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Cowboy Bebop turns a classic anime into a Saturday morning cartoon

The Netflix series settles for superficiality

Toussaint Egan is a curation editor, out to highlight the best movies, TV, anime, comics, and games. He has been writing professionally for over 8 years.

The original Cowboy Bebop anime was like a critically acclaimed band with a nigh-perfect career of defining hits, and the 2021 Cowboy Bebop is a ska-funk cover band playing through its hits. The players involved with Netflix’s new blockbuster series throw themselves into the material, and viewers might even feel a rush of joy in recognizing an old favorite reinterpreted with colorful enthusiasm. But that initial charm can’t disguise the fact that the singer only seems to know about half the lyrics, and the guitarist can’t carry a tune.

The core premise of Cowboy Bebop remains more or less the same: Bounty hunters Spike Spiegel (John Cho), Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), and Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda) zip around the solar system in a retrofitted fishing trawler dubbed “the Bebop,” hunting down criminals to earn a living. While assassins or mafiosos are often on their tails, each of the Bebop’s crewmates also outrun, or try to reconcile with, the trauma of their respective pasts. Whether in the seedy underbelly of Mars or sunbaked bubble of New Tijuana, life is coming at them fast.

From its costumes and makeup, set designs and music, this live-action incarnation of Cowboy Bebop boasts a fastidious attention to the surface details of the original anime in an effort to go one step further. Alterations to the backstories of characters make way for new arcs that offer interesting developments and dimensions not seen in the original. The show expands the character of Julia (Elene Satine), Spike’s former flame, in ways the original Cowboy Bebop never did, affording her a sense of history, presence, autonomy and motivation apart from simply being the object of affection of either Spike or his longtime nemesis Vicious. In the hands of Alex Hassell, Vicious is still a ridiculous antagonist, but rendered as more impetuously temperamental and conniving than full-on sociopathic. There’s also greater attention to the motivations behind his conquest for power other than power simply for the sake of power itself. The decision to bring back composer Yoko Kanno to perform the score for this new series demonstrates an understanding of how integral her music was to the identity of the anime.

But the stark disparity between the exaggerated tone of the Netflix series and that of the original 26-episode anime (and interquel feature film) feels like a decision by showrunner André Nemec to interpret the idea of what a cartoon would feel like in live-action rather than create a more straightforward version of Cowboy Bebop. The decision stumbles hardest in the series’ attempts at humor, be it cringe-inducing puns about Jet’s Black manhood or a character named “The Eunuch” boasting about the power that comes from castrating and devouring your enemies’ testicles.

Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black in Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop Photo: Geoffrey Short/Netflix

The original Cowboy Bebop anime, conceived and produced by screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto, animation director Toshiro Kawamoto, key animator Yutaka Nakamura, composer Yoko Kanno, and director Shinichirō Watanabe was a work of pastiche. The sci-fi western noir harkened to influences as far afield as Aerosmith, Bruce Lee, David Bowie, and Jean-Luc Godard, creating a cool melancholy punctuated with moments of action and levity. Nemec’s series is more a bricolage of the original anime’s most notable scenes and moments than a point-for-point recreation, but any reference leaves it inescapably dwarfed by its predecessor. The new series takes what was subtextual in the original anime and renders it as text, all while leaning into a more unambiguously bombastic, crude, and comically focused approach.

This is particularly evident in the bold, but ultimately lacking way the Bebop writers reorient the man trio’s personalities. Pineda’s Faye Valentine comes across as significantly less confident. The amnesiac woman, instead of reinventing herself in the wake of loss and trauma, seems caught in the midst of that process of reinvention, all the while haunted by her mission to reclaim the past and identity that she lost. The live-action Faye is more explicitly vulgar than implicitly morose, peppering her dialogue with profanities that feel more adolescent than genuine, and overall seems more eager to maintain a working relationship with Spike and Jet.

John Cho treads a fine line in his rendition of Spike Spiegel, though one that leans more visibly haunted and world weary than blithely resigned to his own metaphorical and literal “death,” à la Spike in the original series. Jet Black, the ex-cop-turned-bounty hunter who functioned as something of a unofficial father figure for the dysfunctional family dynamic of the Bebop crew in the original anime, is literally a dad in the live-action series, attempting to mend his relationship with his estranged daughter and ex-wife following a stint in prison. These aren’t the band of wayward souls in the anime who circled one another out of a shared sense of unspoken loss, but communal co-workers who shoot the shit and go bowling with one another as they gallivant across the stars hunting bounties. An understated sense of ennui and rumination over the past, the quality that made the Bebop crew feel multifaceted, feels lost as the actors are tasked with nailing their looks.

One of the most compelling aspects of the original Cowboy Bebop is its distinctive depiction of the future. While humanity had colonized the planets of the solar system in the wake of a disaster that had rendered much of Earth’s surface uninhabitable, those colonies themselves grew to resemble distinctly terrestrial locales like New York, Hong Kong, Tijuana, and Marrakesh. That choice on part of the production team imbued the anime’s world with an intriguing sense of anachronistic realism, allowing the show’s writers to riff on the genres of noir and western while still existing in a science fiction mode.

While the design of Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop dutifully replicates several of the locations seen in the anime, the sets themselves often feel more like caricatures than actual places where human beings congregate and live. For a live-action production, the places the characters visit ironically feel flat and more superficial than in the anime. As with the tone, Netflix’s Bebop emulates through exaggeration and not enough to genuinely probe and explore its universe. The scenes themselves end up feeling divorced from much context: The 10 episodes bounce between so many different planets that it becomes difficult at times to remember where exactly these characters are during any given moment or beat. Even space travel ends up being featured so sparingly throughout the series that the conspicuous absence of any dogfights involving Spike’s Swordfish II or Faye’s Red Tail spacecraft itself can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity for the season.

The cast of Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop adaptation: Spike (John Cho), Jet (Mustafa Shakir), and Faye (Daniella Pineda), the latter of whom has Ein on a leash Photo: Geoffrey Short/Netflix

Throughout season 1, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop feels unmoored aside from the soundscape of Kanno and company returning to contribute several pieces of music, new and old, to the live-action series. But even that only further underscores just how indebted the Netflix show is to the 1998 original — for as much as the live-action Cowboy Bebop attempts to create its own identity and take on its characters and universe respective to the Cowboy Bebop anime, the strongest parts of the show are not what it adds in, but rather what it lifts wholesale from the original. It doesn’t need to be the anime, it can’t be; but the crucial element that the new series lacks, and that the original anime exuded in abundance, is a confidence in its own voice. For all the inspiration it took from other forms of art and music, 1998’s Cowboy Bebop felt curated into something entirely its own. The new show just turns up the volume.

Tonally outlandish, neon-infused, and exaggeratedly acted, the live-action Cowboy Bebop series is an ambitious project in its own right. The creative team has iterated on the personality-forward style and storytelling of Shinichirō Watanabe while attempting to update that story for a global, binge-ready audience. But in execution, the choices never find their own rhythm, and fans of the anime are forced to dwell on comparisons. Those divorced from memories of the 1998 series may see something different in lighthearted-yet-excessively-violent interpretation of the material, but as a blip in the timeline of Cowboy Bebop’s legacy, Netflix’s first live-action series is a failure, however noble and interesting. The truth might be that, what works in animation often does not, or simply cannot, work in live-action without self-consciously making fun of itself at its own expense. Cowboy Bebop is new proof.

Cowboy Bebop premieres on Netflix on Nov. 19.