Monday, May 9, 2016

Cowboy Bebop Review #5: Ballad of Fallen Angels

Personal Note: Yeah, I haven't blogged in a long time. During this time I had to do a lot of attention consuming work, navigate several international bureaucracies and generally put my life in order. Reviewing Bebop has also inspired me to try to get back into art, and I'm trying to learn animation from the good ol' Preston Blair book. I'm returning because I want to though, and so you should expect more activity.

"I'll play it and tell you what it is later."
- Miles Davis

So, this is a difficult review. Somethings are so legendary that they say more about you than you can say about them. Citizen Kane, for instance. It's a great movie and there is a ton to say about it - how it used simple special effects to hit way above its budget, how it inspired so many different filmmakers to believe that you didn't need a ton of extras to make a movie, its brilliant writing/acting/music...

But that's all been said. There are plenty of other examples - Miles Davis's Kind Of Blue, Super Mario Bros. 3, the best Shakespere plays, the best cartoons of Bob Clampett - things that just stand above everything else in a manner so natural that it is strange that they used to not exist. When you try to critique Shakespere, you just end up condemning yourself. SMB3 is just how good platformers feel damn it all! And so on.

Session #5 of Cowboy Bebop, "Ballad of Fallen Angels" is like that. Written by Michiko Yokote, storyboarded by Shinchiro Watanabe, directed either by Watanabe himself or Tetsuya Watanabe (both are credited), this episode is one of the all time classic episodes not just of Bebop but of anime. I once said of Relaxin' With The Miles Davis Quartet that if you don't like it, jazz probably isn't your thing. There's nothing wrong with that - find something you do enjoy! If you don't like this, probably don't bother with anime - at least not at the more dramatic stuff. I don't mean that in an exclusive way, you were game, gave it a shot and you can now live your life without regrets.

Spike Spiegal

Now, technically, the story of today's episode stretches all the way back to episode one. The montage of violence episode was the first glimpse of The Spike Spiegal Story, which is the Official Main Plot Of The Show (TM). Bebop is at its most interesting when riffing far beyond the normal routes, but it does to set up what is going on. The OMPOTS comes back again today


That this episode is going to concern Spike's story is actually a twist in the cold open - one of several. Sorry about that. The episode starts with Mao Yenrai of the Red Dragons and Carlos of the White Tigers signing some sort of peace treaty. The Red Dragons are a powerful Triad and Mao is happy to have finally made peace. As you can see above, a character named Vicious ruins it - blowing up Carlos's ship and personally murdering Mao. Mao's dying words reveal that Spike, Vicious and Mao have a long history. This is a very well made scene with lots of big, neat shots and good use of editing.

We've talked about Spike, so let's talk about The Black Bird. Vicious's black bird is obviously inspired by Captain Harlock's similar pet. The overall concept of Cowboy Bebop was influenced by Lupin III and it doesn't take a detective to realize that Vicious evolved out of Goemon from that series - especially if you know that Goemon was originally one of Lupin's enemies. Similarly Spike is somewhat based on Lupin, Faye has some similarity to Fujiko and Jet has a couple of Jigen's traits. None of these resemblances are very close. For instance, when Goemon was a bad guy, he was a hot blooded over-actor just like all of Monkey Punch's characters. Vicious is a stone cold, stone faced killer, we've already seen this. We don't know much of his personality yet but I'll leap ahead a bit and tell you that Vicious is obsessed with betrayal and Darwinian conflict. He is very much for both.

Back on The Bebop, Spike & Jet discuss the situation. The Bebop is a boat/spaceship like the Arcadia, but less awesome. This is the first time that Spike & Jet have a serious confrontation. Yes, they disagree constantly, but this is less jovial. Jet wants out of the latest bounty scheme - he smells a trap. The information is too easy, if such big money was such low hanging fruit somebody would have scooped it by now (he doesn't say this, but it is implied). He's right, of course, but he doesn't know about Spike's connection to -

Oh hey, it's Faye. She has a bunch of bags, clothing bags. She walks in on the fight and tries to get caught up on what is going on by asking perfectly reasonable questions - which annoys everybody, including herself.

 Watanabe's storyboard/direction involves a lot more acting than others, there's a lot of complex non-model sheet expressions in this episode. Faye is particularly funny here. After the boys leave, she gets a hot tip from a violinist tells him that Mao is going to see a showcase at a theater. Faye wasn't present for any of the research that was done, but decides to gamble on swiping the bounty from her "comrades" after drawing a lucky card from a deck that Spike was playing with at the beginning of the scene.

The theater has a bunch of great stuff! First Faye parks like a complete jerk, then when she goes inside we see a great array of new background characters

The fat cat with the cigar is very Lupin III, and look at the neat dress on the purple girl to the right! This show spoils us. Faye is deliberately acting annoying on the theory that if she does people will assume that she has a reason to. Unfortunately, as Jet pointed out earlier, this is an obvious trap. Perspective is used very well in the scene on the balcony. Several shots are made from the perspective of what we already know to be Mao's corpse, which doesn't make sense. Only after the scene shifts to Faye's perspective and we see where Vicious is standing to the other shots make sense from a perspective ... perspective. They were what Vicious was looking at! This is obvious, of course, but it makes you realize how much less thought out shots are in other shows.

As Faye walks into Vicious's trap (in her defense, she was kept out of the loop that would have made the trap more obvious) Spike goes to meet a contact. Some kids try to shoplift dirty magazines from a store. Interesting trivia, the black kid's character design was recycled from an early concept for one of the leads! A character that hasn't been introduced yet, though. The dirty magazine girl is labelled Judy. Though the "Judy" character from Big Shot has blond hair and the girl in the centerfold has brown hair, I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't trying to imply she was an ex-gradol. It would be typical of Bebop's subtlety.

I don't know to what extent I can or should continue recapping the plot, since it becomes very suggestive here. Spike and his contact Annie talk, but they know each other and don't feel the need to expodump for the audience's sake. For the plot of the episode, the only important thing is that Annie knows that Mao has been murdered, foiling Vicious's plan to flush Spike out by leaving a bread crumb trail into traps. Meanwhile, Faye is captured.

That Shinchiro Watanabe can't do anything without tying someone to a cross. Well, you'll know that if I ever finish these reviews and go to his other stuff. Faye doesn't take the whole kidnapping thing seriously - in fact, she reacts pretty much how Fujiko does in Lupin III. She gets kidnapped a lot, Fujiko, but - HUGE SPOILER ALERT - Faye doesn't make so much of a habit of it. Faye asks for help and to her shock gets it. It makes you wonder what was going through her head. Did she really think Spike would leave her there? Well, they don't know each other very well yet...

You remember I was typing just a few paragraphs ago about how imposing this episode was to review? How much of it has become iconic, not just of the series but of the genre? Well, in particular the rest of this episode is like that. It's so big that it can be difficult to write about. Perhaps I should talk about the color, which is more stylized here. It is interesting, Bebop is such a well colored show that nobody ever bothers to mention it. It's stylized and often dark, but never does it succumb to what John K calls "piss & shit color" syndrome. In other words, it doesn't dull the colors down. Look at the church above, it's purple! Real churches aren't purple, but it matches the scene so beautifully. Go back to the part where I talked about the guy with the cigar and look at how that opera house is painted. The biggest anime of 1998, the year Bebop came out in Japan, was Cardcaptor Sakura - based on the hit CLAMP manga. It looked like this:

Well, it doesn't usually have YouTube crud around it. But look at how much more flat the colors are compared to all the other screenshots of this post! I don't mean to pick on this show. If you want a cartoon to watch with a little girl that doesn't make you want to kill yourself, Cardcaptor Sakura should be high on your list (other choices: Powerpuff Girls, Unico, I've been told My Little Pony is better than it sounds...). The manga is the best thing CLAMP ever did and they know it. What I want to say is that this what a show with a good budget and large audience looked like - colorwise - in 1998. Oh, and there are limited palette flashbacks coming up, they're real neat.

Oh, and the music. When Spike approaches the church, knowing it is a trap a song plays called "Rain". It's actually a demo version - the intended final singer has a throatier voice and more gospel interpretation, but Shinchiro Watanabe and Yoko Kanno seemed to decide that the purer voice was more appropriate. Yoko Kanno's first musical memories were of playing an organ in church. Obviously she's playing the organ on this track, but she's also - through the miracle of multitracking - the choir on the even more iconic "Green Bird" that ends the big scene.

So, Vicious and Spike talk for a bit and one of Vicious goons tries to talk down Spike by using Faye as a hostage. Spike, channeling Dirty Harry in Sudden Impact doesn't deescalate the situation. In a waaay later situation, we'll see an even more obvious homage to that scene. Then, right on the last organ note of "Rain", right where Sergio Leone taught us to put all gunpla

And the network complained this show was violent...

So, this sets up a huge shoot out in the church, John Woo style. Once again the production team comes up with numerous interesting faces and characters where they really could have just had generic thugs. I particularly like gangster Black Jack here:

Of course Spike takes these guys out and then fights Vicious. Faye escapes and calls Jet, who is taking care of his small forest of Bonsai trees. He seems to actually get the message of Bonsai and leaves to help them. Then, the most famous montage in anime history happens, capping the most iconic part of this most well known of episodes. When Spike is falling, attention is paid to his right eye - which has symbolic significance to him, but the first time viewer won't know why yet...

Yeah, there's those limited palates

I won't say much about the flashbacks. One is that there is only the one tall blond woman in the flashbacks and you will learn her name, Julia, later. I once had a friend that was completely confused until I realized that he thought all the blond women were random people in Spike's life. The other is that similar flashbacks are in every episode in the form of the end credits. Knowing this will probably help you get a pretty good grip on that pesky OMPOTS despite Watanabe's "show, don't tell" aversion to adding too many words to things.

Spike survives this confrontation with Vicious, presumably scraped off the ground by Jet. Faye is waiting by his bed. Usually this is played romantically, but Faye ruins it by demanding to be thanked for her presence and Spike double ruins it by complaining about her presence. Faye's attempt at not-stomping while stomping off after this is hilarious. The episode ends with Spike contemplating the same ambiguous card Faye drew earlier.

Obviously, this episode ranks as one of the all time greats, not just in the series but in the entire genre. With a well thought out plot, naturalistic acting, great action, brilliant art and wonderful music how could it miss? One of the great things about Bebop is its restraint in keeping its hands off the OMPOTS to keep its lead genuinely mysterious. So we aren't going to see Vicious or the enigmatic Julia again until the halfway point of the series. Well, if you think that overly detailed narratives are the hallmark of high art, well there's always Bleach for you. Still, I'll give a quick preview of what to expect. For the next three episodes, Watanabe explores more early Bebop - mostly bounty driven episodes around the core power trio of Spike, Faye & Jet. Some people think Session 8 is where the show really found its voice. That might be true, but the cast won't fill out completely until Session 9. Beyond that lies an even more interesting and artistic series. I hope to bring it to you soon!

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