Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
In the late ’90s, Japanese Animation was having a moment. Following the crossover success of Pokémon and the popularity of Cartoon Network’s Toonami block, more people than ever were watching anime. Some titles like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z have continued running in some variation even to today, but one series that truly helped change the perception of anime in the west was Cowboy Bebop. Anime didn’t need to just cater to 15 year old boys; it could have adult themes and expand what the medium was capable of. Cowboy Bebop is often considered one of the greatest anime of all time, and while it only had a brief 26-episode run and a movie, its continued relevance 20-plus years later (including Netflix’s live-action take), speaks volumes to the quality of the series.
Cowboy Bebop follows the exploits of Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, Faye Valentine, Edward, and Ein the corgi. They are known as the crew of the Bebop; bounty hunters who only chase the biggest marks. More often than not they miss their targets, and they have a tendency to get into trouble along the way. The sci-fi / western trappings bring to mind the TV series Firefly, another series where space cowboys run into trouble despite their best intentions. Besides the outstanding comedy and slick action sequences that are trademarks of Bebop, another element that fuses it all together is the music. Legendary anime composer Yoko Kanno’s jazz-infused score not only enhances the drama, it brings a level of sophistication to the proceedings that similar series can’t touch.
As such, the soulful and action-packed fifth episode, Ballad of Fallen Angels, encapsulates everything that makes the series sing.
The first four episodes of Cowboy Bebop work as character introductions, as we meet the Bebop and its crew of misfits. After that, the majority of episodes are standalones, giving the crew a complete and fulfilling adventure within its half-hour timeframe. But there are other installments that serve to provide a deeper glimpse into the past of our heroes, and Ballad of Fallen Angels showcases that for Spike. In it, the leader of the crime syndicate known as the Red Dragon, Mao Yenrai, has finally completed a truce with a rival. His dream of creating peace between syndicates is almost complete. That’s until his pupil, Vicious, intervenes and destroys the aircraft carrying the rival syndicate and murdering Yenrai. Blamed for the aircraft explosion and the death of its passengers, a hefty bounty is made for the successful capture of Vicious. But Spike’s interest extends beyond the bounty.
There’s an eerie sense of disloyalty that penetrates every corner of this episode. Jet is immediately wary of the situation, and despite Spike’s apparent eagerness to chase this latest bounty, he wants to sit this one out. Something about it feels too risky. Spike appears to be hiding information, which he quickly turns to asking Jet about his own checkered past. There are other parties involved with trust issues here, too, as Faye acts on the bounty on her own, running into a sea of trouble. And, of course, there’s the aforementioned betrayal of Yenrai at the hands of Vicious.
Faye’s rash judgement to accept the bounty leaves her right in the middle of the Red Dragon Syndicate and Vicious. This all builds to a sequence with frenetic action and an iconic score that create one of the best moments in the entire series. In the darkness of the cathedral, it is revealed that Spike is confronting his nemesis Vicious for the first time in years, and makes it clear that he is going to go out with guns blazing if that’s what it takes to kill Vicious once and for all. What follows is a shootout on par with the cinema of John Woo—bullets flying throughout the cathedral, splintering wood from the church pews, and destroying support beams. Ultimately, it ends where this whole fight began, with Spike and Vicious face-to-face.
The conflict won’t be resolved here, and Vicious throws Spike out a window—presumingly falling to his death. Cowboy Bebop isn’t concerned with the fates of these two men during this sequence, but rather the opportunity it represents to give audiences the most tantalizing information about Spike’s mysterious past we’ve seen yet. Recalling the moments we witnessed in the first episode, Asteroid Blues, this meeting has not only unlocked events he would’ve perhaps wanted to forget, but events that certainly led to his life as a bounty hunter. We aren’t meant to understand who all the players are yet, but we now know something very bad went down between these one-time friends.
What makes all these scenes more potent is the score from Yoko Kanno. Her memorable opening song “Tank!” sets the tone for Cowboy Bebop’s proceedings, but the insert songs for Ballad of Fallen Angels are electrifying. “Rain” plays as Spike is walking up to the cathedral to confront Vicious, and “Green Bird” plays over the flashback footage as Spike is falling from the tower. The chimes from “Rain” play into the cathedral element while the foreboding nature of the song alludes to the many funerals that are about to take place. “Green Bird” also has some drama of its own thanks to a repeating musical phrase that overlays Spike’s descent.
Ultimately, Spike doesn’t meet his demise at the end of Ballad of Fallen Angels and lives to tackle many more bounties. There are plenty of other one-off gems in the series that showcase Cowboy Bebop’s many strengths—Waltz for Venus, Toys in the Attic, Pierrot Le Fou—that equally highlight the comedy, drama, horror, and heart that makes this one of the greatest anime ever. Cowboy Bebop has resonated for so long because its time investment isn’t as challenging as some other recognizable titles in the medium, but more than that, it’s a quality show that anyone can find themselves invested in. If you’re unfamiliar with Cowboy Bebop and anime in general, “Ballad of Fallen Angels” is a riveting half-hour that will capture the attention of even the most skeptical viewer. It’s also the perfect entry to a space adventure like no other.
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Max Covill is a Freelancer for Paste Magazine. For more anime, movie, and television news and reviews you can follow him, @mhcovill.
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