As a longtime fan of the momentous anime Cowboy Bebop — it’s been literally twenty years since it first aired on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim — I wasn’t sure I’d ever really want to see a live action version. But when John Cho was announced as the lead, I began to hope for the best — an adaptation that understood the cool of the original and would bring something new to the table.
Cowboy Bebop, Episodes 1-7
John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, Daniella Pineda (actors), Alex Garcia Lopez, Michael Katleman (directors), Christopher L. Yost, Alexandra E Hartman, Karl Taro Greenfeld, Liz Sagal, Vivian Lee (writers), André Nemec (show runner)
November 19, 2021
Unfortunately, the association with Cowboy Bebop is this adaptation’s biggest problem. There are moments where I wished it was an original show, rather than, you know, directly comparable to one of anime’s greatest series. Netflix’s Bebop is almost too beholden to its mammoth inspiration, and that lack of risk-taking ultimately keeps it from ever soaring as at least its own thing, if not an amazing adaptation.
To be fair to the actual show, it is fun! It’s extremely watchable, with good chemistry between the leads and enough difference from the anime plotlines to still intrigue while still trying to stay rooted in the original. It’s got the feel of a higher budget SyFy Original Series (complimentary): fun space hijinks, some jokes, some cool future tech, some gore, and it even gets queer. People who enjoy Dark Matter or Killjoys or other shows about ragtag found families in space will find plenty to entertain them here. The first few episodes were the shakiest and felt the most beholden to the anime plots, but as the plot diverges the show gets more interesting and the characters start settling in.
But…it’s not cool. As predicted, John Cho as Spike Spiegel manages to bring his own coolness to the character, and Mustafa Shakir really nails that Jet Black mix of cool dad/clueless dad energy. (He also manages to sound eerily like Beau Billingslea, Jet’s dub voice actor). Daniella Pineda’s Faye Valentine has the vibe of a millennial who has been woken up in a hostile future, and honestly I kind of dug her as a crass hottie with a foul mouth. All of them manage admirably through some less-than-stellar dialogue, but when the show is running on all cylinders they’re a joy to watch together. I want to watch these three go on adventures together, and I think they capture the prickly hostility and trust that’s core to the dynamic of the Bebop’s crew.
All that said, the show never manages to tap into the organic and loose flow of the original. In jazz, or other music performances, flow is when the musician “moves into a consciousness in which time seems to be suspended and perception of reality is blurred by unconscious forces,” according to Experiencing ‘Flow’ in Jazz Performance by Elina Hytönen-Ng. In rap and hip hop, flow is how rhyme and rhythms intersect and work harmoniously. When Spike tells a wannabe fighter in “Waltz for Venus” that, “You’re tense, I’m calm. You apply excessive force; I control that force through fluid motion […] It means becoming like clear water,” that’s flow. The rise and fall of action with the pauses of small scenes, personal in scope. The rhythmic reveals and insights into each character. The smooth motion that was so critical to the animation.
That flow is critical to Spike’s deployment of Jeet Kune Do, the martial arts conceived by Bruce Lee, and his absolutely chill resolve in the face of violence is a big part of his coolness factor. But the live action version suffers the most in direct comparison when it comes to fight sequences. Cho is slower on his feet than the average stunt double, and while the show often employs tricks like Hong Kong stylization and slow motion during the battles, it only does so much to obscure the issues. It’s not a problem in every action sequence (and not all the slow fighters are Cho), but a slow fight happens about once an episode and are especially noticeable in the first three eps.
Yoko Kanno’s soundtrack, with new and familiar tracks, is just not enough to bring the cool, and the show is not loose, it does not flow like water. Cowboy Bebop has very few pauses — even in Episode 5, which splits up the team and leaves Faye and Spike on the Bebop arguing about what bounty to pursue. They start trading stories, and while I enjoyed the breaks between storytelling in the ship and cutting to a flashback of Faye tangoing, it also felt like a quiet moment forced to be bombastic.
Part of the secret to the original Cowboy Bebop’s success was its seamless understanding and integration of various film genres along with its varied soundtrack. The live action dives into noir with an episode focused on Jet’s past as a police officer — but it feels like a riff on a riff, rather than an exploration or a playful experiment. The opening episode, which hews fairly close to the pilot of the anime, doesn’t have the script or directorial range to do a space western, stumbling without the foundational blocks it needs.
While the animated show was helmed by numerous directors and a robust writers’ room, I think the live action remake makes a critical mistake by relying on only two directors for its ten episode run. Part of the fun of moving to live action should have been playing with the extremes of the genres getting mixed up — can’t have a space western neo-noir without all those elements. Alex Garcia Lopez has a background mostly in sci-fi and fantasy shows, and it kind of feels that way watching his episodes. Michael Ketleman has a longer and more diverse resume, but there’s still a stiffness in watching the show switch from buddy comedy to noir. Why not pull in someone like Robert Rodriguez if you already have an A-list star? The writers room has a similar bias toward sci-fi/fantasy, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of familiarity with other genres, the end result feels solidly like a sci-fi show that is occasionally trying on a different genre as a visual costume.
Sometimes, the tonal dissonance between jokes and trauma with no breathing room in between feels like a lack of confidence, but I think is more a product of awkward scripts and lack of familiarity with what the anime was synthesizing.
The show is best when it is what it is, a goofy sci-fi show. Episodes 6 and 7 took nods from the original series but played around with their own tropes and plots, and they’re thus far been my favorite eps. I’m undecided on the way the show is using The Syndicate and the on-going plot with Vicious (Alex Hassell at his most cartoonish) and Julia (Elena Satine), who are full of Gideon Graves/Ramona Flowers energy. Julia herself is one of the many mysteries floating just below the surface of the Cowboy Bebop anime — sure she was used as a narrative device for Spike and Vicious, but her motivations were her own even if we never had her as a POV character. Here, she exists in the present, but currently there’s not too much depth afforded to her. However, I’m hoping her plotline swerves to wresting her agency back, and Episode 7 gave me a hint of what I needed. I’m also really into Ana, played by Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU) as the owner of a jazz club, the only neutral space in the galaxy, it seems. Elevating her character was a good move, giving other characters a sounding board while she holds her cards close to her chest.
Visible diversity was always an important part of the world of Cowboy Bebop, but race on the show feels a little off sometimes — like the show is taking liberties that it hasn’t earned. (None of these episodes had a credited Black writer listed on IMDB, either). Jet, especially, is the subject of a few jokes that land with a spectacular thud. Racial differences are acknowledged — those Jet jokes, and Faye having a quinceañera — but the dynamics between, say, Jet, his white ex-wife, and her new white husband who is also a cop, are ignored as though having three POC leads means that’s enough about that. In that vein, two characters from the anime are weirdly white-washed — Katerina, from “Asteroid Blues,” is a brassy brown woman in the anime, with a Spanish accent in the dub. In the first episode of the Netflix version, she’s a white (or light-skinned) British woman and inexplicably an heiress. It’s…strange? And feels discordant compared to the casting of the leads; she’s racialized in the anime specifically because they are in future Tijuana, and it’s a Western, and thus there are Latines. Similarly, Abdul Hakim, the dog-napper from “Stray Dog Strut,” is coded non-white in the anime. But in the live action, Hakim is a white man except for one fight scene where his digital disguise gadget makes him look like a tall Black man styled similarly to the Hakim of the anime. Are these quibbles? Maybe, but it reflects a sort of sloppy and avoidant tendency to directly engage with race in a way the anime did in its narrative.
Cowboy Bebop, the anime, is full of depths the adaptation only begins to scratch. There is an air of mystery around each character, in each episode. The traumas of each character are parcelled out in small doses, and it’s full of subtle touches. Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is not a subtle show, but it is earnest in its approach to world-building and characterization and that kept me watching. I think there’s a way for this show to find its feet — but I think it won’t ever be great until it either takes more risks and engages more deeply with the source material, or accepts itself for what it is.
Does the live action hold up to its animated forefather? No, but that doesn’t make it a failure on its own. It’s firmly in the category of fun and easy Netflix Original fare, and I think it’ll hit a sweet spot for viewers looking for lighter, adult sci-fi that’s got more going on than a Marvel movie. For the original fans, well — the anime is still here and easier to watch than it’s ever been. It’ll probably be on the front page the second you log onto Netflix. Personally, even with being in the middle of a rewatch of the original, I dug the vibes of the adaptation and I’ll probably stick around for a Season 2.