The original classic anime series “Cowboy Bebop,” premiered in 1998 and came to fame in America via “Adult Swim” in 2001, every Saturday night at midnight. It quickly gained a reputation as one of the greatest works in animation that has ever graced the television screen. Now, Netflix audaciously thinks it can do better, releasing a live-action adaptation last month. Sadly, Netflix’s cowboy is an obese and crude bore, unable or unwilling to comprehend why the original worked.
The original “Cowboy Bebop” began as a collaborative project between the legendary Hajime Yatate group inside Sunrise Studios, to create a Japanese animated mishmash of science fiction, western, and film noir. The story follows the adventures of a trio of galactic bounty hunters, led by the charismatic former-gangster-turned-kung-fu-detective Spike Siegel.
One only needs to listen to the fantastic opening intro, “Tank!” which composer Yoko Kanno said she wrote “to make music which would light a fire in me,” to know that Bebop is offering you one heck of a good time.
For millennials with yellowed memories of badly dubbed episodes of “Speed Racer” or “Sailor Moon,” the thought of watching anime can elicit groans. Perhaps reconsider.
“Cowboy Bebop” is fun, and on a critical level, genius. Every one of the 26 episodes is a work of brilliance, carrying mountains of artistic gravitas and philosophical beauty. The music by jazz prodigy Kanno, with her house band The Seatbelts, delivers an unmatched television soundtrack. Each of the 26 episodes feels like an independent 20-minute movie, each covering different genres and styles harking to the history of film and jazz.
Sex, Politics, and Pronouns
Netflix’s new “Cowboy Bebop” claims to revere the old and makes an effort to follow the original formula with ten episodes covering roughly the first half of the original show’s plot, with scenes, character names, and specific frames plucked directly from its muse. The new series is directed by André Nemec and features a cool John Cho as Spike. There is also an impressive Jet Black, played by upcoming MCU talent, Mustafa Shakir, but not all of the casting choices hit the mark.
The show’s amnesiac bounty hunter Faye is now played by Daniella Pineda. With Netflix’s go-ahead, Pineda made sure fans knew before release she thought the original was problematic. The production would be “updating” all offensive elements resulting in Pineda’s new “pro-female-protagonist” Faye, who has all the subtlety of a porn star and a quarter of the talent.
There is much “updating’ in the new “Bebop.” Gone are those paltry 20-minute episodes; now we are going for 50. Instead of self-contained stories, there are serialized plotlines. Everything is now part of the grand conspiracy. Where characters had nuanced motivations, and minority characters (like all well-written humans) contained flaws, they have all been airbrushed away. Gone is the tragic intersex character of Gren, originally inspired by David Bowie. Instead, we get Gren, the non-binary, dance club-owning, sex-positive trans icon.
After the initial release, fans and onlookers reacted poorly to a clip showcasing the poor acting by the new version of the fourth principal character, Ed, the hacker. Ed is now non-binary and played by trans actor Eden Perkins. Ed the Hacker now goes by they/them. Well, Ed can no longer be an interesting well-rounded character, but at least they have pronouns.
A Legacy that Deserves Better
To the credit of Nemec and his two best actors, much thought and effort was put into this production. Cho said he put more thought into the character of Spike than any other role he’s ever played, and it shows. Yoko Kanno came back to do the soundtrack, and Watanabe, who barely has influence here, was at least asked for his opinion. There are some real fans working on this show, and they’re swimming in garbage.
There are shining moments, especially with Spike and Jet, which could have worked if given the money and oxygen required. There are about 15 minutes of good footage in any episode, but the rest leaves viewers panning for gold. Any positives in this production, like Shakir’s fantastic portrayal of Jet Black, or even the decent take on Spike that Cho gives, are dwarfed by all the banal pandering that makes up most of the material here.
For so many, “Cowboy Bebop” was the gateway drug to anime and Japanese pop culture. I first encountered “Bebop” as a teenager watching a late-night episode on Cartoon Network’s “Toonami” in the early 2000s, “Waltz for Venus.” It was a favorite story starring spaceships, kung-fu, epic gun battles, and a brother stuck in a gang trying to earn money to cure his sister’s illness.
This story stuck with me long after watching. At the time, I was dealing with family drama, my parent’s court fights, the divorce, and the responsibility of taking care of my siblings that laid heavily on my shoulders.
Watching “Bebop” was profound. The haunting music, the touching imagery, and the intense action created an experience that, to this day, is indelibly carved into my heart anytime I hear “Tank!” Spike’s advice to his trainee Roco when fighting is to be flexible and quick at the moment, “to be like water.” It sounds silly to share, but that quote meant a lot to me and still does.
For millions of fans the world over, “Bebop” is an exceptional series. You can never go to a convention and not see dozens of people dressed as Spike, Jet, or Faye. And just like “Star Wars,” many creatives working in film, TV, animation, and video games today do so because of Watanabe’s masterpiece.
The danger with Netflix’s version is that it will supplant the actual for so many new viewers. It’s like trying the colorized, over-dubbed version of “Casablanca” first, instead of the real thing. They are only getting a taste of what makes this work of art tremendous and might become mistaken in its lack of potency.