When it comes to adaptations, there are those who are loyalists and those who are experimentalists. As a representation of the original anime by Shinichirō Watanabe, Cowboy Bebop was always going to be divisive. The beloved anime is infamously successful, however, it was a noted departure from the standard anime of its time. Bebop was stylish and thoughtful, it was dark and violent, it blended genres together seamlessly with a beautiful and experimental jazz soundtrack.
In that way, Bebop is undeniably a series that is unique and nigh impossible to duplicate. Therefore, translating the twenty-six episodes and movie always felt like an impossible task. Lean into the loyalty to the series, and it might seem like an imitation rather than its own piece. Lean into the experimentation, and the 25 years of accumulated fans might be in an uproar.
So it’s hard to call Netflix’s rendition of Cowboy Bebop a success, because it’s impossible to capture the wonder of the original anime, especially in its live-action form, and with the burden of its fanbase, it would have taken some serious gall to go off the script of the original storyline.
Netflix’s series follows Spike Spiegel (John Cho), a bounty hunter on the ship Bebop, and his partner Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), an ex ISSP cop and current bounty hunter. They are also later joined by Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), a con artist and fellow bounty hunter. As far as casting goes, the live-action series nails the three leading characters spot on. When it comes to the anime, Spike, Jet, and Faye were always going to be the easiest to cast in comparison to Ed, a young girl who is a hacker, and Ein, a literal intelligent Corgi.
Cho, Shakir, and Pineda get along, with magnificent chemistry bouncing back and forth between the trio as they fly through space going after bounties. And, as the story progresses, we slowly learn the histories of the three characters and how they eventually found their way into bounty hunting. At the risk of spoiling a 25-year-old anime, I’ll just say it’s complicated.
At the center of this is Spike’s story, which involves a crime syndicate. His skeletons in the closet include his nemesis Vicious (Alex Hassell) and his long-lost love Julia (Elena Satine). As far as backstories go, Spike’s always took center stage in the anime, but the heart of what made Bebop so enjoyable wasn’t really about the syndicate, but about people running from their pasts. Hassell is dramatic with his bulging eyes and barely contained fury, but lacks any subtlety to be truly terrifying. Similarly, Satine’s Julia feels cookie-cutter, and despite the amount of time we spend with her, she never seems to fully develop into anything complex.
The problem with Bebop the live-action show is that it fails to find a balance between loyalty and experimentation. Showrunner André Nemec seems determined to stay as close to the source as possible while adapting to the live-action changes, and it is to his detriment. Perhaps if Bebop was based on a less well-known anime, he might have gotten away with it, but that isn’t the case. For many Western audiences, Bebop the anime was their gateway drug into the world of anime, so there will be a scrutinizing audience.
Its cast of supporting characters could also do with some diversifying, for a series based on a Japanese anime, there is essentially one Asian character who speaks in the series and that’s Spike. As an Asian critic, I expected the diverse futuristic solar system, which seems to enjoy an Asian aesthetic (as so many futuristic stories do), to have a look that reflects the future. Of course, I’m not saying everyone needs to be Asian, but it’s hard to ignore after ten episodes the lack of diversity beyond the three leading cast members.
Despite its many faults, I found myself giving this series a chance, but with the knowledge that it would likely disappoint. You’ve heard the phrase “too big to fail”? Well, this project always had the vibe of “too big to succeed”. Rarely, if ever, do anime adaptations do well. If there is a second season, as the series hints at with its ending, a direction change is needed. Perhaps now that the first season has moved past its root and echoing the original, it can begin to innovate.
Should fans give this series a shot? Yes. It’s quirky and odd, it’s dark and violent, it has heart (though that heart is Grinch-sized at some points), and it blends some genres (though admittedly in an imitation of its inspiration). By the end of the series, it feels like the show has gained some of its footing. Particularly around episode 7, there’s a distinct shift in the wind. A second season should be full of what is good about the series, the trio, the bounty hunting, the shenanigans. And maybe we can cut some of the fat of the Syndicate to the side?
Cowboy Bebop premieres on Netflix this Friday, November 19, 2021.