Cowboy Bebop: Live Action Adaptation Falls Awkwardly Between Being Too Faithful and Not Different Enough

Dept. of Cowboys and Woolongs


The original Cowboy Bebop anime is a vibe.

If you’ve not experienced it (and why the hell not, it’s on Netflix now) Cowboy Bebop is an almost perfect melding of music, action, visuals, character and backstory. 26 episodes (and a movie!) of what is ostensibly the freewheeling adventures of a gang of bounty hunters (aka “cowboys”) aboard the good ship Bebop. Plying their trade in a solar system fully settled by humanity and linked through hyperspace gates. All accompanied by the amazing space jazz of Yoko Kanno and the SEATBELTS

It was funny, exciting, sad, crazy, but most of all cool.

Adapting Cowboy Bebop for live action was always going to be difficult.

Changes were always going to have to be made. Anime and live action are very different media and just recreating the original shot-for-shot would have never worked. The audience for a 26 episode anime series (in 1998!) and that for a 10 episode sci-fi series on Netflix (in 2021!) are very different.

My biggest problem with this new series is that so many of the changes made are just bad.

Things start off well enough. John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, and Daniella Pineda capture the spirit of the central trio, (yes trio, at least for this first series), of Spike Siegel, Jet Black, and Faye Valentine. Mustafa Shakir, in particular, does a fantastic job of embodying Jet Black without mimicking he original. He perfectly captures the “Jet Black” that lives in your head.

Boogie Woogie Feng Shui

John Cho’s Spike loses some of the devil may care attitude of the original, coming off as more of an ass at times, but has some fun banter at others.

Daniella Pineda captures most of the coolness of Faye Valentine. At times she can veer into whininess, but many of Faye’s anime expressions wouldn’t translate well to live action anyway. I have zero complaints about Pineda’s wardrobe. Some things simply cannot, and should not, survive the transition from anime to live action.

The ships and world of Cowboy Bebop all look pretty great, although there is a slight reliance on visiting the smaller towns of the solar system, rather than the budget devouring, gleaming megalopolises that the Bebop frequented a few times in the series. Sadly there are also less action scenes built around the Swordfish and Red Tail (and Jet doesn’t even have the Hammerhead this season!). 

In most cases, the showrunners have gone for visual fidelity over thematic, moving scenes around and trying them in new configurations, and in many cases this works. Almost like a remix of the original series.

But then we get to the antagonists.

If you’ve not seen the anime, it consisted of a mix of standalone episodes, which mostly filled out the world, and mythology episodes that delved deep into everyone’s past. Of particular importance were Spike’s connections to a striking man with long white hair, Vicious (that’s his name, not an adjective), and blond a woman named Julia.

All I Hear Is a Bunch of Random Notes That Don’t Go With the Melody

In the anime Vicious first appeared as a mysterious menacing presence, with his backstory slowly revealed over the course of the series. Here Vicious and Julia are promoted to regular co-stars.

In itself, this might not have been a bad idea, but in execution it reveals just how much the showrunners missed the vibe of the anime. Whether due to Alex Hassell or the material/direction he’s been given, Vicious is anything but threatening. Rather than a vicious (I mean the adjective this time) and cunning adversary he ends up as an incompetent gurning idiot in a fright wig.

Likewise, as Julia, Elena Satine spends most of her expanded screen time looking like a deer caught the headlights. It feels like these two characters were given the direction to go “full anime” and never got to see how the main cast were dealing with the anime-nes of it all. (Note: You should never go full anime!)

You can almost see why the showrunners made many of the changes. In this era of peak TV, people want to see more. More of the villain’s motivations. More of the cool background characters. More recurring characters they can latch onto as favourites.

Asteroid Blues

As the episodes roll by, further cracks appear. You can almost hear the conversations behind them in the writer’s room:

“Why did that villain look like that?” “No clue, it was a mystery in the anime, let’s explain it!”

“Why don’t we link these two characters who never even met in the anime!?”

“We’re not going to do this character’s storyline in the show, let’s use their name for a background character that bares a slight resemblance to them”.

“There’s so much jazz in the anime, let’s put in a jazz club and have Jet and Spike actually discuss Jazz a few times!“

“We’re using the cool title text from the end of the anime episodes anyway, but wouldn’t it be cool if someone actually said ‘I’m not going to carry that weight’ out loud in the show?”

Netflix obviously wanted to extend this out into multiple seasons, but it might have been better if they had leaned further into remixing the original. New stories, new set ups, new music.

While the live action version comes close to breaking free of the original’s gravity, establishing its own world and storyline, this just makes it all the more jarring when it loops back around to the plot bones of the anime.

Even the use of the music feels “off.”

You’re Gonna Carry That Weight

It’s impossible to recapture the magic of the original’s score. Much of what made Cowboy Bebop magic is the interplay between music, plot, and visuals as Yoko Kanno and Shinichirō Watanabe went back and forth, inspiring each other to create more scenes and more music.

Even with the existing soundtrack to rely on, it doesn’t feel well used. The reliance on the jazz elements, as opposed to the blues, country, and other musical styles from the anime, feels like an unnecessary narrowing of scope.

Despite the 2D animation, there’s a depth to the Cowboy Bebop anime that’s sadly missing here.

Changes needed to be made to Cowboy Bebop to make it work as a live action series, and palatable enough to modern audiences to justify multiple seasons. Unfortunately, the price for more Cowboy Bebop may just be worse Cowboy Bebop.

The live action Cowboy Bebop premieres globally on Netflix on Friday, 19th November.

You can watch the Cowboy Bebop anime on Netflix right now.

Irish Film lover lost in Malaysia. Co-host of Malaysia's longest running podcast (movie related or otherwise ) McYapandFries and frequent cryer in movies. Ask me about "The Ice Pirates"

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