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We Need to Talk About 2021’s ‘Cowboy Bebop’

Does the new Cowboy Bebop have its own rhythm, or does it have an identity crisis?

On April 2020, I wrote the article “Why you should binge ‘Cowboy Bebop’”, which as the title suggests, is why you should watch what I consider to be the greatest piece of TV anime. As long as that piece was, largely from me gushing over the many aspects of the late ’90s anime, never did I mention the existence of the live-action adaptation, which was on production hiatus at the time due to the pandemic. Whether or not it was me forgetting Netflix’s live-action adaptation, there has been a bad reputation over the majority of live-action adaptations based on anime franchises from Dragonball Evolution to Netflix’s Death Note

Since we had to wait since its announcement in 2017, have our fears towards this long-awaited new take on Bebop come true? Before we take a deep dive, we should address what Cowboy Bebop is for those unaware of any version of Bebop

Set in the year 2171, Netflix’s latest focuses on the adventures of a ragtag group of bounty hunters (also referred to as “cowboys”) Spike Spiegel and Jet Black chasing down criminals across the Solar System on the Bebop spaceship. During their profession where they are always short on cash, the two find some new and unexpected crew-mates, such as the con artist Faye Valentine and the Welsh Corgi dog Ein, whilst Spike’s criminal past comes back as a threat towards all of them. 

The first issue you immediately have with this type of adaptation is how do you transition from animation to live-action. Especially in the case of Cowboy Bebop’s diverse world-building, in which space travel across our galaxy is possible and despite technological advances, there is a retro aesthetic that mostly reflects jazz culture.

So much so that a particular underground jazz club on Mars is a recurring location throughout the show. More cartoony than the cartoon I would say, this adaptation embraces some of the wackiness of the anime, evoking storylines such as Teddy Bomber and the Space Warriors, the latter of which features a terrific guest starring turn from Adrienne Barbeau. 

You do get the sense that showrunner André Nemec and the writers (including head writer Christopher Yost) have done their homework, even dropping a number of Easter eggs that the fans will recognize. However, there are some false steps along the way, starting with how they approach the tone, which was always going to be a challenge.  

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With an opening title sequence that perfectly recreates the anime’s own opening – even using the song “Tank!” written by Yoko Kanno and performed by Seatbelts, both of which return to score this show – what we get is a jazz-based space western about bounty hunters and gangsters, with a healthy balance of action and comedy.

To some extent, the anime was that kind of show, but also so much more, with a multi-layered tone that can go from melancholic, spiritual, scary, etc. With the Netflix show, it seems like they are sticking with one layer – with a score that is predominately jazz – and doing it really well, but you always feel like something is missing. 

If there is one saving grace throughout the show, it is the three central leads that embody the characters that were originally conceived for animation. John Cho is Spike Spiegel, Mustafa Shakir is Jet Black and Daniella Pineda is Faye Valentine. A lot of the best sequences are just these three hanging out, from the buddy movie relationship between Spike and Jet, to Faye’s constant spattering towards others.

Without going into spoilers, one noticeable difference between the anime and the live-action show is the characters’ own relationship with their past. The anime may have episodes that touched upon the characters’ backstories, though there was still an ambiguity in that we never get the full picture of what really happened.

But with this show, it is all about the backstory, including a whole episode that is essentially one big flashback, and there is some interesting stuff in expanding and putting their own spin on certain elements from the anime, even if again, it kind of misses the point of Cowboy Bebop

Instead of 26 episodes that are each 20 minutes, you have ten episodes that range from 40 to 50 minutes. Thus they have to expand the ongoing narrative, resulting in a greater role for Alex Hassell’s Vicious and Elena Satine’s Julia.

Because he is so quintessentially an anime villain from his cold persona, gray-haired appearance and choice of weapon that is a katana, they had to rethink the character of Vicious from both a writing and performance standpoint, resulting in a villain that is more hammy than menacing. The changes towards Julia are also apparent, leading to decisions that will be divisive towards the fandom, but could open the door for a possible second season that could steer the world of Cowboy Bebop in a new direction.

cowboy bebop
Cowboy Bebop S 1 Review
A similar case with the majority of live-action Disney adaptations, it embraces a lot of sensibility of the source material, despite not reaching the depth of what made it special. The Netflix show sticks with one aspect of the anime and does it well, but if there are plans for more episodes to come, they should take risks by bringing something new. On the plus side, if there are any newcomers who are introduced to the world of Bebop here, they will hopefully track down the anime that Netflix is streaming right now.
Reader Rating0 Votes
The central trio that is Spike, Jet and Faye are perfectly cast.
Yoko Kanno is forever the queen of scoring anime and a lot of musical sensibilities are brought here.
As a jazz-based space western about bounty hunters and gangsters, with a healthy balance of action and comedy, it delivers just that...
...however, it loses its multi-layered tone that made the anime unique.
Some of the deviations from the source material, notably the expansion of Vicious's role, don't really work.

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