There’s an arrogant presumption that animation can be made better as live-action which, largely, has been proven untrue. This idea is explored further in the live-action adaptation of the immensely popular series Cowboy Bebop. In moments, from the outset, the Netflix series is a shot-for-shot carbon copy of the original show. The only difference is that rather than possessing the same level of vibrant style and fluid dexterity, it’s visually muddy and staid.
Failing to capture viewers from the start, it kicks off by relying fully on creating replicas of the original’s set designs. It establishes its cartoonish vibe early and, funnily enough, is often more cartoonish than the actual anime.
Had it not been based on the anime, the charm of it might outweigh the faults for sheer ambition. This level of punch and style is desired, but not when it’s going to pale in comparison to the original, and especially not when the showrunners aren’t interested in elevating any of the properties to something fresh. Too scared to adopt anything new to help elevate the source material while simultaneously dulling the edge of the story, Cowboy Bebop finds itself in an awkward limbo of being a murky reflection of an inspired original.
If you’re going to remake an anime, do something that heightens it. Do something, anything, that separates it and justifies the need—or want—for an adaptation. By going the route of mimicry, the show merely demonstrates what can’t be replicated in live-action.
In the adaptation, we meet Spike (John Cho), Jet (Mustafa Shaki), and Faye (Daniella Pineda), three bounty hunters traveling the galaxy in the year 2071 and chasing down the most violent and dangerous criminals—for the right price, of course. All of them have their pasts, some of which diverge from the original (such as Jet now having an eight-year-old daughter to anchor his motivations), while some, such as Spike, stick close to the source material.
Jet is easily the best casting, while, unfortunately, Cho as Spike is the most distracting. It’s not that he’s bad in the role. It’s not even that for fans of the original, he’s doing a poor job as Spike. However, the need to inject humor into many of his scenes and the want for him to be a smooth badass while maintaining Cho’s loveable charm cuts the character off at the knees.
Spike needed to be written with greater mystique and Cho, who has proven a deft dramatic actor in the past, should’ve been allowed to play it that way. The reliance on comedy ends up soaking into all aspects of the series so that these characters don’t seem otherworldly but over the top—that Spike’s costume isn’t an excellently suited throwback but instead goofy and cheap looking. The greatest asset of the original anime was its perfected tone and the ability to marry such grand themes and motifs such as space travel, Westerns, film-noir, jazz,and patch them seamlessly together. By doing so, they created their very own level of the medium.
Each character had their drive and their style. Spike, Jet, and Faye all looked as if they could’ve walked off of different shows but there was a unity in tone.
In the Netflix series, created by André Nemec, every scene is static which, in theory, mimics a lot of the patient pace of the original as it tries to emulate as much of the anime style as it can muster. However, each scene lacks some particular element which results in sequences that positively drag.
Cho is clearly in excellent shape but that A)Doesn’t make for a good action star and B) Doesn’t distract from the bad and stilted choreography and camera work. The fight sequences are purposely stylized, with beats slowed down so that we’re able to see each step and piece of footwork. However, rather than accentuating details, it bogs it down. In one of the few instances where fight scenes could’ve used more edits, the choreography here is sloppy and muted, with no stakes for those caught in combat.
The biggest change to the original is the liberal excuse for a harsher rating. Blood spills, characters curse, and while Faye is offered more coverage there are plenty of other opportunities for nudity. And the change to Faye’s costuming ultimately feels shallow – though the actress has defended the change- as it showcases some of the writer’s greatest misunderstanding of the series they’re adapting. There’s a deliberate point of view to her being scantily clad to show her take ownership of a body long not controlled by her.
Trying for chaste costumes while maintaining over-the-top cartoonish qualities results in something that looks hand-picked from Party City. This is particularly true for the design of Vicious (Alex Hassell), where the effect is cheap at best. Instead of creating a formidable antagonist (which, in fairness, he wasn’t much of in the original either), writer Christopher Yost instead crafts scenes for him and Julia (Elena Satine) which lack tension.
The second biggest change is the length, running for nearly full hours rather than the brisk 20ish minutes of the anime. If they were going to extend the length they should’ve made use of the extra time rather than just prolonging the odd couple shenanigans of Jet and Spike. However, the series gets a decent energy dose the minute Faye becomes more instrumental to the episodes with Pineda delivering an no-nonsense performance as a woman who believes she has nothing to loose. Their dynamic is well established , even if the dynamic between the three lacks the found family foundation of the original. Instead of forging a relationship of lost, lonesome souls, the characters stick to independent plots which lessens the emotional potency.
There’s a refreshing amount of depth to the frames, despite the lack of it in the narrative. It’s a thought-out and lived in world. Everything practical looks like it was physically built in the ’90s. The world is more tactile than other modern science fiction and fantasy series, but that just makes how it’s lit and shot all the more aggravating as the details aren’t dissected or highlighted but hidden in shadowy, prolonged shots.
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is a misguided attempt to both homage and recreate the magic of a timeless classic of its medium with little understanding of what gave the original such longevity in its popularity – people are still discovering the series now. There’s style and the show is indebted to pulpy genre pieces of the past and Cho is always a welcome lead, but for all the costuming particulars and set pieces that try and recreate the original, it’s lacking in the soul and spirit, making for an empty, hollow and passive piece of storytelling. Despite the returning work of composer Yoko Kanno, the 2021 adaptation is but a mere echo of past triumph, too insecure in its storytelling while overconfident in the belief of live-action being more engaging than animation. If it hasn’t already been proven otherwise, this should be the final nail. For all the work behind and in front of the camera, there’s no excuse for the dry and dull product that we’re left with.
Season one of Cowboy Bebop premieres November 19th on Netflix. Watch the trailer here.