I won’t spend time here to break down what I think is exemplary presentation of the next, and what would apparently be the main villain – if one so chooses to read Cowboy Bebop as Spike Spiegel’s story. Suffice to say that it is consistently as good as anything I’ve seen in presenting the antagonist (bounty, or not) in a work of animation. What makes this episode different from the previous ones is the amount of blood spilled. “Asteroid Blues” had a lot of violence, but that episode had fights.
“Ballad of Fallen Angels” had murders and executions. It is a contrast to the provincial gang that Asimov Solensen attempts to escape from. The Red Dragon is a big city criminal organization. It’s attempting to adapt to the times by compromising and collaboration under Mao Yenrai. Vicious thought of him as “a beast who’s lost his fangs,” and kills him. Mao Yenrai’s last words had to do with “If only Spike were here…”
What I set out to do here is to present this session, as how Cowboy Bebop calls its episodes demonstrate how to transcend homage powerfully, as it does with John Woo’s The Killers as did Eureka SeveN with Mobile Suit Gundam.
What Eureka SeveN did with the Ramba Ral arc of Mobile Suit Gundam elevated it for me as one of the most amazing works of homage in Japanese animation. It took something iconic to its genre – the Ramba Ral desert arc in MSG, and tells it better than Gundam did. It was more important to Eureka SeveN than it is to MSG, so it put more into it: emotion, soul, back story, tragedy, you name it. It is by far, my favorite arc in the show and one of my most favorite stories in anime. What Cowboy Bebop does with The Killer is something very similar albeit smaller in scope, but more concise and concentrated in its win.
The whole episode sets up this incredible set-piece: Spike and Vicious’ showdown in the Church. The two former friends not having seen each other in ages; Vicious spending that time bound; Spike spending that time running away; there was nothing to look forward to in that reunion. Vicious intended to kill him, and Spike reciprocated with grenades.
This fight in the church, with its close-quarters shootouts remembers love for John Woo’s The Killer (1989), as the final battle in the film is also a fight in a church.
Cowboy Bebop isn’t the first, and won’t be the last of the works that reference and pay homage to The Killer, so I won’t attempt to rank and compare it with these but instead say why I consider it a great and interesting homage. The thing about John Woo’s “gunfight ballet” fight scenes is that it is outrageously campy. The show goes much further than what is plausible or believable in a gunfight. It is more Kill Bill than it is Desperado but with perhaps even more audacity if that’s possible. It is shameless and brazen about this, and this is precisely makes it special and not a fail exercise of excess.
I think it is inimitable in anime. Not even Black Lagoon with Revy “Two-hands” comes close to the particular feel of John Woo’s gunplay here. It has to do with the limitations of animation itself. Woo just piles on bodies and bodies of gangsters flailing about in their death throes punctured by bullets and shrapnel. This is beyond what TV anime can do fluidly and with such volume. So what does Cowboy Bebop (Watanabe Tetsuya, episode director; Watanabe Shinichiro, series director) do?
- It conveniently applies restraint on the whole scene. It’s convenient because it’s more difficult to go all-out like The Killer than it is to present a more toned-down but more grounded fight scene. (in terms of anime production, that is)
- Restraint is often an attribute of what many consider to be artful or tasteful; if Cowboy Bebop can’t achieve the epic level excess and gratuitousness of The Killer, then it should go for the opposite. But it still needed a high-tension, violent gunfight; and it’s not particularly easy to achieve restraint when Spike brought with him half a dozen hand grenades. It did it with effective musical score.
The Killer’s musical score for its final battle is serviceable, if cheesily “operatic.” I have very little else to say about it, and it’s hardly memorable to me at all beyond the cheesy, gratuitous camp that the whole climax was. It worked, and that is good. Cowboy Bebop however, divided its battle between two insert songs, and I present that it is due to these two pieces that this battle transcends being a homage to The Killer.
Cowboy Bebop kept “Ave Maria” in the opera house and went with insert songs for the battle in the cathedral. One thing anime can outdo live action in, is that of the setting. The Killer’s final battle looked like the interior of one of the shittiest chapels I have ever seen. It had ugly stained glass and way too many lit candles. It was ‘trying’ to look like a church. “Ballad of Fallen Angels” had its battle inside a cathedral with Gothic architecture evoking the Notre Dame itself. A little slice of Paris on Mars, much like how Aria does with its Martian Venice.
The first insert song is “Rain” and was used from Spike’s approach to the cathedral and the battle proper:
This will not be the first time Cowboy Bebop uses a Yamane Mai ballad to score the prelude to an intense gunfight, but what it does well is to set-up the harshness of the violence (as a stark contrast from the softness of the ballad) but at the same time render some gravity to the deaths and injuries. The sentimental music lends (as if to literally let the scene borrow unearned meaningfulness) dignity and poignancy to the gunfight. The nameless mooks will not necessarily be remembered, but it makes me want to remember them.
The ballad subsides and gives way to the a capella duet between Spike and Vicious, allowing their verbal exchange ring clearly even as they whisper their threats to each other. Vicious almost necessarily has to be a swordsman in a gunfight. A sword duel is the perfect vehicle for shoehorning dialogue between combatants during a fight. Despite this, Cowboy Bebop is remarkably restrained in its verbal exchanges between the former friends. As it must, it arrives at a Woo-ish Mexican standoff and a would-be mutually fatal and explosive finish, save for…
The second insert song (and the fact that it is way too early for both main antagonistic characters to die): “Green Bird.”
Even more starkly contrasting than “Rain,” this piece evokes children and innocence. The fall from the cathedral through the stained glass is one (awesome) thing, but the piece really scores the flashback to what presumably is Spike’s last and first meeting with Julia. The music fades out to what I think is a brilliant turn: Spike dreams of Julia singing to her (while the music is silent) to wake up to Faye, who he ends up calling tone-deaf. It creates a romantic subtext as must happen to the main heterosexual unattached cast members while crushing Faye with the memory of Julia in the Spike Spiegel scorecard, but on the other hand scores impressive moé field goals for the viewer scorecard. Julia is Spike’s past, Faye is our present.
I fell in love with John Woo’s The Killer when I watched it while researching this post, but ultimately it can’t and won’t do what “The Ballad of Fallen Angels” did just here. This is how to remember love.