Netflix Cowboy Bebop Live Adaption: A Review, Part I


1. Introduction

Live-action adaptions of anime are always contentious and often come a cropper on the (sometimes unrealistic) expectations of fans who insist that the adaption be “just like” the source material. On the other hand, producers of live action adaptions are often insensitive to the nuances and complexities of the adaption process (and what the source material means to its fans), producing MCU-like “blockbusters” in the hope that a ton of special effects and the reputation of the original will produce a box office success.

It was in this context that the announcement that Netflix would be producing its own live-action adaption of Shinichiro Watanabe’s iconic anime series Cowboy Bebop understandably generated both excitement and trepidation. Excitement because, if anyone has demonstrated they have the time, money, and resources to produce excellent series with top-notch production values, it’s Netflix. And trepidation because, well, we all remember Ghost in the Shell and similarly abysmal adaptions of storied anime series and features.

When it was announced that Netflix would be producing the new adaption in conjunction with the original anime studio that gave us Cowboy Bebop (Sunrise), and that Watanabe himself would be acting as a creative consultant to the series, hopes began to rise that audiences might be treated to a half-decent product afterall – or, at the least, one that understood the source material and gave us something that captured its essence. This was reinforced by the announcement that prolific composer Yoko Kanno, who scored the original Bebop soundtrack, would be back to provide the score for the new series. As with all Watanabe productions, music is central to the story-telling process, and Kanno’s blues/funk/rock fusion was a big part of what made the original so, so good.

The Bebop adaption, however, seemed destined for trouble from the outset. First, there was a delay caused by an on-set injury to John Cho, who had been cast in the role of Spike Spiegel.  Second, and like everyone else the world over, filming shut down when the COVID-19 pandemic closed international borders and forced governments to impose nation-wide lockdowns. Even once filming was able to re-commence in the wake of New Zealand’s success in mitigating the COVID crisis, the series was the subject of a fan-based “controversy” as some segments of the Bebop public objected to the revamped costume proposed for Faye Valentine. But, by hook or by crook, filming on the project did eventually wrap and the premiere was slated for 19th November 2021.

And how did this adaption do? I’m so very glad you asked…

2. Visuals

The original anime series Cowboy Bebop had a singular visual aesthetic that has become part of the “aura” that helped create its legendary status. This aesthetic was grounded in old-school hand-drawn animation techniques that enabled the creation of a gritty, realistic universe that was both subtly different from, and yet visibly reminiscent of, the urban and suburban landscapes with which most modern viewers are familiar. Cowboy Bebop may have been set on Gannymede and Europa and Venus and Mars, but it was a solar system that had largely been recreated in the image of sprawling, metropolitan Earth. Thus we were able to see desolate urban wastelands replete with abandoned tower blocks and half-inhabited slums. Thus we were introduced to run down, out-of-the-way places that might once have been booming, but which were now slowly dying and fading away. Thus we were able to survey open, uninhabited lands marked for development projects that had collapsed before they even got off the ground.

All very familiar. And it was through these strange-yet-relatable environments that the crew of the Bebop chased down their quarry and flew their respective craft, either in pursuit of or while running away from, various bad guys, cops, or people they happened to have annoyed.

Trying to recreate such a varied, fantastical, and strange-familiar landscape was never going to be easy – and, yet, for the most part, the live-action version manages to pull it off remarkably well. We have the classy nightclubs and shitty dives; we have the mansions of the well-heeled and the favelas of the working-class poor; we even have glimpses of suburbia – and all of it projected in a retro-futuristic blend of art deco and 50’s small-town USA.

It all fits in very well with the bluesy, neo-noir vibe of the original. Perhaps it does so too well in places, because there is a distinctly “cartoonish” look about the show at times, especially early in the series.  In attempting to recreate the visual aesthetic of the original, the adaption at times strays too far in its exactitude, revealing to the audience that the action is taking place on a set and not some imagined off-world reality. This does change as the series progresses, and the visuals become darker with the tone of the narrative. But the initial impression, at least, is sometimes one of noticeable artificiality.

One respect in which the visuals are spot on, however, is in the attention to detail. That the opening scene is set in the “Watanabe Casino” is a nice touch, and an appropriate tribute to the man who is largely responsible for the brilliance of the original. (It’s a pity that the clunky Bladerunner tribute in a later episode didn’t follow a similarly understated pattern) But, most of all, the recreation of the various craft deployed by the cast – from the Bebop itself, though Spike’s Swordfish, to Faye’s gun-toting Red Tail – are absolutely top-notch. Sure, it’s amazing what can be done with CGI these days – but that’s beside the point. The fact that these are recognisably the same craft as those upon which Spike, Faye, and Jet fight, work, and live, without adaption or embellishment, not only grounds this adaption in its source material, but makes it all the more believable as well.

3. Narrative

Thankfully, the adaption didn’t go for a point-by-point reproduction of the original, nor did it necessarily attempt to tell the same stories in the same sequence. Yes, it does introduce some of the original series’ characters (especially the villains) in different contexts and in different points of time, but that for the most part is neither here nor there. What actually matters is whether the adaption, through its narrative and associated elements, captures the spirit of the original, even if it plays with events, characters, and outcomes in different ways.

In one sense, the series succeeds in doing so admirably. There are certainly plenty of atmospherics, especially as the series progresses, and the tragic central narrative of Spike and Julia’s doomed relationship – and the deadly dynamic this sets up between Spike and Vicious – comes to the fore. There are also melancholic flourishes involving Faye especially that capture the poignant weltschmerz of the original. But whereas the original leavens these heavy human moments with the sparkling repartee between the three main leads, and the comic relief of Ed and (occasionally) Ein, there is precious little of this in the adaption – a fact for which the dialogue must take most of the blame.

The problem is that there is far too much of it, it’s too dense and expository, almost as though the characters were seized by some paranoid need to explain everything to each other in excruciating detail. This is especially the case in the early episodes; and one can only conclude that the series’ writer, Christopher Yost, was unsure how to introduce the characters, their setting, and back histories, without a whole lot of verbiage. One critic has called this the “Joss Whedon Effect”, a reference to the influence exerted by the way in which the dialogue in series like Buffy The Vampire Slayer was structured. But whatever the truth or otherwise of such claims, the dialogue in the Cowboy Bebop adaption does a lot to militate against its capacity to capture the spirit of the original – although, to be fair, it does improve in the latter half of the series, and we even catch on occasion a glimpse of what might otherwise have been.

3. Music

Music was central to the original series, not just in establishing tone and mood, but also in telling the story and capturing the inner lives of the characters. Not for nothing did Watanabe turn to prolific composer Yoko Kanno to create what is arguably one of the best scores for any television series ever, live or animated.

It is not clear whether Kanno did any original composing for the live adaption, rather than re-arrange the original: but if she did, it is not noticeable. The music, for the most part, remains firmly in the background, emerging only during the occasional transitional or flashback scene, and during the opening and closing credits. An integral part of the story-telling in the original, in the adaption it is, sadly, little more than background filler.

Tomorrow: Part II: Spike, Jet, and Faye; Vicious and Julia; Conclusion

Text © Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2021. All rights reserved.