Is Netflix aware of how badly they botched their cowboy bebop live action adaptation? Fans of the classic anime already hate him. New viewers will mistake it for either your average Netflix sci-fi series like Altered Carbon or The OA, or at best a mild curiosity like Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. The funny thing is that Netflix also streams all 26 episodes of the anime so anyone can watch and compare them.
That’s not all. In advance of the November 19th release, Netflix’s social media team had posted videos that placed scenes from the new series alongside moments from the anime that inspired them in the hopes that fans would win them over Get thumbs up. But that only asked for more judgment. It’s almost like Netflix is prepared for failure.
Why is cowboy bebop legendary?
The Cowboy Bebop anime series, directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, takes place in 2071 and follows a group of bounty hunters as they roam from one mission to another. The team includes ex-criminal Spike Spiegel, ex-cop Jet, fraudster Faye, hacker child Radical Edward and genetically modified Corgi Ein.
The USP of the cowboy bebop anime is the seamless amalgamation of genres such as western, film noir, yakuza and horror in science fiction, especially cyberpunk and space opera. Yoko Kanno’s eclectic score, which combines jazz, blues, country, rock, pop, and electronica, underscores the postmodern energy of anime.
The characters themselves are more archetypes than less flesh and blood people. The stubborn and trigger-happy Spike, a hit man who left the Red Dragon crime syndicate, is a western hero. His partner Jet, who quit the police after feeling disgusted by the corruption, is straight out of the Film Noir, as is Faye with her femme fatale manner.
All three feel betrayed by people or institutions whom they have trusted in their past, which continues to haunt them. The group’s otaku rep, Radical Edward, is also unsure of their past. Even the dog Ein with his story, which scientists have experimented with, is not spared the thorough line of the series’ unresolved past. All five seek graduation, but mostly have fun in the 26 episodes, only nine of which concern their individual stories. The rest is that the group hunts rabbits throughout the solar system.
What is most noticeable about Watanabe’s anime series, and the factor that made it iconic and popular, is its attitude of unbridled cool. The fluidity with which the multi-genre influences of cowboy bebop mix and flow like fusion music or free jazz is difficult to reproduce by any other team because it is simply so distinctive.
Cowboy Bebop’s legacy is similar to that of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Tarantino, the master deejay of cinema, cuts and rolls a hundred different films and builds something apparently new out of the pieces. His second film, Pulp Fiction, provided the roadmap for other copycat directors such as Gary Fleder with Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995) and Doug Liman with Go (1999). Pulp Fiction clones aren’t exactly the same as Pulp Fiction, are they? Watanabe and his team had such confidence in the hipness of their work that they called cowboy bebop a “new genre for themselves”.
What went wrong with the live action adaptation
An episode in the Cowboy Bebop anime has a self-contained story unless it is in two parts and is no longer than 25 minutes. The pace is of course brisk. The dialogues are tough as the series has roots in noir and western genres. The humor is dry. Since the characters are archetypes, they don’t speak much and mostly float around to make an impression on the viewer. The main villain, Vicious, who only appears in four episodes, is the best example of this. His girlfriend Julia, who is Spike’s lost love, is even less seen in the anime series. Both loom like ghosts and are not firmly etched characters.
The live-action cowboy bebop series created by Andre Nemec includes 10 episodes that are between 35 and 60 minutes long and yet barely manage to convey the value of an anime episode in storytelling or ingenuity.
Nemec’s attempt is to transform impressionistic characters into full-fledged people, to give their interpersonal drama more meat and to concretize the thin plot of the anime series. This may be a misguided idea, but not necessarily a bad one. But the writing is exceptionally awful and doesn’t help Nemec reinterpret the tapestry of the original and its implicit themes to make it easy to digest for an imaginary audience that doesn’t watch anime.
For example, Vicious and Julia, who rarely appear in the anime series and are therefore obscure, appear in almost every episode of the live-action adaptation. This expanded the characters of Vicious (Alex Hassell) and Julia (Elena Satine). What we get is a mean and abusive husband in Vicious (among the many unnecessary and weird additions to the live action series is that Vicious and Julia are now married) and Julia, who is a virgin in need. Vicious is also shown as moronic at times. Vicious of the anime series was, as the name suggests, a merciless snake and a fierce fighter, while Julia from the anime had an angelic touch-me-not vibe. The transformation into a contentious couple caught in a bad marriage threatens to turn Cowboy Bebop into a soap opera.
Now apply what Nemec did with Vicious and Julia to the rest of the series and you will get an idea of its quality. Spike, who exudes effortlessly cool, is played by John Cho. His on-screen presence is just too warm and friendly for him to successfully play a dangerous hit man who is either shadowy or crooked. Spike’s frequent banter with Jet is one of the highlights of the anime series. There the dialogue between them is crisp and cut to the bone. Here, Spike’s conversations with Jet (Mustafa Shakir) aren’t just bloated to sound like unnecessary words just written to fill 10 episodes.
As for Faye (Daniella Pineda), a positive change robs the figure of its over-sexualized physicality. But Nemec also stole Faye’s sexual charge with it. The anime series is often shown to use her sexuality to deceive men and get their way. This aspect practically disappears in the live-action series. It only gets a superficial nod, as do many other elements that the creators feared would have to be kept so as not to upset the fandom.
Instead, Faye is now queer. Why? No idea. Why is Jet black now? No idea. An exercise to represent LGBTQ and people of color? Sure, but why and how does it help the story? No idea. At least the decision to make Gren explicitly non-binary makes sense. The anime Gren is a man who develops breasts after experimenting with hormone disrupting drugs in prison. On the series he is played by the non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park. The anime Gren is a former soldier, a good fighter, a cool cat who plays the saxophone in a bar. In the series, Gren lost the saxophone and is trained as a burlesque dancer and gossiped with her club’s patrons. Why? No idea.
Cho, Shakir, Pineda, Satine, and Hassell try to do their best with bad material, but they can’t do much. It’s pretty difficult to keep thinking of them as cowboy bebop characters. The jokes coined by Joss Whedon in the dialogues are excruciating.
This is not just a sip. A creator has every right to change elements in their source material, but Nemec’s choices, rather than improving the story or at least maintaining the same standard, turn cowboy bebop into a sloppy mess. Many of the colorful villains in the anime have had their backstories changed, which is fine, except that the changes actually make the story worse. It is painful to see how absolutely excellent villains like Mad Pierrot or Teddy Bomber are blunted by Nemec.
Fortunately, Radical Edward is absent from the entire series until the last few seconds of the finale. It’s a pretty tricky character to capture in live action. The Edward (Eden Perkins) we take a look at brings no hope.
The direction by Alex Garcia Lopez and Michael Katleman is just as uninspiring. Lacking a real vision like Watanabe’s, they try to convey a sense of style with endless Dutch angles, reminiscent of one of the worst films of all time, Battlefield Earth (2000). The series is full of music. Although anime composer Yoko Kanno is also part of the live-action series, the directors just don’t know how to use their score. Watanabe used her music sparingly so that after a while of silence her melodies made a difference when they emerged. This is where they feel so wasted, it’s annoying.
Although they are located on different planets and moons in the solar system and often change genres, the locations in the anime Cowboy Bebop seem to be all of a piece. The anime’s streets, buildings, and cities have a shabby, post-apocalyptic quality regardless of where Earth, Mars, or Jupiter is. The locations of the live-action series seem to have no connection to one another. One moment the characters are in a spaceship that looks exactly like everything on Battlestar Galactica, and the next moment they are in a suburb in America. Occasionally the show breaks off to a scene with spaceships and satellites just to remind us that this is science fiction. One episode, Darkside Tango, inspired by the anime episode Black Dog Serenade, is said to pay homage to film noir. How is that achieved? The directors add a sepia tint.
The wickedness of the cowboy bebop live action series must have been predictable to any fan who watched the interviews Nemec gave the press prior to its release. He kept repeating that he was trying to stay true to the “spirit” of the anime. That’s such a vague sentence. What does that mean anyway? What was worse was his apparent misinterpretation of the series. In an interview, Nemec said that he does not see the Cowboy Bebop anime series as a dystopian story, even though the entire series is set at a time when the earth is being ruined by environmental collapse and the political economy is only visibly doing with the state implicated in policing, crime has risen to a level where bounty hunters are urged to keep the peace, and all characters cover their tables in illegal or dehumanizing professions. Apparently, “Cowboy Bebop, don’t get us up” was the key mantra for Nemec and his team during production. Guess what?