Film

The Bebop Sessions 03: Ballad of Fallen Angels

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 overcoats 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 cathedrals 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 allies ship exploded on takeoff and Yenrai’s own guard lies in pools of their own blood. The silver haired man steps over their corpses. Yenrai pleads with him that the violence has to end for the syndicate to survive. His pleas end as the blade slides from under his chin and his blood hits the floor. Yenrai gasps ‘If Spike were here, you would never have done this.’ 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 certainly 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 staring at the performance on stage. He gives his name: Vicious. If is name is supposed to represent who we are, that one’s a bullseye.

MysteryManlargeSpike’s return to the past puts him in the newsstand with the motherly Annie, a photo of her revealing ties to Mao. She arms him 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. Spiegel pulls ammo and grenades from throughout the ship as Jet chides him for getting sucked back in. A call from Faye brings friction between the two.

And so Rain falls. Spike stands across Vicious in the old church.

VICIOUS

When angels are forced out of heaven, they become demons. You agree, don’t you Spike?

SPIKE

I’m just watching a bad dream I never wake up from.

VICIOUS

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 we stare at a shot of 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 dispassioned, determined mental state. 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 emptying clips and the concussive blast of the grenades. The animation is fast, fluid and expressive and the church is ripped to shreds.

A massive stained glass window frames a stalemate at the end of the battle, a heart-gripping shot of the barrel of Spikes gun against Vicious shoulder, the tip of his own sword against Spiegel’s. The two men staring into each other’s eyes, there’s a look approaching happiness painted on their faces.

VICIOUS

(calm)

You should see yourself. Do you have any idea what you look like right at this moment, Spike?

SPIKE

What?

VICIOUS

A ravenous beast. The same blood runs through both of us. The blood of a beast who wanders, hunting for the blood of others.

SPIKE

I’ve bled all that kind of blood away.

VICIOUS

(yelling)

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-cutting scene that alternates between Spike’s fall and his past reflected in his red iris. Each shot is stylish, exaggerated by the color filters and the minimalism of the onscreen actions.

COWBOY BEBOP SPIKE SIGHTWhat we see is Spike, Vicious and a tall, strong and confident blonde woman. We also see clips of the firefight that had opened the series’ first episode: the rain, the flashing muzzles, the bloody tear, the 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 a blonde head all cast in a warm orange hue. The color palette differentiates the two flashbacks- when things were good in Spike’s life and after drama turned the lives of all three. The sequence ends with an injured Spike stumbling through the night streets and her walking from a building. He collapses on his face and wakes in her care and 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. He motions her over and manages a few words through the pain: “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…

Part 02- Freestylin’

Standard
Film

Loss Prevention Private Investigator

A short piece I wrote for the Media Arts Center San Diego’s three part workshop on producing short films, under the supervision of the very talented Nate Riedel.

I have to say I’m really impressed by what the team was able to create in only a few three hour classes. It’s got a noir style and playfulness of tone that I imagined as I was writing but expressed better than I had. The choice to shoot in black and white solidified the concept.

Standard
Film

The Priceless Canvas Called Fujiko Mine

 

When Fujiko Mine first stepped onto the scene in Lupin III’s ‘Mystery Woman’, she knocked the master thief on his ass. She used her wits to best his plans, see through his disguises and utilized her ample feminine virtues to charm the arrogant womanizer into giving her everything she wanted. To celebrate the anniversary of Monkey Punch’s manga, ‘Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine’ reimagines and updates the classic from her violent, sexy perspective, adding life to the series in ways unseen since the original hand drawn pages. Like the machine gun blonde beauty, the show is a healthy, vibrant form on a 40 year old body.

Cease what you are doing and gaze at me. Stop everything save for the throwing of your heart.

Much has happened in the decades since Lupin was first put into print and after hundreds of stories, numerous series and dozens of theatrical films, our rogue’s red coat was starting to fray at the hem. Many of Lupin’s adventures featured the unabashed nudity found in M. Punch’s work but few could capture its tawdry, dirty sexuality and Lupin’s borderline sexual predator proclivities. Part of that can be chalked up to the changing of The Times. What was passable in the seventies wasn’t in the nineties and is even more dangerous now. So the tiger was defanged, and turned into a kitten batting at string. The solution was to come at it from a different angle.

Fujiko is a stellar choice. The first Lupin release to be headed by a woman, director Sayo Yamamoto’s sophomore burlesque ran a colorful brush down the curves of our Lady Looter’s brash and confident canvas to paint the most sensual and feminine character portrait this side of Leiji Matsumoto. Ms. Mine will think nothing of disrobing to seduce a weak man or use her lips to poison a strong one.

In The Woman Called Fujiko, sex is free and alive one moment and manipulative and depraved in the next. There’s a frank openness here, a striking layer of honesty under a mound of dirt that doesn’t often pull its punches. Check out the sexually charged, surprisingly dark episode ‘Prison of Love’ to see how far this shows willing to go and what it’s willing to do to get there.

Reimagining meant reintroduction. By acting as the central force that brings the cunning Lupin together with the stoic gunslinger Daisuke Jigen and the honorable samurai Goemon Ishikawa as they elude Interpol’s Inspector Zenigata, Fujiko is witness to the relationships that developed between each and the versatility of content their archetypes bring to the table. Equally fascinating is the ways in which their individual personalities have been expanded out. I mean crap, Zenigata’s no longer the defacto heel but a smart, slightly bent cop more obsessed with capturing Lupin than administering justice.

From the severe shadows to thick lined pencilwork, the entire production is rendered with stylistic flair that impossibly captures the original illustrative panel work. The compositions are fresh and new while realizing the slick and lurid voice that’s been missing from the series since its hand drawn pages. I’m not sure if it’s the shading lines or the intentional choppy frames or the occasional hyper accentuated details but the animations look like they fell out of a worm hole from the nineteen seventies. This is where I say it’s probably all those elements. It’s beautiful and sketchy and harsh and clean and abstract. The art design goes a long way to communicating the twisted fantasy version of real life in which it’s set but no ordinary people exist.

LUPIN THE THIRD- THE WOMAN CALLED FUJIKO MINEIt’s a fantasy birthed from European espionage films and French cartoons. Its aesthetic texturing allows the thirteen episodes to wildly differ from one to the next while retaining an integrity of tone. It easily jumps from Cold War paranoia to eastern mysticism to fine arts to science fiction to political drama without dropping a beat. It’s got lost treasure and megalomaniacal villainy and doped-up cults and masked phantoms and a Che Guevara stand-in. All that’s missing are the space westerns.

Yamamoto’s direction is top notch. Aside from a few moments that seem sloppy in comparison, the imagery always properly communicates the action and dramatizes the visual cues. It’s Cowboy Bebop via Fooly Cooly. It’s a bombastic and electric visual expression that only anime has ever achieved and that chaos cinema can aspire to but will never realize.

It’s not surprising given a legacy so long reaching that even Bebop, inarguably the pinnacle of human creation, was more than a little influenced by it. That Bebop’s creative backbone, Shinichiro Watanabe, is credited as Music Producer is the universe clearing its debts. Lupin’s music is great: it’s varied, appropriate for the context and playfully composed. Watanabe is joined by Takeshi Koike as character designer and head animator, whose Redline is a sensory Big Bang. The shows got chops and I’m not talking about the ones tacked onto Senor Tres’ face.

If there’s anything disappointing about The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, it’s in the episodes that bookend its progression. While never bad, the first ventures into the absurd when Lupin rides a giant narcotics statue strapped to rockets. The progression also chunks up in the final third when it focuses its narrative on a central thread and every episode starts blurring into the next, expecting you to remember specific details from the beginning that seemed innocuous at the time. As a friend observed, it changes from being a show into a film. But that sweet spot in the middle? So so good.

But it deserves credit for how it distills her relationship with the men in her life to their basic compounds. The bandit looking to steal her, the sharpshooter trying to keep her at arm’s length, the samurai who wants to earn her and the inspector who thinks he already has. The series also introduces the young Oscar as Zenigata’s loyal lieutenant. He doesn’t perfectly blend into the cast, but Oscar’s well defined and his animosity towards our heroine properly balances the ensembles dynamic. The Lupin/Fujiko chemistry is easily the most interesting of the lot; a master thief who steals for the thrill and the Femme Fatale who would gladly drape herself in nothing but jewels. One is the pleasure of getting, the other the pleasure of having.

Little boy there is nothing more I can steal from you. You’ve long been an empty shell, just as I have.

Though men dominate the cast, Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is ultimately a story about women through a woman’s eyes. It knows that they can be beautiful, they can be ugly, they can be caring and hateful. Clad in gold, guns and heels Fujiko Mine is a woman who knows who she is and what she wants and won’t let Man, Woman or God keep her from it.

Standard
Film

The Bebop Sessions 02: Freestylin’

 

Know what the key fictional difference between a bounty hunter and a private detective is? A bounty hunter hunts, a detective solves mysteries. One moves forward, the other looks back. Yeah, there are similarities- both live somewhat laterally to the law and use leads to track criminals for profit- but the bounty hunters open-ended lifestyle doesn’t accommodate sitting in an office and waiting for a client. Time’s money and he’s got a fistful to make.

Understanding that a story’s potential starts with its character archetypes is crucial to identifying why Cowboy Bebop was able to tell 26 wonderful stories. By laying its foundations on space bounty hunters, Bebop gave itself the tools to create a wide range of rich stories and build a series whose every episode exists independent from each other.

The second part of the Bebop Sessions is about those characters and the storytelling opportunities they provide, so we’re gonna start with two that are integral: Punch and Judy.

Despite the fact that the gun-slingin’ hosts of ‘Big Shots For Bounty Hunters’ aren’t complexly-defined, they are fundamental to the shows structural freedom. With a hearty ‘Hi, amigos!’, this team’s low-budget daily broadcast informs all three hundred thousand bounty hunters on the latest and biggest-paying jobs. They are characters with a practical use- they are regularly appearing mechanisms to start and update the majority of the stories and give information on the bounty heads in a way that doesn’t feel forced. They allow the characters to be anywhere in the solar system and still be on the clock.

Though it takes a couple slaps and a kick for Spike to get his old beater tv working, we tune into their show for the first time in Session # 2, Stray Dog Strut. The two flash the mugshot of pet kidnapper Abdul Hakim, the man worth 8M woolongs for breaking into a lab and stealing an experimental animal. In an attempt to shake off the men on his trail, he’s undergone extreme facial reconstruction. With fresh intel from the doctor that had performed the plastic surgery, Spike goes after the bounty.

Stray Dog Strut is a fast, fun episode that features three separate chase scenes with progressively more exotic animals and an antagonist who looks like Kareem Abdul Jabar. It also introduces the first new addition to the Bebop’s crew. Ein, the young welsh corgi.

Ein is a data dog and if you know what that is then both of you is smarter than I. Here, that apparently means he has a passable grasp on the English language and understands that pushing buttons makes things happen. The Lab Security Guards chasing Hakim (chasing Ein) race finishes with the first running the second directly through the front door of Police Headquarters. Punch and Judy tell us that no one gets paid when the bounties turn themselves in.

Stray Dog Strut is the first example of Bebop’s naming conventions, a riff on the Stray Cats 1981 song ‘Stray Cat Strut’. Look at a list of the series episodes, you’ll notice that all the titles either have musical vocabulary or directly reference real songs.

Honky Tonk Women starts with a purple-haired woman with a penchant for yellow clothes and a red blouse walking coolly into a smoke filled head shop. Spotting the silhouettes of a couple men tailing her outside, she pulls an uzi from her grocery bag and unloads the clip. Some claim that with her unbelievable luck, this woman is the legendary Poker Alice, but when the thugs casino-running boss pulls out the Ace of Hearts from her shorts, he proves that here ‘luck’ is just good ol’ fashioned ‘cheating’. He needs those talents, so makes her a deal- relieve a target of the weight of his wallet or the debt that’s put her on the lam will put her behind bars. Faye Valentine is a woman who knows when to bluff. But when the simple exchange for a mythical hacking program lands on its head, Faye hitches a ride with our bounty hunting heroes. With a sparkly new 6 million woolong bounty on her head care of Big Shots, ends up handcuffed to the Bebop’s toilet.

Faye is played by the great Wendee Lee. Lee, like David Lucas/Steven Blume, would go on to appear in virtually every other voice over dub for a more than decade, but both would do their best work here. Lee’s Faye is cocky to cover uncertainty, brash but emotionally cautious.

For its scope, Honky Tonk Women is a slickly directed quasi-Vegas heist flick full of flashing lights and clacking coins. It’s so well styled that you can almost smell the cigarette smoke in the ethereal hollowness of the song playing over the establishing shots. When Spike and Jet’s luck goes tits up and Faye steals the bounty money they had chanced into, it’s hard to not respect the way the episode plays with the here today, gone tomorrow rollercoaster of gambling. For their troubles, the two come out the end exactly one chip richer. They head back to the casino to place a last bet.

All right, let me come clean. You know how I’ve been talking up and down about how separate from each other all the episodes are? There’re two times bookmarking the entire series where a pair of episodes is chronologically connected without sharing a common title. It first happens with Honky Tonk Women and Gateway Shuffle.

Maybe I’m weird, but I’ve always found the matriarchal crime family dynamic to be cult levels of creepy. Why do the grown men of the Space Warriors need to call their eco-terrorist leader Twinkle Maria Murdock ‘Mother’? I think my discomfort comes from my belief that misfits who need obedience and the overwhelming sense of kinship could easily be duped into becoming violent fanatics. When they gun down a restaurant for serving Ganymede Sea Rat while their protectors-of-the-weak rhetoric plays over the sea of dead bodies, I have to entertain the thought that maybe I’m right.

Floating aimlessly through space at the exact moment is the food-less Faye in her gas-less Red Tail, hopelessly sending out an SOS to any passerby. She drifts within range of a destroyed shuttle and because she’s just that way Faye ends up disregarding its critically injured government agents last wish and opens the case he died protecting. He had infiltrated the Space Warriors ranks and stolen a vial of Monkey Business, a retrovirus they were using to hold the Ganymede in terror until the moon instigated new ecological protections for the Sea Rat. The room full of screaming ape men trapped in test chambers tells us Ganymede should be very afraid of what will happen if they don’t comply with the demands. The episode ends with Faye forcing her way onto the Bebop to the quiet protests of the others.

Bebop is like Jazz: there’s an underlying structure but its flexible enough to allow for improvisation. On the surface, these stories have few similarities. We’ve got a light-hearted chase, a cool high stakes game of 21 and dark social commentary on terrorism. They’re different, but, by design, they all fit within the context of the show. What’s more, aside from a few exceptions, every episode can be viewed in any order, jumping from 10 to 22 to 6 without damaging the larger narrative that a few key episode beautifully construct. That’s true versatility. And it’s all thanks to a misfit crew of bounty hunters living aboard a beat up old fishing boat flying through space. Like its characters, Cowboy Bebop is really cool but it’s the sort of cool that comes from being really smart.

See You Space Cowboy…

Part 01- Prelude

Standard