That Which Made “Ballad of Fallen Angels” Beyond Mere Tribute: Cowboy Bebop Episode 05

cowboy_bebop_remastered_05[h264.ac3][niizk].mkv_snapshot_19.22_[2011.06.17_22.59.28]

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?

  1. 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)
  2. 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.

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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36 Responses to That Which Made “Ballad of Fallen Angels” Beyond Mere Tribute: Cowboy Bebop Episode 05

  1. gwern says:

    > 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.

    One of the interesting things to me is the contrasts, with Rain and with Green Bird. It works really well and people praise it, right? No one complains about them.

    But when Anno does the same thing in NGE, people go berserk! It’s the same thing – scenes of death and horror set to sentimental music to heighten the pathos and emotional content. Yet people react quite differently.

    I don’t know quite what to make of it.

    In another NGE tie-in, while the ‘Green Bird’ sequence is kind of obnoxious with the cross imagery, the stained glass window resembles strongly not so much Christian stained glass but a *Buddhist mandala*.

    Truly, there is no view from nowhere.

    • I think this is an unfair comparison. While the use of Komm, Susser Tod in End of Evangelion is comparable to the use of Rain in this episode, the song used in Eva 2.22 is a whole different story of cheeriness against violence. It’s much more blatant and delightful–some would say forced, but I think the forcedness is the point.

      • Mitch H. says:

        Context is somewhat important, too. Dunno about the new movies – haven’t seen them – but the End of Evangelion use of Komm, Susser Tod was a) too damned on-the-nose b) basically an end-of-the-world situation and c) not nearly as aesthetically pleasing.

        Mood musical dissonance is an old trick in gangster movies, because the gangster movie is inherently sentimental and romantic. The emotional arc of the “straight” gangster movie is a rejection of higher social moralities in favor of primitive, tribal codes of conduct – of unconditional loyalty to the in-group, savagery to the excluded bulk of greater society, and ruthlessness in the delineation between the two. The gangster movie is built on sentimental hypocrisy, which is the beating heart of romantic aesthetics everywhere.

        Evangelion, if it’s anything at all, is revisionist (the one thing everyone can agree to in describing it), anti-romantic (think of the bedside Shinji-comatose Asuka scene) and obnxiously, shallowly blasphemous (dur!), and the tender pietism of that song at the climax is just… deflating. It should have climaxed with “Layla” or something like it, if you ask me.

        • FWIW there is absolutely no other song I would set to the end of evangelion besides Komm susser tod.

        • Music aside, the first Godfather film juxtaposed a baptism and a series of mob hits for an unforgettable climax. This I think is the king of mood dissonance.

          Also, I fucking love Komm Susser Tod to death, sang it recently with a few dorks in karakoeke, good times at the end of the world.

          • megaroad1 says:

            An unforgettable example of mood dissonance is from the movie “Goodfellas” when Joe Pesci and Robert de Niro are beating the hell out of another mobster with Donovan’s “Atlantis” playing in the background. Easily one of the most violent scene’s I’d seen up to that point in my life while listening to lovely upbeat ‘hippy anthem’

    • This is my theory:

      NGE seems to be ‘trying harder’ to be a work that should be taken seriously. For whatever it’s worth, I think it’s quite successful. CB doesn’t seem to be trying. It’s taken quite seriously no doubt about it, but it seems effortless in doing so perhaps because of the very down-to-earth comedic episodes. If I were to find a film analogy, NGE would be more like The Lord of the Rings films, and CB is more like Pulp Fiction.

      There’s of course the case wherein the criticism is less aimed at the show itself but against the fanboys. Sigh.

      Nowhere = 0, it has to be manufactured.

      The amalgamation of Christian and Buddhist religious imagery comes not from synthesis but annihilation (of meaning), to create a new meaning precisely for the purpose of this show (and NGE): coolness. I’d go on, but I’d just be repeating everything I’ve talked about in the previous post.

      • I don’t like that explanation, either. I can’t see NGE as taking itself seriously the way something like LotR is. I think a better comparison, keeping CB as a Tarantino flick, would be NGE as a Kubrick film, and the dissonance as something like the use of singing in the Rain or Beethoven in A clockwork Orange.

        • It’s definitely perceived as such. That’s how viewers see it, and its fans.

          If that doesn’t work for you, you can listen to what Anno said during the 10th anniversary. I don’t have the exact quote, but it goes like “10 years after Evangelion I’ve yet to see anything in animation to be as truly original.” LOLOLOLOL

  2. megaroad1 says:

    OMG, I have not seen ‘The Killer’ so I’m clearly missing out in this aspect. Have to catch up on it to fully appreciate your point.

    Having said that, this episode is truly special. When I watched Cowboy Bebop for the first time I knew I was seeing something special, but this episode confirmed it beyond all doubt. And it’s also the first episode in the series which the use of music is almost sublime. I think you’ve described very well how ‘Rain’ and ‘Green Bird” are used to great effect to counterpoint the violence we are watching on screen. The flashback scene with Spike falling reminds me of some of the stuff made by Brian de Palma. And its such a little tease, finally knowing something of Spike’s past.

    A cool little piece of trivia read somewhere, is that the directors had originally planned all along that ‘Rain’ should be included in this episode, but the version sung by Steve Conte (which one can hear in the first OST). Yoko Kanno had written the song and it was recorded by the Seatbelts. Before the master was sent to Conte, they had Mai Yamane record her version (kind of a demo so to speak). When Watanabe heard her version, he decided to use that one instead of Conte’s. I’m happy he did. I think Mai Yamane’s voice fits the scene better.

    • The Killer will blow you away. You’d think you know cinematic violence. Well!

      Yes, even The Killer tries to do this, but of course they don’t have Kanno Yoko composing for them so it’s not quite beyond lame.

      That’s a pretty amazing piece of trivia you just shared. Feel free to share more. I love this kind of stuff.

    • Shinmarizu says:

      That’s an interesting trivia tidbit. I don’t know if it was the VHS dub or something, but I swear I heard Steve Conte’s version the first time I watched this episode, and after I grabbed the DVDs I heard Mai Yamane’s version. *needs to rewatch*

      Nevertheless, when the song started playing, I knew that the next few minutes would be epic, and I would not leave my seat until the end of the episode. This is still one of the best moments of my anime-watching career.

  3. Reid says:

    As much as I love John Woo movies and Robert Rodriguez movies, I owe it to myself to watch “Cowboy Bebop”. Still there’s just something holding me back…I fear jumping on the bandwagon as a late-comer to the party more than anything else.

    • If I followed your line of thought three years ago, this is how it’ll look like:

      “As much as I love Macross, and robot anime as a whole, I owe it to myself to watch Gundam. Still, there’s something holding me back… I fear jumping on the bandwagon as a late-comer to the party more than anything else.”

      Dude, I’m of oldfag age but I took on the entire Gundam franchise as a newfag and became one of the franchise’s most intense endorsers over the years. You have no idea how silly you’re being.

      • Reid says:

        I have a pretty good idea of how silly it is. My apprehension stems from being seen (I mean actually seen – some of the people I deal with on a regular basis are kind of snobs when it comes to the anime they enjoy and Cowboy Bebop is one of those shows) as a Johnny-come-lately just trying to cash in on a thing that people already know and love dearly. With me and Gundam it was a very different matter. I was thrilled that some of my friends back in high school got into UC stuff because that meant I’d have somebody to talk with about the shows. These particular Bebop “aficionados” though, they are a different and kind of nasty breed. Fortunately for me, you kind folks on this and other like-minded websites can appreciate someone who wants to get in on Bebop, since I love a lot of the stuff it remembers with love.

        • Fuck those guys. You don’t watch anime for them. You watch anime for ME.

        • megaroad1 says:

          +1 with Ghostlightning on this one. Watch whatever you like and drop whatever you don’t. And ignore the snobs. I don’t think it’s ever too late to watch something great and then share your views on it. I watched Megazone 23 for the first time a quarter of a century after it (part 1 at least) came out and then went on a desperate search for anyone who’d seen the thing to comment on it.
          Bottom line. Get yourself a copy of CB and enjoy the ride.

          • gwern says:

            Funny you mention Megazone 23; I recently ran into a long-buried bit of trivia regarding it. Carl Horn interviewing Toshio Okada and asking about what the plot of the sequel to _Wings of Honneamise_ (the infinitely delayed _Aoki Uru_) was going to be like:

            ANIMERICA: What is **_BLUE URU_** about? What’s its story?

            Okada: Have you ever seen **_STREETS OF FIRE_**?

            ANIMERICA: **_STREETS OF FIRE_**? Yes.

            Okada: That’s it.

            ANIMERICA: What?

            Okada: That’s it. There’s this girl singer, and this pilot comes with
            his airplane and takes her away, and then the hero, in his blue plane,
            comes to town [MIMICS TOUGH-GUY VOICE] “Uhhh! My girl has gone!” He
            gets very angry, gets some people together, and goes and saves her.
            [LAUGHS] That’s all.

            ANIMERICA: This was Yamaga’s idea?

            Okada: Yeah. So I said no. Never. I won’t make that film. [LAUGHS]
            Yamaga was very angry. [LAUGHS] But *I* said…

            ANIMERICA: Oh, my God. That’s–that’s why, y’know, in **_MEGAZONE
            23_**, they’re watching **_STREETS OF FIRE_**…!

            Okada: Yes.

            ANIMERICA: He really likes that movie?

            Okada: Ahhhh… He thinks I do, too. [LAUGHS]

            http://eva.onegeek.org/pipermail/evangelion/2011-August/007037.html

  4. megaroad1 says:

    “Streets of Fire” was so unbelievably campy. I had totally overseen that they’re watching that film in Megazone 23.

    • Reid says:

      I saw Streets of Fire long before I ever even heard of Megazone 23 and man-o-man do I love that movie. We have SoF to thank for both Megazone 23 AND Bubblegum Crisis. SoF is probably the closest thing a movie made in the west has ever come to having music play a central role in the story without becoming a musical, and it’s certaily the only non-anime movie I can think of that uses music in such a way to tell an action/adventure story even though the songs are all about “remembering love” rather than normal action movie themes. I get a profound sense of melancholy from SoF that I have otherwise only encountered in anime.

        • What is this awesomeness!?!?!

          • Reid says:

            Megumi Shiina, who performed the OPs for “Gundam F91” AND “0080: War in the Pocket” apparenty did a cover of “Tonight is what it Means to be Young” from the movie “Streets of Fire”. What’s crazy is that her version of the song, called “Konya wa Angel” was used in the German play “Tanz der Vampire” when the sow toured Japan a couple years back. AAAAAAND the song was also covered (a cover of a cover of a cover – the original, before SoF, was a Meat Loaf song) by Demon Kogure, the crazy awesome trilingual lead singer of Seikima II, a notorious metal band often compared to Kiss. Whew.

  5. Reid says:

    should be “Show” and now “sow”. Sorry. I didn’t want it to be mistaken as me calling Megumi Shiina as female pig haha.

    • Downloading Streets of Fire with ALL MY MIGHT.

      • Reid says:

        When you watch it, please please please do a blog post about it. I will gladly help with anything you want. Forget The Matrix, Streets of Fire is anime made live-action. You’ll see what I mean when you watch it. Of course, since I saw the movie before I really even got much into anime, I came to this realization later than if I had seen, say Megazone 23 or Bubblegum Crisis first and then watched SoF.

        • I watched it, and I dug it LOL, but I don’t know about writing a post about it. It’s pretty funny in how it tried soooo hard to be cool and fail so badly in a charming way.

  6. megaroad1 says:

    Ha, ha…love the voiceover in the vid.
    A cover, of a cover of a cover. What does one call that? I guess “We remember love” is the right place to ask the question.

    • Well, first we need to establish the referential chain. For example, let’s talk about Whisper of the Heart, which famously referenced “Country Road”

      But whose? The song was originally written and performed by John Denver and his partners, but in the film, it was Olivia Newton John’s cover (which was very successful) that was playing during the opening.

      So let’s say that the film, which had a female lead, was covering ONJ’s version. It’d then be a cover of a cover.

      The late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard would see things differently though: this ‘factual’ chain of causality is incidental. All of our life’s experience is a cover (copy) of covers and layers upon layers of covers. There is no more authentic experience, only copies. When Reid obsesses about jumping on the CB bandwagon, there is a latent anxiety about the authenticity of his enjoyment. This I think is somehow related.

      But, as Cowboy Bebop does show us, there’s no big deal about copying, covering, and/or simulating the various media it references. It’s just remembering love, or just plain love.

    • Reid says:

      In its own way, “Konya wa Angel” is very much its own song distinct from “Tonight is What it Means to be Young.” I already thought of “Streets of Fire” as a bridge between east and west but hearing this version of the song is kind of like watching Full Frontal do a “Char kick” against Banagher in “Unicorn Gundam” – it’s not exactly the same like a cover would be, considering the difference in context, but it most definitely remembers the love for the original. At the risk of abusing the phrase, in its own way, this is an even more fitting tribute to “Streets of Fire” and the “Tonight…”, both of which are largely about, well, remembering love. It’s all very melancholy and gloriously so. “Mono no aware” at work, for sure.

  7. Pingback: Cowboy Bebop ep 06 “Sympathy for The Devil” and The Episode as a Jam Session | We Remember Love

  8. Jan says:

    Wow. I’ve also been re-watching the series (dubbed this time around), and coincidentally was up to session 15 when I found this blog. Your writing is devastatingly good, And a series like Bebop deserves nothing less.

    I do have to say, I’m disappointed that you appear to have little regard or interest in exploring Vicious as a character, as I do believe there is considerable depth, however ambiguous and cryptically implied that it may be.

    Somethings to consider in this episode and Vicious in relation to other characters:

    Indeed almost all of the scarce insight we’re given into him is in relation to another character, and betrayal a common theme. Note that the two betrayals of Vicious are committed by the people we can presume he cared about most.

    When Vicious murders Mao, he simply walks into the room and observes one of his henchman perform the execution (with what I assume to be Vicious’ sword). Is this is a sign of detachment, contempt for Mao, or a ‘beast who’s lost his fangs’? Hypocrisy is a running theme with the characters of Bebop. Though this is offset by Vicious then propping a cold dead Mao up in a theater box and the deliciously creepy exchange with Faye.

    As later commented on in Jupiter Jazz, Vicious and Spike, to the impartial observer, are very similar, if not interchangeable. Though the connection is not so much maybe for similarity in the present, but mirroring contrast, Ying and Yang. This is reflected in their appearances, weapons, tactics and ideologies, and the vague cowboy vs. samurai motif (look for a quick visual of this in Honky Tonk woman, as Spike walks past a cinema screen).

    The ending credit stills provide some insight into what the dynamic between Spike, Vicious, and Julia was like. Vicious is detached and yet intense in most of the shots, the significance of this, I’m not prepared to try and work out currently. While Julia and Spike trail behind him, it almost looks at times as if it’s a noir take your kids to work-day.

    Also to consider, in one of your later entries in this blog, you make a comment about Spike’s motive and drive ultimately being Julia, and just Julia. I have a theory that Spikes yearning for Julia also extends to the friendship he had with Vicious. It’s clear by their interactions these two men had a deep caring and dare I say it, love, for each other, outside of the professional. Otherwise, why would the scars of the betrayal be shaped the way they are?

    Spike fled from a friend whom he’d betrayed by becoming involved with his lover. Only to team up, with another man who’d fled his life after he’d been spurned by his lover. Jet and Vicious (aged 36 and ~27) sure do look older than their age, don’t they? Life’s funny.

    • Thank you for the appreciative words.

      Hmm, I may indeed be unfair to Vicious. I have so very little to work with though, even as I consider your contributions to the appreciation of him as a fictional character.

      Also to consider, in one of your later entries in this blog, you make a comment about Spike’s motive and drive ultimately being Julia, and just Julia. I have a theory that Spikes yearning for Julia also extends to the friendship he had with Vicious. It’s clear by their interactions these two men had a deep caring and dare I say it, love, for each other, outside of the professional. Otherwise, why would the scars of the betrayal be shaped the way they are?

      The above, and the succeeding statement however, say more about Spike than it ever says about Vicious.

  9. Jan says:

    While the preceding comment indeed is more telling of Spike, the previous in regards to nursing both a lost love and a spurned friendship, I believe applies equally to both. Vicious gives the impression he’s at this point in his life more embittered by Spike’s betrayal than Julia’s, evidenced somewhat by the fact that he was using her name to set up a drug deal/lure Spike (Though admittedly this isn’t the first time he’s used her name in the implication of a ruse, in the case of the music box).

    Another thing I find interesting is the final set of their meeting in this episode. He, dressed in black, sits waiting, waiting for Spike to come and repent. The first thing he does is begin preaching to him! When he’s met with resistance, he grabs him, and with the ‘hand of god’, ‘expels’ him from ‘heaven.’

    It may be a stretch, but I have a feeling the lack of substantial characterization for Vicious was an intentional choice, and not an outcome due to lack of original ideas for a main villain. Whatever we learn about Spike, we essentially learn about Vicious, at least in the sense that he’ll often be the antithesis of it. We chanced upon experiencing this from Spike’s perspective, but their shared story is of two men who are similar up until a point. we are lead to believe to an extent that due to polarity of these two men, that their stories may diverge, yet they come together in a shared tragic fate.

    I’ve sort of lost my point somewhere along all this rambling. I suppose I’m just a Vicious apologist, but I really do think the show would lose some of it’s potency without him.

    • There’s nothing vicious about your being an apologist :3

      No one is suggesting that he be removed from the show! Heavens no. I and perhaps others just find it remarkable how there’s nothing really much going on with him.

      The thing is, it isn’t necessary to have a stupendously compelling archnemesis. Cowboy Bebop is fine with Vicious just being vicious and little else.

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