“How many times did you fuck Fearless?” In one of the seemingly endless numbers of times that Vicous (Alex Hassell) and Julia (Elena Satine) have a marital spat during Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop, the above-quoted line during the opener for the final episode is what broke me. Is this Americanized take on a Japanese classic really that concerned with sex? Is this the only dynamic that screenwriter Christopher Yost could come up with?
As I made my way through the 10-episode season mostly because I hate myself, there was one thought that kept creeping into my mind after the second episode. What is this show’s fascination with sex? I don’t mean to come off as a prude (something that would be hilariously contradictory to my actual self), but why is the central conflict of this slacker space opera the fact that two guys want to sleep with one woman?
It doesn’t even end with just Vicious and Spike Spiegel (John Cho) having the hots for Julia. As a punchline for most of the jokes, there’s some manner of sexual innuendo or extremely vulgar wordplay going on. Along with that, pretty much every main character has to be involved within a vaguely sexual situation. Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) gets hit on with one of the worst written lines I think I’ve ever heard (“You are black and you are male!”). Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda) gets romantically involved with a lady mechanic as a shorthand way to show that she is searching for who she really is. Vicious even starts the ninth episode talking about how he gets his ball hair shaved.
Lest you think that’s the gist of things and I’m overreacting, the linchpin to the seventh episode is that Faye’s surrogate mother gets off on putting people in danger and acting as a hostage. She then proceeds to start making love to her wacked out gang leader husband after they kill a few people and send Faye off. Haha?
I’m not one to think that sex scenes are pointless within media. I used to be very conservative in my outlook on such matters, but a ton of life experience will change anyone as they age. As I’ve grown older -and more cynical-, I’ve come to understand the purpose sex scenes can have when used properly. Even something like no-strings-attached, tawdry sex can act as a reflection of one’s inner turmoil or spontaneous nature. Much like real-life, sex isn’t some black and white thing where one way is correct. The thing is, none of the scenes within Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop feel like they exist to emphasize a mood or emotion.
Another great example from this very show I can use as evidence is the dialogue. The original anime wasn’t saintly by any means, but Netflix’s version feels like it’s trying very hard to be taken seriously. Since “adults” like gruff men, gratuitous violence, and plenty of cursing, characters swear for no reason during action moments. Faye gets the worst of it with one of her line’s being, “Shit, crap, shit!”
That’s where my mind lands as I ponder the sexual nature of Cowboy Bebop. Did the writers not believe that American audiences would understand the subtle romance that was contained in the anime? Was it really 100% necessary to show Spike and Julia having sex intercut between Vicious killing someone? Did we also need a B-plot where Jet is angry at one of his ex-cop partners for marrying his ex-wife and sleeping with her? I really cannot understand the emphasis on this throughout each episode.
It makes me think of when video game localization mistook maturity for tons of curse words and would load foreign games with extremely vulgar English dubs. One of the most notorious examples is the dub for the original Yakuza on PS2. While the series isn’t squeaky clean by any means, having almost every line start or end with the word “Fuck” didn’t make the game feel mature. It had the opposite effect.
That is the same mistake that Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop makes. Seemingly embarrassed to be based on an anime, the writers have put as many vulgarities as they could fit into the script in an effort to mature up the proceedings. Either that or they included such language to distract from how awful the plotting and characterization are, but that’s a different discussion.
Really and truly, I don’t bring this point up to cast shame on the actors for having to read these lines. They’re all doing their jobs as the director instructed them to and they do truly seem committed to the bit. If the writing were better, I would say that the cast is bang-on for this adaptation. Shakir plays Jet in a gruff manner that sounds almost indistinguishable from the anime’s English dub while Pineda brings a ton of energy to each scene she’s in. Cho also has some of Spike’s aloofness down, it’s just that the writing doesn’t flesh these characters out on more than a visual level.
Instead of depth, we’re given Avengers-level quips and a constant sense of ennui that drags the experience down. Coupled with the aforementioned focus on sex and I’m not sure what the angle was for Cowboy Bebop. It’s one thing to want to take the groundwork of the anime and create something new based on that. It’s another to fundamentally misunderstand why the anime worked and try to compensate for that lack of understanding with vulgarity.
Maybe I’m just too blinded by my admiration for the original anime to see anything positive in Netflix’s version. That said, I did nearly enjoy the fifth episode for capturing some of the neo-noir feel that Jet’s backstory had in the anime. He really is the only character that comes out of the other side of this adaptation being mostly okay, though I still question the need for a daughter. Once again, that feels like a change made because the writers believe Americans can’t read subtle body language and mannerisms well enough to pick up on Jet’s fatherly intent.
At any rate, there’s too much inherently wrong with Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop for this article to go over. I mainly sat down and wrote this to point to one of the more obvious flaws with the show. Unless you just cannot watch TV without some mention of sex, you’d be better served not bothering with this sci-fi tale. I won’t see you later, space cowboy.