[Hello all and welcome back to Weeb Analysis where this month we’ll be taking a look at the polarizing Western reimagining of Cowboy Bebop. Weeb Analysis is a monthly column dedicated to analyzing new anime and seeing which titles are truly the classics in the making and which ones are worthless shlock not worth your time. The question now stands: is Cowboy Bebop worth analyzing, or is it a waste of your time?]
I knew that this day would come, but I wasn’t ready for it. Not truly ready, I mean. Okay, Jesse… deep breaths…
If you ever want to strike fear into the hearts of anime fans across the world, you only need to say one key phrase to make everyone collectively wet themselves: “American live-action adaptation.” Saying such a phrase to an anime fan will instantly draw up images of Dragon Ball: Evolution, Death Note, and Ghost in the Shell, all of which are terrible. In fact, they go beyond just being terrible and are regarded as abject failures, delivering piss poor recreations of a story to audiences that never wanted to see them in the first place.
Hollywood has been trying for well over a decade to make anime into its next big gold mine. The niche is perfect for such exploitation given the sheer prominence of titles that come out of Japan on a monthly basis, not to mention its popularity with younger demographics. Just look at how much money Demon Slayer: Mugen Train made worldwide! Or how much incredible hype an anime adaptation of Chainsaw Man is getting! It’s only natural that a lot of major studios are trying to ride that train. Amazon announced it will be doing an adaptation of The Promised Neverland, Netflix glommed onto One Piece, and Akira has been languishing in production hell for almost the entire 21st century. Before any of those titles come out, allow me to peer into my crystal ball and tell you that I’m certain those productions will fail.
How do I know that? Well my dear readers, as we wrap up Weeb Analysis for 2021, let’s buckle down and hunt some whales, shall we? Let’s look at Netflix’s long-awaited adaptation of Cowboy Bebop and the middling highs and trench-like lows the show hits and come to understand why Americans need to stop trying to make live-action anime a thing.
Now, before we really start dissecting why Netflix’s adaptation of Cowboy Bebop doesn’t work, it’s important to understand the original anime and how it stacks up. Some of you may say that this is unfair as an adaptation should be able to stand on its own two feet independent of its source material. In fact, some may call me hypocrites for arguing that exact same point in my Dune review, saying that adaptations are not beholden to their source material. I still do stand by that statement as long as the adaptation is not directly inviting comparison and criticism. But Netflix’s adaptation does.
First of all, the difference between the two scenarios is one of the source media. Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune was based on a novel, which isn’t a visual medium. I mean it can be, but would you really want to read a Dune picture book? Okay, scratch that, someone should make a Dune picture book. Anyway, to turn something that originally wasn’t in a visual medium into one is fairly normal and allows for a degree of flexibility in regards to what can and can’t be adapted. Some plots and set pieces that work in a book might not make sense when they transition to film and elements of a book will need to be truncated or removed in order to fit a certain runtime or episode order.
However, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is an adaptation of something that was already in a visual medium. The 1998 anime may not be live-action, but it was a television show whose plots and characters are being overhauled to work in live-action. That would be like saying we shouldn’t compare M. Night Shyamalan’s Last Airbender movie to the animated series just because they were done in a different style of visual storytelling. Plus, Netflix invited direct comparison a few weeks ago by adding the original anime series to its catalog. It’s a bold move to be sure. I’m positive the goal of it was to gear up interest in the upcoming series by watching the anime beforehand, but it could also have the unintended effect of making people fall in love with the show then bail immediately after the first episode upon realizing that the series isn’t going to live up to the lofty heights of its older sibling.
For the record, those heights are absolutely towering. Cowboy Bebop is often regarded as being the single greatest anime of all time. Despite releasing over 20 years ago, I have yet to meet a single person who can argue that it doesn’t deserve to have that title. It may not be your favorite anime, and I personally wouldn’t put it in my Top 5, but there’s no denying the artistry and mastery of what Shinichiro Watanabe and his team at Sunrise were able to accomplish all of those years ago. Despite it only receiving critical acclaim when it was released internationally, its multicultural interpretation of the future is one that still stands out as being entirely its own 23 years after its original airing.
The series follows the ragtag crew of the spaceship Bebop as they fly around the galaxy searching for bounties. The majority of the crew are bounty hunters, or Cowboys as they’re referred to in-universe, and they’re an eclectic bunch to be sure. There’s Spike Speigel, the cool and aloof hitman turned cowboy. Jet Black, the ex-cop who’s the level-headed one of the group. Faye Valentine, an on-again-off-again femme fatale amnesiac who’s only in it for the money. Radical Ed, a young hacker extraordinaire with a penchant for mayhem. And finally Ein, the corgi. While there is somewhat of a loose overarching plot, the vast majority of the show is just one-off misadventures that tend to focus on a crew member and their problem of the week while they grapple with extreme debt and the ghosts of their respective pasts.
The beauty of Cowboy Bebop is that there’s no one single reason why the show is great. It’s a symphony of ideas constantly flowing in and out of each other. Sometimes it’s a comedy, sometimes it’s a neo-noir thriller. Sometimes you get an episode focused on Spike’s past with the deadly Red Dragon Syndicate and his lost love. Other times you get to watch everyone get high on mushrooms. Yet all of it is done with a sense of confidence and style entirely its own. The opening title credits say that the show is an example of a “new genre” and it pulls off that bold claim. This isn’t a space opera like Star Wars. It’s space jazz, where every piece is equally important, steps aside to let certain members take the stage riffing, and supports them until they take a step back, allowing a new member to shine. It’s art.
The anime is so good that there is no consensus as to which episodes are good or bad. You would assume that a show with 26 episodes that predominantly has an episodic narrative structure would have some lame ducks here and there, but that’s not true for Bebop. Every episode is great for its own individual reasons, it just comes down to which you prefer more than others. My personal favorites are “Toys in the Attic,” “Jupiter Jazz,” “Pierrot le Fou,” “Mushroom Samba,” and “Brain Scratch.” Thanks to its stand-alone structure, it also makes every episode a perfect jumping-on point for newcomers. As long as you know the basic setup, which you can figure out almost immediately, you can dive right in anywhere and have a blast.
I bring all of this up because I can’t understand why Netflix would even attempt to make a show like Cowboy Bebop in its obligatory binge model. I know that they bought the rights to the show after Tomorrow Studios, the studio behind the television adaptations of Hanna and Snowpiercer, announced the project, but not everything needs to be greenlit. To do a live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop would be akin to remaking Back to the Future. No one wants it, the criticisms would automatically be unfavorable compared to the original, the cost would not justify the perceived benefits, and did I mention no one wants it? I can guarantee you that no one who is a fan of the anime ever said they wished that it was done in live-action.
Alas, here we are. We live in a world where Netflix debuted the first ten-episode season of Cowboy Bebop on November 19, 2021, to a polarizing reception. After digesting those ten episodes over the course of a day, you should just watch the anime. This isn’t the worst live-action anime adaptation I’ve ever seen, but it’s probably the most lifeless and embarrassed to even be associated with the niche. If we’re comparing the quality between the two versions though, the gap between these two series is astronomical, and not in Netflix’s favor.
What’s most apparent about Netflix’s rendition of the seminal classic is that everything feels drab. The sets lack any real personality or charm to them with locations that feel like they could be in any show. Most of the action takes place within the interior of grey ships, bars, or abandoned factories. I’m not going to parrot the lazy criticism of “it’s not like the original, ergo it’s bad,” because even if you knew nothing about the world Bebop was based on, the world feels dull. This is a world where our main characters are bounty hunters searching for bounties. It’s a Wild West out there but the show never bothers to really drive home that feeling or even establish its setting outside of a television show replicated wonderfully here.
This is a show where humans have emigrated from Earth to live on other planets. People have colonized Mars, Jupiter, the moon, and have spaceships that serve as tankers and casinos. There are wars that were fought in this universe, but none of that enhances the experience here. It just serves as set dressing for characters to spout off that feels like world-building but doesn’t contribute in any meaningful way. When Jet mistakes Spike for a war veteran, it doesn’t mean anything because we don’t know what war is like in this world. What is war like in a universe where a powdery spray injected into your eyeballs makes you go berserk? What is war like where invulnerable and hysterical hitmen can eviscerate innocents like it was nothing? The show doesn’t bother to explain, which makes any attempt to flesh out its world seem hollow.
I knew going into this series that Netflix and Tomorrow Studios weren’t going to do a direct one-to-one adaptation of the anime, which was the right call. Why bother doing the anime again if it’s just going to be inferior? The word remix kept coming to my mind in the lead-up to the show’s release. Taking what was there and adding a different spin to it that still keeps the original’s intent but offers a new perspective on the events of a prior episode. What I didn’t expect to see was their attempt at being original was to expand Spike’s story and make his history with the Syndicate the focus of the entire show.
In the anime, the Syndicate only appeared in a handful of episodes, all of which were centered on Spike’s history with them and one of their lieutenants, Viscious. It could be argued that that’s the central plot of the series, as it takes complete focus in the two-part finale, but given the show’s pacing not dissimilar from an anthology series and a lack of strict continuity, I always viewed it as being the elements associated with Spike. The series began with a Spike story, so logically it should end with one. The live-action version, though, takes the approach that Spike is the main character of the series, so his plot should take center stage.
I do understand the approach they took with that, but it’s an inherently flawed one. Cowboy Bebop is an ensemble piece, with episodes dedicated to each of the four main characters. Yes, Spike gets a lot of the focus, but by making him the main character, that means we spend less time with Jet and Faye. Both Jet and Faye get an episode dedicated to them, but they’re constantly competing with Spike for screentime otherwise. For the record, those two episodes, “Darkside Tango” and “Galileo Hustle” are the best episodes of the season purely because they distance themselves from Spike’s plot. Plus, Spike simply isn’t all that interesting of a character here. He seems bored and cocky, not wanting to get involved in conflicts because it’s a hassle, even if it would ultimately help someone out. He’s kind of a jerk who just wants to look and sound cool, but not in the likable way where you put up with him because of his charm. No, he’s just an asshole here.
So to make his storyline the main focus wasn’t the best idea, but it gets even worse when you factor in Viscious. Out of every character from the original series, Viscious is the one to be expanded the most and it is not handled well at all. He’s an egotistical brat who’s quick to anger and turn to violence, cursing and talking about his balls an uncomfortable amount of times. He embodies toxic masculinity in a way that I think the show thought was meant to be imposing, but instead, it makes him look like an impotent crybaby with A LOT of daddy issues. To put more of a focus on him and his bizarre pageantry was a poor decision. The only moments with him that work is the moments where they just copy and pasted scenes from the anime in live-action and kept the dialogue the same. Even then, those moments aren’t deserved.
Also, be thankful that I’m trying to keep this as spoiler-free as possible because if not, the entirety of the last episode would feel my wrath for how it just horribly handles every character with poor writing, direction, and arbitrarily introduces conflict for a cliffhanger ending. God that episode sucked.
Every episode has some connection to the Syndicate in some way and it makes all of the other homages and references to the show lack importance. “Brain Scratch,” my absolute favorite episode in the anime, was adapted. In that episode, the Bebop crew attempts to apprehend a bounty on a cult leader seeking to digitize his followers and it’s a truly powerful experience. The shots, the use of sound mixing, the overall conclusion, all of it just blends together to create a starkly dark package even when compared to other episodes in the series. Here, they keep the same basic premise where a cult is trying to digitize a person’s consciousness, but it jams in the Syndicate plot without any grace. It basically just turns the episode into a therapy session for Spike and shunts any and all of the themes from the original.
This forces me to ask a question: what are the themes that this version of the show is even trying to tackle? What does this show have to say, if anything at all? The original Bebop explored ennui, moving forward from one’s past, the ramifications of war, gender dysphoria, drug usage, class division, and offered examinations of Native American cultures and beliefs. I can’t really think of any major themes that jump out at me. In fact, the one theme I would say is present is that the characters are all defined by their past, unable to escape them, which directly contradicts the original anime.
Netflix’s Bebop just exists in this amorphous blob of what people expect a modern neo-noir crime thriller to be like. You have crime families and drug deals, hitmen trying to turn good, gunfights and cursing, corrupt cops; everything that comes with the genre. It’s all passable, sure, but that’s the focus here. The passable elements are taking center stage while all of the interesting bits are pushed to the side.
Mustafa Shakir deserves more of a role than he got here because his rendition of Jet Black is perfect. From the voice to the physique to the costuming, there is no one else that could play the man. In fact, most of the casting, minus Viscious, is spot-on. Daniella Pineda delivers a solid interpretation of Faye, even if she can be a bit peppier than I would have preferred, and is ultimately a different character from the anime. Yet different does not mean bad and ultimately her character is still entertaining to watch. While Steve Blum will always be my Spike (Ed Note. Koichi Yamadera forever!), John Cho is still a good choice for the character. I just wish that everyone besides Spike had more to do.
Plus there’s this general lack of joy or levity overall. The show becomes deadly serious at times and forgets some of the inherent wackiness that was in the original anime. Cowboy Bebop wasn’t all about gang wars and grudges. It was a show that could be downright stupid. “Cowboy Funk” was an episode where a terrorist calling himself Teddy Bomber used explosives in teddy bears to attack buildings. Spike was hunting him and almost got him on multiple occasions, but was stopped each time by a boisterous bounty hunter named Cowboy Andy who always rode in on a white horse no matter where he was and who kept mistaking Spike for Teddy Bomber. It led to a comedy-of-errors that is still pretty dang funny, but here it’s replaced by unfunny banter between Jet and Spike as they work out their trust issues.
To be blunt, it’s bad Marvel humor, which in turn morphed from knock-off Joss Whedon humor. You know the kind. There’s a serious situation and the characters are destroying any and all tension by making one-off comments, tripping over each other to underplay the severity with quips and one-liners. And yes, it is bad Marvel humor because the developer of the series, Christopher Yost, wrote the screenplay for both Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok. Tone was something this show already was having problems firmly establishing, so having jokes meant to destroy it probably isn’t the smartest idea.
Truthfully I can go on and on about why the show doesn’t work. We’d be here for hours just to hear me cringe and wince at what they did to my sweet Ed and why the prospect of a season 2 featuring Ed is terrifying to me. I could talk about the unnecessary sex scenes, but Peter already took care of that splendidly. What about how Jet is given a daughter just to emphasize those generic noir stereotypes, the fact that certain scenes were made on the budget of a college film thesis, how Julia’s expanded role frankly ruins her character, the needless inclusion of Gren, and many, MANY more. Even so, the problems of Cowboy Bebop are not completely unique to it. As a matter of fact, I think that if you were to watch the show in a vacuum without any context of the original anime, while it would be underwhelming, it’s certainly watchable. No, the problems of Cowboy Bebop are what happen to all Americanized anime adaptations.
There’s a concentrated effort to beat the inspiration out of the property. Cowboy Bebop can’t be a madcap Space Western featuring bounty hunters, it needs to be a focused crime drama with a single narrative. Dragon Ball: Evolution can’t be about a young kid who lives in the mountains going on an adventure and learning kung-fu, he needs to be an outcast teenager who wants to avenge his dead grandfather. Death Note can’t have a sociopathic teenager try to become God, he needs to be socially awkward and manipulated into it by his girlfriend. All of these original stories are forced into traditional American story archetypes. They’re robbed of what made them unique by making them something they aren’t.
Then you just have the general problem of trying to turn something that was animated into live-action. Animation is able to simply convey more than flesh and blood actors can. There’s a unique language to animating fight scenes that isn’t often captured properly in the transition. I mean, we all know why Dragon Ball: Evolution’s fight scenes are atrocious, but in Cowboy Bebop they seem stilted. Spike bases his fighting style on Bruce Lee and behaving like water but here he’s so rigid and stiff, almost like he’s trying to play the role of a tough guy. It took effort to hand draw all of the cells to animate each and every fight scene in Bebop. The least they could do was get a decent fight choreographer and a cameraman who didn’t shoot nearly every scene at a Dutch angle like this is Battlefield Earth.
Most of all, it’s trying to appease an audience that isn’t interested in it. Yes, you can try and make the series more conventional to Western tastes, but who is really winning in that? You’re alienating fans of the original series and newcomers are going to think it looks too conventional and boring. Even if someone was interested, they may do research into the property and see that it’s an anime and refuse to watch it on principle alone, or watch it then go with the others to decry its existence. This is why nearly any live-action anime production is shat upon by fans in the West. Simply put, it doesn’t need to exist. If the original is there, and watchable, simplifying it for people who aren’t going to watch it anyone is just plain stupid.
That’s why Cowboy Bebop ultimately doesn’t work. It simplifies something singular and confident in its existence into something that feels ashamed to be associated with the niche. It tries to distance itself from anime, replicating reject Marvel humor, Western sensibilities, and tired tropes into a package complete with basic film school techniques that’s coasting on brand recognition. Just because it’s called Cowboy Bebop doesn’t make it a new genre due to its quality. It makes it a pale imitator, unable to escape the shadow of its extremely superior older brother, no matter how ashamed it is to be related to it.
Cowboy Bebop isn’t a good show, but it isn’t the worst thing I’ve seen all year. Believe me, I would much rather watch a show like Cowboy Bebop which just makes me shake my head in apathy and sadness than watch something like The Promised Neverland again, which easily makes my blood boil. That is a complete failure. This is not. This is just what Netflix and Tomorrow Studios cooked up to feed audiences their next big binge even if it originally didn’t fit a binge model. It’s anime for people that don’t want to watch anime. Okay, they don’t have to watch anime now. In exchange, they don’t get to complain about the quality of the show. Don’t like it? Good! Go watch the anime and see exactly why Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is inferior to the original in virtually every single way.
Netflix may not have intended it, but putting their version of Bebop on Netflix was a great advertisement for the original series.
January 2021: Anime of the Year Awards 2020
February 2021: Akudama Drive
March 2021: On-Gaku: Our Sound
April 2021: The Promised Neverland
May 2021: SK8 the Infinity
June 2021: Odd Taxi
July 2021: Beastars
August 2021: Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop
September 2021: The Idaten Deities Know Only Peace
October 2021: Star Wars Visions
November 2021: One Piece