention of Vicious or Julia, Spike jumps to action and disregards his whole life as a bounty hunter to return to his “true” life and try and regain what was lost. Julia. Rick is the exact same way. He practically explodes when he hears the film’s first instance of “As Time Goes By.” Any reminder of the past is torture. It is a reminder of the tragic arc and the upcoming and inevitable “fall from grace.” Though “fall from grace” is the nice way of putting it. Emotional torture. Murdering his identity. Discrediting his whole life. That’s what’s really going to happen.
Julia and Ilsa are important to Spike and Rick. They are their lives and their stars.
But… There is a shift. Rick refuses to escape on the plane with Ilsa, even after she begs him. Even after Ilsa chooses Rick over Laszlow. Rick sees the tragic arc and accepts the decline. He is willing to return to his “true” life and accept resolution, however harsh that resolution may be to him personally.
Spike behaves likewise. But his sacrifice is possibly greater. The end to his tragic arc: death.
Like with Time Travel Tragedies (see: other article), escape from the tragic loop requires change. Whether that be overcoming one’s tragic flaw in order to prevent offending the gods (see: other article) or it means rejoining the course of one’s life and dismissing one’s pre-fall exile: it requires change. As we enter these stories, there is a soon self-evident reason that Spike and Rick are in their exiles. And we get to see their dynamic stories of change. Some may call it “maturity,” to accept the consequences to one’s life. But there are too many connotations associated with “maturity.” In this case, it specifically describes “acceptance.” Exile is denial. Suffering is acceptance. But acceptance is not easy, and it is not satisfying.