Allowing Cowboy Bebop to Evolve

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| December 7, 2021

Does this new live-action Cowboy Bebop from Netflix still preserve the unique style and feel fans love from the anime series? Or is it something altogether new?

Classified in genres like neo-noir and Space Western, the Cowboy Bebop hit the Japanese anime scene in 1998 to both critical acclaim and commercial success. When it became part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup in 2001, it gained a solid fandom in the West, too. Creator Shinichirō Watanabe has been behind several hit anime productions, but Cowboy Bebop is his signature work and biggest global success. While fans would have loved to have more than the 26-episode series, Watanabe did state that he did not want the series to go on for years. He had a specific ending in mind, which was ultimately the ending that made it into the anime.

Spike Spiegel from the Cowboy Bebop anime series
Spike Spiegel from the Cowboy Bebop anime series in 1998 was voiced by Kōichi Yamadera in the original Japanese and by Steve Blum in the popular English dub.

When I heard that Watanabe was a creative consultant in Netflix’s live action Cowboy Bebop revival, I was hopeful that creator and writer Christopher Yost and directors Alex Garcia Lopez and Michael Katleman would honor Watanabe’s vision and maybe add in some things that didn’t make it into the anime. My hope grew when I learned that Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts were back together to do music for the series.

But I was worried… 

Fans like me are attached to the anime series because of its singular combination of characters, visuals, music, dystopian sci-fi, and a noir/Western blend of storytelling. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience. And I kept hearing people around me who had already decided, without even seeing the show, that Spike and Faye were miscast.

So I prepared myself mentally… 

I reminded myself that this isn’t going to be my Bebop from two decades ago. It can’t be, and, honestly, it shouldn’t be. The anime series is a unique experience that can’t be replicated. It was perfect as it was, and it will always be something I go back to and enjoy.

Ein on the Bebop
Ein on the Bebop

I adopted the mindset that the live-action Bebop would be an evolution, not a retelling. It may tell some of the same stories and have many of the same characters. But, it will be its own thing, and its quality and value should be evaluated independently, not held in comparison to the anime. That’s the approach I’ve taken with Dune recently, too. It freed my mind to experience the new creation as its own experience that’s inspired by the original work but not seeking to duplicate or replace that work.

The result now that I’ve seen it? I’m in love. Like… totally heart-eyed emoji in love. 😍

Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop hits all the right notes for me. 

While I’m still only about 80% happy with how the story has evolved from the anime, the overall experience has me enthralled. The music sparks nostalgic feelings throughout each episode. John Cho absolutely rocks as Spike Spiegel, and his performance is easily my favorite part of the series. Mustafa Shakir as Jet is perfect, with Jet’s character being the most faithful to the anime. And Daniella Pineda as Faye works perfectly for how this series has evolved that character, making her more grounded and sensible than her anime counterpart.

Faye (Daniella Pineda), Spike (John Cho), Jet (Mustafa Shakir), and Ein

As for the story, to make it cohesive, Yost chose to reimagine almost all the familiar bounty hits we encounter in Season 1 as part of a larger story that ties back to the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate. As a result, Spike is continuously forced to face his past as a Syndicate hitman, even when his old Syndicate partner Vicious isn’t around. This cross-connecting and continuity resolve the issues that Watanabe had in his series with the bounty hunting being episodic adventures loosely connected by the main characters and the mysterious underlying story of Spike and Vicious. Watanabe’s structure left his series open to continue (if he ever wanted to), but at the risk of becoming formulaic.

A flashback of Julia and Spike
A flashback of Julia and Spike (a.k.a. Fearless).

The cross-connected stories also make this new series much easier to follow than its anime counterpart. This is where I have to admit that I didn’t connect to the Cowboy Bebop anime when I first saw it. I liked the story of Spike, Julia, and Vicious, and I cried at the end of “Hard Luck Woman.” But it took asking friends questions and rewatching the episodes a few times to understand the world and to follow everything they talked about. In contrast, I think this evolution from Netflix makes it easier for a new audience to get into Bebop and to engage with the characters and story.

It’s definitely an evolution, though…

The most common thing I’ve heard negative about the Netflix series is that it’s “not Cowboy Bebop.” What they really mean is that it’s not the anime series. I feel like this type of criticism is short-sighted and not open to the idea of allowing the story to evolve or be told in a different way. I don’t think it’s reasonable to say, “If it’s not like the original, it’s crap.” Is it, though? Wouldn’t an exact match just be… boring?

I can empathize, though. If someone is looking to experience exactly what they experienced in the anime, they may be disappointed. Episodes 1-8 are definitely not what the anime was. Instead, they feel like Yost called in Guy Ritchie and Robert Rodriguez to consult, appealing to fans of their films (like myself). But maybe that was the natural path for Bebop to follow since Watanabe drew inspiration from some of the same places as Ritchie and Rodriguez. Ritchie stated in a 2008 interview that Sergio Leone has been an influence on his filmmaking, and Bebop is often associated with the Spaghetti Western genre that Leone is famous for. Rodriguez has cited influences from John Carpenter and Quentin Tarantino whose combined film credits have subtle reflections throughout the Cowboy Bebop anime.

Episodes 9-10, though, follow a style that’s closer to Watanabe’s original work and tell a backstory that fans have been eager to see for two decades. They feel like a hybrid of Cowboy Bebop and Blade Runner, a franchise in which Watanabe created the anime short Blade Runner: Black Out 2022.

A flashback of Fearless (Spike) and Vicious being debriefed by their Syndicate boss after a hit.

The most notable and, perhaps, the best overall change to the story in live-action is getting more character development for Julia and Vicious. Julia has a fully fleshed-out story from the start, and we learn that Vicious has a more concrete motivation for his actions. I won’t say more about that to avoid important spoilers, but suffice it to say Elena Satine (Julia) and Alex Hassell (Vicious) take those characters to the next level in their performances. Julia’s story at the end of the season, though, is part of that 20% I am still not sure I’m happy with. It’s still very new to me, so I’m hoping it will grow on me after some rewatching.

Adding to what I’ve mentioned so far, here are some other ways that Cowboy Bebop has evolved with this new series:

Genre shift — The first eight episodes trim back the original neo-noir elements from the anime, shifting more heavily toward the cyberpunk style that was more of a backdrop in the original series. Season 1 also minimizes the themes of loneliness and just scraping by, which were big throughout the anime. In place of those themes is a heavier emphasis on each main character “carrying that weight” of their respective pasts while seeking connection and trust with this new Bebop family.

Rebalance of comedy and drama — The anime was a drama with some added humor, which is how Watanabe envisioned it. The first 8 episodes of the Netflix series boosts the humor factor, adding in more comedic moments, even during action scenes.

Cowboy Bebop clock showing 15 hours
Clocks across the solar system in Cowboy Bebop use 15-hour cycles instead of the 12-hour cycles of Earth.

Alternating pace — The first eight episodes of the new series click off at a steady pace, saving the long, dramatic camera shots to slow music (a staple of the anime) for the last two episodes of the season. Those who like the slower pace may feel like those early episodes are rushed. I wonder if it’s an effort to pack in as much as they could in Season 1. With the Netflix episodes being 45 to 60 minutes each, a single live-action episode is like watching three of the anime’s 24-minute episodes in one chunk.

Dialog drives things forward — The new series develops a lot of the story and characters through clever dialog. Occasionally, that dialog is delivered at a break-neck pace, usually to a humorous effect. The way dialog was woven into each scene reminded me a lot of Guy Ritchie’s films. I’m always hungry for engaging and memorable dialog, and this show definitely delivers!

Gren from Netflix's Cowboy Bebop
Mason Alexander Park plays Gren in Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop, a character who has been reimagined for this adaptation.

Gender and race switches — Some of the characters who were male in the anime series have a different gender identity in the Netflix series. Also, the casting for the new series adds more racial diversity across all the characters.

Sexuality shift — The new series shows a future where humans accept gender and sexuality differences as normally as they might accept differences in hairstyles and clothing. This manifests in several scenes and in characters like Gren, Faye, Spike, and the nice woman on the bus (you’ll know what I mean once you see it).

Language shift — The new series is loose with profanity. For a Western audience, you might say it has a language profile that matches the maturity level of its other content (violence, sexuality, etc.). 

Quick note for fans looking for Radical Edward and haven’t seen the show yet: Be patient! She’ll be in there, just not much, and her appearance is more of a tease for Season 2. I love Ed so much and I look forward to seeing more!

I sincerely hope that others, especially long-time fans, give this new Cowboy Bebop a chance. I think it’s brilliant and evolves the story and characters in good and interesting ways. Plus, the Season 1 ending changed the game from what we’re used to knowing about the story, and it’s kind of exciting not knowing what’s going to happen next!

Have you checked it out yet? What do you think of the series? And have you spotted all the fun Bebop and non-Bebop Easter eggs throughout? Let’s jam in the comments!

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One comment on “Allowing Cowboy Bebop to Evolve”

  1. Since this article came out, it sounds like Netflix has changed its mind about making a Season 2… but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this live-action series! Here’s hoping for Season 2 and more!

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