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“Best. Episode. Ever!” Toonzone Talks Cowboy Bebop

by on April 17, 2011

Today Toonzone’s “Best. Episode. Ever!” feature returns to discuss Cowboy Bebop, a show that has undoubtedly been one of the best-loved Japanese animated series in North America since it began airing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block in 2001. What this “Best. Episode. Ever!” feature does is simple; we get some of the TZ staff together and we take a little time to reminisce about the episodes we love. No ranks, no winners and losers, just animation fans casually celebrating animation.

This means we do get into spoilers, so if you’re actually new to Bebop see what you’ve been missing and then come back!

For a show of such high and consistent quality like Bebop there are plenty of great options for a favorite episode. Our featured episodes are in sequential order, going from the earliest episode all the way to the end. We’ve made our hard picks and had our say; now it’s your turn to sound off. What’s your best episode ever? Tell us what you think!

Lord Dalek’s Choice: “Ballad of Fallen Angels”

When I think of “Ballad of Fallen Angels”, I think of two things. A: that it almost got pulled from broadcast due to being slated to air the weekend after 9/11 (no really!) and B: that it’s awesome. We had a somewhat cryptic taste of Spike’s backstory in the brief pre-credits teaser of “Asteroid Blues” but here we get a slightly larger chunk. Chinese gangsters on Mars, internal politics and assassination, a creepy looking guy with a stupid bird and a sweet katana, and somehow Spike Spiegel is wrapped up in the middle.

This is a show about the past. About an unnamed (for the moment) blond woman who torments Spike’s subconscious to the point where he loses his cool and becomes irrational. About the weight of Jet’s artificial arm on his psyche, and why he can’t or won’t help Spike on his quest against Vicious. About how Faye’s debts and enigmatic lifestyle leave her with a go for broke style of bounty hunting that quickly gets her over her head. We’re going to get more of this in future episodes, but its never done as well as it is here. Especially considering that the show is coming off three very lite comedy episodes and had not to this point demonstrated its full potential. The denouement aside there is no comedy whatsoever in “Ballad of Fallen Angels”; it’s a full shot of dark compelling drama that we have heretofore not seen in Cowboy Bebop.

It’s also deliciously violent. We had had violence in Cowboy Bebop in the past, but not on such a grandiose operatic scale as “Ballad…” and never again until Session #19. The Red Dragon Crime Syndicate might have semi-automatics, but they’re nothing more than cannon fodder in this episode. Swords go slice-slice-bleed, machine guns go bang-bang-bang forehead shot, and grenades go slow-mo Green Bird silent BOOOOOOM! It’s ll rendered in a fluid feature film quality style that made you wonder if you were even watching a TV show made as the bubble economy was crashing all around it.

Of course, this being Cowboy Bebop, I must also discuss the music. There are no less than three tracks in this show that appear once and never again in the series. The first: “Ave Maria”… is not Handel. Thank God. Yoko Kanno elected to record this piece in Warsaw with a full orchestra, plus acclaimed opera singer Prof. Jerzy Knetig. It’s not in the episode for very long but it’s still cool and only heightens the already operatic tone of the episode. Definitely one of my favorite tracks off the Blue Album.

“Rain”… well, it’s “Rain”. Everybody who proclaims to be a light Bebop fan knows this song backwards and forwards, so I’m probably doing it a bit of a disservice. Spike walks to the church for his duel with Mai Yamane once again on power ballad duties (This was originally supposed to be performed by Steve Conte. His version…kinda sucked). Vicious appears: “When angels fall from heaven they become demons…” Epic guitar solo. Awesome.

This brings us to “Green Bird”. Oh my. It is one of the most iconic images of the series. Spike is about to die. He is falling to his death from the church tower he was tossed out of by Vicious. He is having flashbacks to a heretofore unseen past full of gunplay, pool playing, and sexual intercourse. Accompanying this is a ghostly sounding female choir chanting lyrics in a strange mash-up language devised by the composer that are ridiculous, at least in English; in English Green Bird is a  charming a little ditty about hungry birds devouring live insects described in violent detail. No. seriously! All this sounds like rubbish on paper, but it’s so utterly  beautiful that you can’t even think of “Ballad of Fallen Angels” without saying “That’s the one with Green Bird isn’t it?” It’s just beautiful. I can’t think of anything else to say about it, really, just like the episode itself.

“Ballad of Fallen Angels”, nothing less a heavenly chant of demons and Red Dragons that defined a series.

Jacob T. Paschal’s Choice: “Waltz For Venus”

I’ve only ever sat down and watched Cowboy Bebop through a grand total of one time. Doing so showed me two things. One, it’s got a damn great cast of actors. Two, the cast is what makes the show worthwhile. “Waltz For Venus” is the one episode I’ve continually come back to, because it convinces me of both.

What really solidifies “Waltz For Venus” for me is the light-hearted nature of the guest character, Rocco Bannoro, a small-time  gangster just trying to support his little sister. Rocco’s plight is dealt with whimsically at first. After witnessing Spike casually capture some terrorists Rocco takes an instant liking to the guy, following him in hopes of being influenced by his strength. The way Nakao Ryûsei brings the charisma of the quick-on-his-feet Rocco to life amuses me to no end. Coming from a Dragon Ball Z background I think of Nakao as the faux-über polite Freeza, always with jovial with a hint of untold horror in his voice. With Rocco, Nakao breaks free of expectations and delivers a comical but earnest performance to the viewer. Ultimately, Rocco’s fate is that of many one-off characters, but the flower of hope he leaves behind for his little sister blooms nonetheless.

Speaking of the cast, I think this was the first episode that really defined my opinion of Spike as a character. Spike’s lost-in-the-past persona basically defines his overall character for much of the series. In “Waltz For Venus”, however, Spike shows genuine concern for Rocco after spending much the episode seemingly annoyed with his antics. I find that Yamadera Kô’ichi really crafts a layer of Spike we won’t see much more of in the series, if at all. For one moment I feel like Spike is finally living in the present again, rather than shuffling
around while his head is in the past. Of course, this is my own potentially loony view of the character coming into play, but hey—this is an opinion piece.

“Waltz For Venus” isn’t the ‘best episode ever’—such a thing doesn’t exist—but it’s sure as hell my favorite episode of the series.

Juu-kuchi’s Choice: “Jupiter Jazz”

The character arc of Spike Spiegel is a textbook example of how one can make a compelling story of a character with a small number of episodes. While
“Ballad of Fallen Angels” provides a perfect start and “The Real Folk Blues” a grand end, “Jupiter Jazz” has the unenviable distinction of being the bridge between those two and the lowest point of the story as per any second act. Fortunately, this two-part story fulfills its aforementioned tasks and gives us a layer of dimension not just to the tale of Spike and Vicious, but to the Bebop crew.

While searching for a runaway Faye who stole all the money in their safe, Ed’s search through cyberspace brings up a name which easily breaks Spike’s unflappable demeanor: Julia. Despite very little information, Spike goes after her, all the while leaving an angry Jet who tells him never to come back if he leaves. He does, and heads for the source of that transmission: The frozen, woman-less wasteland of the moon Callisto. While he searches for Julia, we become subject to a very subdued but intense set of events which will color our impressions of the Bebop crew from here on out.

If one word can describe the essence of all the conflict in these two episodes, it’s obviously “comrade”. Redundant as its mentioning was, these episodes are so effective in the presentation of the theme. Through the snow-covered urban blight that is Callisto, a place where there are no women and everyone is out for themselves, the feeling of necessity for a friend is all the more present. In fact, the only place where such feelings are satisfied is in warm interior settings in somber colors and “Goodnight Julia”.

This way, the episode allows us to be all the more affected when we become privy to the thoughts of our heroes. Faye, a woman who is normally playful and evasive, opens up in a way which allows us to see somebody so vulnerable and fearful to be alone. Her conversations with the episode’s guest character, Gren, highlights a kind of personality trait we have never seen from her, and sets the stage for development in further episodes. How can a woman who can have anything or anyone she wanted be so lonely and afraid to be left alone? Then there’s Jet, who says a lot of things about how upset or annoyed he is with his shipmates, but at the end of the day forgives them for their propensities. Then what of Spike, Vicious, and surprisingly Gren? Well, let’s just say “Jupiter Jazz” shows you and how much a betrayal can change one’s opinion and trust of you (just ask the many thugs who suffered a violent beatdown from Spike after mistaking him for Vicious!) We become a part of these characters’ frustrations and we begin to understand slowly but surely why these people are what they are.

These character moments make the story the glue which keeps the first and second half of the series together and cements our hold for the group. At the start of the two-parter, we are left in the cold with their rather unpleasant actions towards one another. We are irked and unsure with regards to why they would do these things. Then by the end of the two-parter, when “Space Lion” plays, we are warmed and relieved to see them coming home. They forgive one another in their own backhanded way. But by the time Spike touches down on the Bebop, this is no longer just an aggregate of people with mutual interests. At this point they have become a family, and that makes the last few episodes all the more painful.

Martianinvader’s Choice: “Speak Like A Child”

If there’s anything we learned from six seasons of Lost, it’s that if you’re going to string your viewers along with a big mystery then the answer had better be worth the wait. Very few such stories are, and even fewer have an answer more satisfying than the buildup leading to it. “Speak Like A Child”, however, is that rare story, and an episode not to be missed.

A package comes in the mail for Faye, sealed tight and covered with labels, that has been sent to her COD at a gargantuan price. Not only does Faye have no idea what it is, she wants nothing to do with paying for it and splits. Jet and Spike don’t know what to make of the contents either: a black box with a spool of tape inside it.

When they take the weird box to an enthusiast obsessed with the 20th century, they find out they have a Betamax cassette. Since most recorded media prior to 2022 was wiped out in this future, no one knows what a videotape is anymore, except for this one guy, who has to play it immediately. What comes into focus looks like a home movie made by a little girl, but then the tracking goes haywire — and to fix it Spike smashes his foot onto the Beta player, destroying it. Strange, that usually works on his ship….

The only other place Jet and Spike might be able to find a Beta player is in the ruins of Earth. They slog down 28 stories of a dilapidated skyscraper to find one and drag it all the way back, only to discover the tape doesn’t fit. Ed tells them they got a VHS, not a Beta. Just when they’re about to give up, another COD package comes for Faye, this one much larger. It’s…….a Beta player! Faye decides to come back just as they’re setting it up, and wants to see what’s on the tape. “The charge is your COD bill,” insists Jet. Faye leaves the room. But she sneaks around a corner to watch the tape in secret.

We’re about to find out what’s on the Beta tape. Was it worth the wait? Incredibly so. The little girl comes into focus again.

It’s Faye.

As the video plays, Faye and the rest of us slowly realize that she made a time capsule video in her childhood and sent it away with the player, intending to get the packages back in ten years. It’s obviously been much longer than ten years and the packages have bounced around the solar system, following Faye ever since she was unfrozen.

As all the memories Faye had lost and feared were gone forever start coming back to her, she can barely keep her tears down. Neither can we.

GWOtaku’s Choice: “Cowboy Funk”

I think it’s fair to say that Bebop is generally best remembered for its serious and sublime moments, but “Cowboy Funk” arguably prevails as its most laugh-out-loud funny episode. Here we have Spike trying to capture “Teddy the bomber”, a veritable nutjob intent on blowing up skyscrapers to send a message
about the evils of capitalism, slanted media, and the pioneering spirit…or something.

Teddy is a chump, but time and again he evades capture and makes something explode because of the clashes Spike has with the delightfully ridiculous “Cowboy Andy”. The very definition of a rich guy with way too much time on his hands, Andy comes barging in on horseback to deliver campy dialogue and get the wrong man every time–accompanied by cheerful genre music worthy of western B-flick, naturally. What does he rely on? Not evidence or planning, oh no–just instinct and inspiration! It’s hard to decide whether his amiable idiocy or Spike’s reactions to it are more entertaining. Adding to the comedy is that Andy and Spike are just a bit too alike, shown best in that great moment where the two men have same thoughts and end up ruining each other’s contingency plans. When the two finally come to blows in climax it’s a real sight, and a moment of comedy in and of itself–yes, we have a roleplaying manchild putting up a serious fight against one of the coolest and most skilled martial artists in animation! In the middle of all this is Teddy, who’s just desperate for someone to pay attention to what he’s got to say.

Speaking of which, an element of this episode that I particularly enjoy are how the terrorist and terrorism itself are so thoroughly ridiculed. Teddy’s grandiose rants about the significance of his bombings are constantly interrupted by the actions of Spike and Andy, rendering the self-important nutjob as little more than a distraction to their absurd rivalry. He’s treated like comic relief in a way similar to Andy, which was and is a refreshing thing to see in entertainment at a time when terrorist bombings were and are a serious reality in the real world.

Harley’s Choice: “Hard Luck Woman”

While “Mushroom Samba” is the episode that convinced me to get into the series, “Hard Luck Woman” is the one that left the greatest impact. There’s no real action to speak of, but there’s so much character progression.

In the 18th Session, “Speak Like a Child”, Faye obtained a BetaMax tape that contained video footage of a past she has absolutely no recollection of. “Hard Luck Woman”, the 24th Session, picks up with Faye watching the footage, rewinding, fast-forwarding and pausing, with the desperate hope that eventually it’ll spark some remembrance of her childhood home.

Ed recognizes the location shown in the video and agrees to guide Faye there for the fee of “something good.” Upon arriving, Faye meets a, now elderly, childhood friend. Their conversation sparks a sudden rush of memories she doesn’t quite comprehend yet. She returns to the Bebop to further ponder the day’s events. It’s not until a now somber Faye has her shower that her block finally crumbles and the past comes back in a flood.

The rushing water of the shower brings back memories of fountains, pools and rain from her childhood. Those lead into recollection of moments with her toys, friends, father, her bedroom and finally the accident that caused her to lose everything she knew (due to the memory loss and the many years spent in cryogenic freeze). She quickly dresses and flees the shower in a daze. On her way out, she bumps into Spike and in an uncharacteristic moment, that emphasizes how thrown Faye is, she apologizes. She leaves the ship to return to the place in her memories and recapture her life. As she preps the ship for departure, Faye tells Ed to go to the place she feels she belongs because, “Belonging is the very best thing there is.” Upon landing, Faye runs from the ship and up the road leading the home she grew up only to find it torn to the ground.

They show Faye no quarter as they bring her character arc to a conclusion. It’s quite cruel, really. Faye finally recovers her memories, only to find everything her world consisted of lost to time. She’s denied her place to belong. I mean, how can you not feel for her as she draws, in the dirt, the spot where her bed used to sit and then lays on it? Heart-wrenching.

The episode’s B-plot has Ed finding her father. She makes the tough decision to follow a man that is so single-mindedly focused on his research that he forgot he left his daughter somewhere. Ed and Ein’s departure from the team is also quite moving and together, the two plots effectively set the stage for the series’ inevitable conclusion.

Two of my favorite songs from the series are used in this episode, “Don’t Bother None” and “Call Me”.

Darklordavaitor’s Choice: “The Real Folk Blues”

Bebop wasn’t big on continuity, but it was there. This was particularly true in the legendary two-part finale, which successfully capped off the series and all of it’s storylines.

After attempting to take over the Red Dragon organization, Vicious is condemned to death by the syndicate. Vicious being Vicious, he fights his way out of his sentence and plans to take out as many people connected to him as he can. This includes including Spike and even Julia, a name Spike wouldn’t have expected to hear but has constantly been thinking of for ages.

We find Julia catching a ride with Faye, who recently left the Bebop crew. This proves to us not only that Julia is still alive and well, but also that she still has interest in Spike. She leaves Faye with a message to give to Spike; Faye returns to Bebop to tell  Spike about Julia after meeting up with him.

Spike and Julia’s brief reunion at the end of part 1 and start of part 2 is a tense but emotionally satisfying moment at the same time. You’ve heard the name Julia dropped a few times in the series, and here they are together. But the good part of that ends after the two are found and Julia is killed.

After this, Spike finds the Red Dragon headquarters to meet up with Vicious. Here is one of the most beautifully animated duels in anime history, where two hotheaded personalities finally take each other on head-to-head in strikingly fluid motion. Hopefully you know what happens at the end, and I don’t have to quote the ending line.

“The Real Folk Blues” is pretty close to perfect. It is an emotionally charged, wholly engaging conclusion to a classic of Japanese animation. The whole show was a ride worth taking, and while the detours were worthwhile the finale is the only way to end the trip.

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