There is a reason why anime storylines function best within the context of the genre. Animation allows for more creative freedom, more narrative, and decorative possibilities, and people have gotten used to the Japanese way of drawing and presenting animated storylines. That is why even Japanese filmmakers were seldom successful when making live-action adaptations of famous anime series, with the live-action works not being even close to the animated originals. Unfortunately, this is as well the case with Cowboy Bebop, as you will find out in our review.
We understand the need to recreate something animated in a live-action context, but that rarely works out. Now, Netflix has also entered the world of live-action anime adaptations and has decided to remake one of the most famous 1990s anime series, and one of the most lauded ever – Cowboy Bebop.
Now, there is a reason why Cowboy Bebop is a cult classic show and why it is considered a work of art. That same reason is, probably, why no one ever dared to touch it until now. Netflix announced in 2018 that it would produce and stream the live-action series, with John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, Daniella Pineda and Alex Hassell cast in lead roles as Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, Faye Valentine and Vicious respectively.
So, was Netflix successful in its endeavor, or is the live-action Cowboy Bebop just another pale attempt at a live-action anime adaptation? We have had the pleasure of watching the show and these are our thoughts on this live-action adaptation.
Cowboy Bebop certainly wants to come off as strong. Namely, Netflix is very much aware of what it is adapting and how important Cowboy Bebop is, which is why they wanted to remake the show as literally as possible. Now, live-action remakes aren’t really the same as anime, different rules govern these two genres, but in terms of authenticity, Cowboy Bebop tried very hard to do everything it had to do to look, taste and feel like the original 1998 anime.
And while a first-look glance at the show suggested that it succeeded in doing exactly that, a more thorough examination of the show showed us that looks can be deceiving.
As far as the visuals are concerned, Cowboy Bebop is very flamboyant, very colorful and we cannot really deny the effort put into the production design, especially since the crew behind it tried so much to replicate the production design of the anime itself. Now, where it succeeded on a superficial level, if you – and we could not do it – scratch even a bit beneath the surface, you’ll see that it is a very pale imitation.
The ambiance of the original Cowboy Bebop anime was specific, it was a reflection of the 1990s, but also of a long-standing anime tradition of crafting magic worlds there the production design, in a way, spoke for itself and told a big chunk of the story. The production design was part of the narrative in the original anime, and here – it was just a facade, a form of pseudoarchitecture, as Le Corbusier would say, where you had a flamboyant exterior, behind which there is – very little, if anything at all.
The same applies to a lot of the show, not just the production design, sadly. The effort is, as we have said, visible, and Netflix tried hard to make its version of Cowboy Bebop both faithful to the original and also original in a way, creating a mix that wasn’t all too faithful to the original, while its inherent originality wasn’t enough to capture our attention.
There was simply something missing in the whole adaptation. It wasn’t the plot, as the show really followed the original narrative without many deviations; it wasn’t the cast, whom we are going to talk about later; but it was something. The show was full of flair, it was flamboyant, it was explosive, but it wasn’t an anime. And that was the issue.
The original Cowboy Bebop had a soul, a soul that owed much of its existence to the fact that Cowboy Bebop was an anime. Anime is a very specific genre and the Japanese artists behind some of the classics usually manage to bring forth a very specific aesthetic, alongside a very specific emotion inherent to Japan. That is very difficult to replicate even for Japanese filmmakers who try to do a live-action version of an anime, let alone for Western filmmakers, who can only hope to make a good replica and nothing more.
And while Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop was a good replica, for the most part, it was completely soulless and ended up being a very pale attempt, thus proving, once again, that a live-action remake is rarely a good idea; we know that live-action adaptations of One Piece and Sword Art Online are also in the making, but seeing how this one was made, we’re not very hopeful.
If you thought, though, that everything was bad about this adaptation, we have to talk about the cast. If Netflix did anything right, it was the casting. John Cho is very authentic as the beloved Spike Spiegel, and his persona is brilliantly supplemented by both Mustafa Shakir (as Jet Black) and Daniella Pineda (as Faye Valentine). The supporting cast, especially the antagonists, was also well cast, with a special emphasis on Elena Satine (as Julia).
The casting that we thought was problematic was that of Alex Hassell as Vicious, not because Hassell wasn’t a good choice, but because the character looked more like a Sunday morning matinee villain or a classic Doctor Who villain rather than the original villain we know from the anime. Eden Perkins also appears as “Radical Ed” but we see so little of her that it’s more of a disappointment (because we wanted more) than anything else.
And with this, we can conclude our review. Cowboy Bebop is by no means a bad adaptation; in fact, it does everything it has to do very well, but the problem is – that’s just not it. We’ve already seen what Cowboy Bebop can look like and when you’ve seen the real thing, why would you accept a cheap imitation that barely manages to mimic the original? Because Netflix’s adaptation is just that – a cheap imitation that tries to turn a profit on a well-established and popular brand.
It’s not bad, it’s not faulty, but it’s also not good. It’s not good because we, as viewers, know what we want. We know what Cowboy Bebop is and we know very well what we expect to see, and Netflix’s adaptation – sans the great cast – didn’t deliver, but we really cannot but wonder whether it even could. It is relatively easy to mimic something if you have enough resources, but you cannot mimic the soul of the original work, and Netflix’s adaptation just doesn’t have a distinct soul of its own.
This is sad. Netflix’s adaptation actually looks more like a weird set of Doctor Who episodes than an anime adaptation, but even in that aspect, it fails to deliver, like Doctor Who usually delivers. Kudos for the casting, but everything else is below what we had expected (and even deserved), which is why we couldn’t really go any higher with our score.
Cowboy Bebop is streaming globally on Netflix as of November 19, 2021.