I would have given up on Bebop if it weren’t for Ballad of Fallen Angels. I changed my mind the moment the church organ blared across the purple sunset above a crumbling Gothic cathedral. The beginning of the third act finds Spike, hands stuffed in his large overcoat pockets, walking up the cobblestone street to the lyrics of Yoko Kanno’s ‘Rain’. A woman sings.
I don’t feel a thing
and I stopped remembering.
The days are just like moments turned to hours.
‘Rain’s’ vocals are provided by Kanno-collaborator Mai Yamane. Yamane’s voice fills the air over a scene intercut with the silhouette of a silver-haired figure resting on one of the cathedral’s broken stone pillars, a katana leaning against his shoulder.
Mother used to say
If you want you’ll find a way.
But mother never danced through fire showers.
As he approaches the entrance, Spike’s footsteps echo into the high ceilings. They betray his presence to the man sitting in wait. Spike is walking back into his past.
Walk in the rain, in the rain, in the rain
I walk in the rain, in the rain
Is it right or is it wrong?
And is it here that I belong?
The bounty hunter stops in the vestibule at the beginning of the rows of pews. Footsteps echo around him and the camera points down the stairs leading to the altar cast in black below. A demon ascends from hell. The scene is so stylish, so beautifully directed, that you might not notice that not a single drop of water has fallen from the sky.
Bebop’s fifth episode opens as Mao Yenrai, capo of the Red Dragons, is betrayed moments after signing a peace treaty with the head of a rival syndicate. Their contract, sworn in blood, was rendered void as the new ally’s ship explodes on takeoff and Yenrai’s own guards lie in pools of their own blood and the silver haired man steps over their corpses. Yenrai pleads that the violence has to end for the syndicate to survive, but they end as the blade slides from under his chin and his blood splashes the floor. Yenrai’s last gasp is ‘If Spike were here, you would never have done this,’ and an impossibly large smile breaks across the silver haired man’s face.
Ballad of Fallen Angels may not be the heaviest story in the series, but it is far more serious than the ones that preceded it.
A 28M woolong bounty on Mao Yenrai for killing the head of the rival syndicate catches the attention of the Bebop crew. For the first time in the series, there’s disagreement about pursuing the money, and Jet’s hesitance conflicts with his usual stoicism. Of course, the stack of credits cloud Faye’s judgment and she leaves, looking to collect.
A performance of ‘Ave Maria’ foreshadows the events that will transpire at the cathedral. Ushered to a private box at the theater, Faye meets Mao’s pale corpse and a whisper in the ear. Turning wide-eyed, she comes face to face with the silver-haired man watching the performance on stage. He introduces himself: Vicious. If a character’s name supports their personality, that one’s a bullseye.
Spike’s return to the past puts him in the newsstand with the motherly Annie, a photo of her revealing ties to Mao. She arms Spike and he toasts to Yenrai’s name. There’s a third man in the photo that we see one time, with a familiar long face and grey hair.
As important as this episode is to me, I have to admit that the chunking up in the second act brings it down. The attempt to balance the burden of each scene as they introduce the backstory and characters ends up spreading few story points over too long a time.
With the reveal of Spike’s past, his partnership with The Black Dog becomes exponentially more interesting. Back on the Bebop, Spiegel pulls ammo and grenades from throughout the ship as Jet derides him for getting sucked back in to the old life. A call from Faye brings friction between the two.
And so ‘Rain’ falls as Spike goes to confront his past and stands across Vicious in the old church. Their conversation starts as if it had never ended.
When angels are forced out of heaven, they become demons. You agree, don’t you Spike?
I’m just watching a bad dream I never wake up from.
I’ll wake you up. Right now.
The exchange is one of the most lyrically beautiful I can recall this side of a Dashiell Hammet novel, and Spike’s opening line alludes to the existential motif that runs throughout Bebop.
The direction in this scene is powerful, as Spike draws his pistol to find Faye held as gunpoint. The music rises as our camera shot shows Spike sighting down the barrel, his eye square above it. This one angle communicates everything we need to know about what Spike’s doing, but also shows his dispassion. Rain’s church organ crescendos and Spike pulls the trigger.
Then all fucking hell breaks loose. Consider the expert composition of the unfolding scene. Suddenly, men pop up from under the benches, from behind columns, and on top of balconies. The music gone, all we have is the staccato of gunfire and concussive grenade blasts. The animation is fast, fluid, and expressive as the church is blown to Hell.
A massive stained glass window frames the battle’s stalemate, a heart-gripping shot of the barrel of Spikes gun pressed to Vicious’ shoulder, the tip of his own sword against Spiegel’s. The two men staring into each other’s eyes, bliss painting their faces.
You should see yourself. Do you have any idea what you look like right at this moment, Spike?
A ravenous beast. The same blood runs through both of us. The blood of a beast who wanders, hunting for the blood of others.
I’ve bled all that kind of blood away.
Then why are you still alive?
Vicious stabs. Spike fires. It’s slick. Vicious lives up to his name by grabbing Spike by his face, cracking a smile bigger than his mouth and throwing him through the stained glass window.
The next minute is a complete tonal shift. ‘Green Bird’, a piano lullaby set to hollow, ephemeral vocals, stitches together a quick scene that cuts between Spike’s fall and his past reflected in his red iris. Each shot is stylish.
What we see is Spike, Vicious, and a tall, strong confident blonde woman. We also see clips of the firefight that had opened the series’ first episode: the rain, flashing muzzles, bloody tear, torn letter, and the rose, all washed in cold blue. But we’re given more. Spike and Vicious fighting back to back, Vicious and the woman at a poolhall, a small clean apartment, and a gun pointed at the blonde’s head all cast in a warm orange hue. The color palette differentiates the two flashbacks- when things were good and after things went bad. The sequence ends with an injured Spike stumbling through the night streets and the woman stepping onto them. He collapses on his face and wakes in her care to her song. She looks him over and he says through his bandages “Just like that. Sing for me, please.” She smiles.
Spike wakes from his dream, wrapped head to toe in bandages back on the Bebop to a familiar humming. Faye reads next to him. She looks curiously over him and says he should be grateful to her for staying with him the last two days. All he can say through the pain is: “You sing off key.” Her face contorts in anger. Parallels between the two main women in Spike Spiegel’s life have been connected, his priorities to one have been made explicit.
There’s another version of ‘Rain’, identical save for one fact. It’s sung by Steve Conte. The two renditions speak to themselves in the moment, to each other across space.
Walk in the rain, in the rain, in the rain.
I walk in the rain, in the rain.
Why do I feel so alone?
For some reason I think of home.
See you space Cowboy…