WARNING: POTENTIAL MILD SPOILERS
4. Spike, Jet, and Faye
The live-action adaption is strongest in its three main characters and the actors who portray them. John Cho as Spike Spiegel, Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black, and Daniella Pineda as Faye Valentine all do a fine job with their roles, each bringing a distinct and strong personality to their parts that adds to the depth and substance of the whole.
Cho as Spike has his “look” down pat, as well as the water-flowing-around-rocks smoothness of his combat style (even as he hams it up occasionally in tribute to Bruce Lee’s “drunken monkey” style). There is an undoubted style, cool, and charm to Cho’s performance, captured, for example, in his repeated attempts to get Ana on the dancefloor (even though he can’t dance), or in his calm lighting up of a cigarette as he hangs precariously from a building ledge. If there is one aspect in which Cho’s performance is perhaps lacking, it’s that his Spike is more world-weary and weathered than the original; in Watanabe’s version, Spike displayed a reckless elan that was a desperate mask for his pain and fear. Perhaps Cho, being in his late forties, cannot help but display the reserve of an older and wiser man; but his Spike undoubtedly captures the essence of the original, and he delivers a strong performance.
Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black is likewise solid in his role. His authority, notwithstanding the fun Spike and Faye occasionally make of him, and his father-figure role in the trio comes to the fore. He is clearly the veteran of the three, hardened by his past experience and the harsh lessons which betrayal, abandonment, and love have taught him. The decision to cast him in the position of a divorcee with a daughter for whom he would do anything is an interesting variation to the original that throws up some genuine moments of comedy and drama, and also contributes nicely to setting up the end of the series. However, it also deprives the adaption of one of the key narrative themes of the original: the contrast between Jet’s capacity to come to terms with his past, and Spike’s inability to do so. Whether this has any implications for the series going forward is as yet unclear.
Daniela Pineda as Faye Valentine perhaps delivers the best performance of the three. Both she and Spike are profoundly vulnerable individuals who hide their suffering beneath a mask of bravado; and as the series progresses, there are a number of genuinely moving moments in which her vulnerability comes strongly to the fore. The fact that her captivity to the past also offers the hope for a new way forward again provides another key contrast to Spike: his captivity to past events locks him into a dead end. Pineda delivers a compelling performance as a Faye who is gritty and strong and determined, but who is also terribly alone within the confines of her amnesia. That her character was the subject of an online brouhaha with respect to the changes made in the adaption to her attire demonstrates, not only the unrealistic expectations of some anime fans, but also how easy it is to miss the point. Faye was never about her appearance (which was only ever a mask) but about the lost humanity it disguised; Pineda captures this reality to perfect effect.
5. Vicious and Julia
It is perhaps in Vicious and Julia that the adaption goes most off track, although Alex Hassell as the former and Elena Satine as the latter do well enough in their roles. Rather, it is the manner in which each of their characters is cast that the problems reside.
One critic described Hassell portraying Vicious as a “cut price Targaryen” – a description which, like the obsession with Faye’s appearance, misses the point. In the original, Vicious is a cold, controlling psychopath, an evil spider who, sitting in the middle of its web, directs events and remains two steps ahead of everyone else. In the adaption, he is portrayed as a violent, over-compensating thug with the mentality of a juvenile delinquent. This is far too wide a variance to capture the essence of the dynamic between Spike and Vicious: one that centres, not on possession of Julia and her affections, but on the fundamental difference between life viewed as connection with another, and life viewed as an “environment” controlled and constructed in accordance with one’s preferences. Whether or not this affects the eventual quality of the adaption remains to be seen.
Elena Satine as Julia is possibly even more removed from the original than Hassell is from Vicious – although, under the circumstances, this is possibly also the most understandable of the departures. In the original, Julia was an elusive, infrequently glimpsed character whose marginal place in the narrative reflected the grip she exercised on Spike’s memory – a memory that held him captive to the past and that motivated him to aim for an impossible future. This would have been very hard to translate into the live adaption; but the decision to make Julia an almost stereotypically “vamp” character does nothing to capture the sense of ordinariness which the original series wove around her; an ordinariness that helped ground and centre Spike and make him more than the violent hired gun he used to be. The series does quite a good job in detailing Julia’s backstory and the history of her involvement with Spike and Vicious; but in the series’ denouement it takes her character in a direction that is nowhere even hinted at in the original. As with Vicious, whether this has a detrimental effect or not of the series as a whole is yet to be seen.
6. Supporting Cast
The supporting cast are excellent, from one episode characters to recurring regulars. These include: Tamara Tunie as Ana; Mason Alexander Park as Gren (re-imagined as a non-binary barkeep who serves as Ana’s No.2, instead of the original’s ex-soldier who was the victim of genetic experimentation); Ann Truong and Hoa Xuande as Vicious’ offsiders Shin and Lin; Jade Harlow as Mel (and Faye’s surprise love interest); Josh Randall as Mad Pierrot; Jan Udin as Asimov and Lydia Peckham as Katerina; Rachel House as Mao; Blessing Mokgohloa as Santiago; and many others besides.
7. Ed and Ein
Ed only appears at the very end of the series and serves as one of the intriguing links to the second season. Ein is a cute corgi who operates discreetly in the background – although the manner of his parting from the crew of the Bebop doesn’t ring true to the original (although it does allow for his eventual reunion with them via Ed).
The Netflix live adaption of Cowboy Bebop is, in its first season, a mix of hits and misses – as was only to be expected. That said, the hits outweigh the misses, and this became increasingly evident as the series progressed. Hopefully this means a continuous improvement in quality that will eventually result in a more consistent, more fully-realised second season. For all its issues – and there are a few – this is undoubtedly one of the better live adaptions from an anime original, and at the least bodes promisingly for the future.
Text © Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2021. All rights reserved.