(he/him/his). Recovering English graduate. Avid gamer, reader, and general nerd.
Netflix is set to release its live action iteration of beloved anime Cowboy Bebop on November 19th, starring John Cho, Daniella Pineda, and Mustafa Shakir. The creative adaptation follows a recent effort to personify popular cartoons and video games with varying degrees of success.
The decision to give Cowboy Bebop this ‘flesh and blood’ facelift is especially interesting. Few anime garner the love and cult fandom that this 90’s gem receives.
Which begs the question: why do this at all?
What could Netflix possibly contribute to a show that many consider near perfect?
I’m open to the possibility of Cowboy Bebop being (at the very least) amusing. However, I’m not hopeful a live-action version of Cowboy Bebop will change the narrative for these kinds of adaptations. They tend to be critical sticks in the mud.
Most successful Live-Action Anime flicks are often based on manga...not anime.
The ‘Theater of the Mind’ has a bigger role when reading manga, meaning, the audience has to contribute to the experience. Imagining voice, while filling gaps for movement and style, etc., are roles that the reader gets to fill in the narrative. While this creates a sense of ownership over a particular character for the reader, I think it becomes easier to accept another interpretation because the source material is limited.
Characters in an anime have a more fleshed-out persona. Distinct voices and style are attributed to characters that can be hard to emulate. Because it’s animated, features are often more exaggerated and caricatured in order to communicate life through a drawn character. When you attempt to emulate these unspoken qualities, they often become overwhelming and too on the nose.
A great example of this is Shaggy from the live action film Scooby-doo (2002). Seeing the iconic Shaggy in the flesh reveals the cringeworthy side of our childhood cartoons.
In the case of Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop, there are simply qualities that are incapable of emulation...because it’s not real, it’s a cartoon.
The graceful, yet lackadaisical nature of Spike’s movement and poise is unnatural for the human body, but makes sense in the realm of anime. There is a thin line between copying this style too much (coming across as disingenuous) and ignoring the source material. In either case, you lose the essence of the character.
Another factor in anime-to-live-action crossover is the voice.
The only feature in anime that crosses the uncanny valley from the cartoon to the viewer is the disembodied human voices attributed to the characters we love.
This means, that while creative liberty can be taken by John Cho in the case of playing Spike Spiegel, the voice of the character is inseparable from the voice of Steve Blum--the American voice actor who was also significantly the voice of “TOM”, the host of Cartoon Network’s Toonami which helped popularize anime in the US. Not that the original Japanese voice actor Kôichi Yamadera is less significant. However, because Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is undeniably targeted at American audiences, Blum becomes the focus.
Similar to the character’s style, Spike’s original voice can’t be copied too closely or loosely, which would oversaturate or disservice the character.
This is a unique problem in anime in that you can’t just, “go get the same actor to come back and play the same character again, but older!,” like Harrison Ford reprising roles in Indiana Jones or Star Wars. Steve Blum looks nothing like Spike Spiegel, so that option is never on the table for Anime to live-action remakes.
The actors in Netflix’s reboot will just have to do what they can.
When it comes down to it, the best part about Cowboy Bebop was the music and the art.
The Cowboy Bebop anime was assuredly ahead of its time. The experimental nature of the intro art and music working has helped it age gracefully, keeping its relevance as a piece of art still today. The show married the Noberu Bagu Japanese New Wave style of films like Tokyo Drifter (1966) and the Pop Art movement of the 90’s. The expressive quality of Jazz juxtaposes the melancholy tones of the Blues in the musical mash-up throughout the show. These qualities masterfully mirror the characters and happenings in the narrative.
The key to a new adaptation isn’t to carbon copy the same artistic flavor from the anime. Where Netflix can succeed is in putting a modern twist on the formula to push the fold of what makes Cowboy Bebop… Cowboy Bebop. Even the term Bebop implies changing things up. Bebop pushed the boundaries of Jazz away from the popular dance music of Swing in the 40’s. There are ways to honor what Cowboy Bebop did while continuing to iterate for a modern audience.
This trailer gives me hope that this will be the case.
Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed and Ein are iconic.
So iconic, in fact, that these characters are often instantly recognizable from a silhouette. John Cho and company have a lot to live up to. The question becomes: what will the actors add to these characters...what will detract??
I like that they are making some changes to the casting, particularly with Shakir Mustafa as Jett. John Cho and Daniella Pineda also aren’t trying to be exactly like Spike and Faye. However, it remains to be seen whether the changes will be entertaining or if they will feel forced in their performances.
Oh yeah...and there’s still the case of Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV.
You HAVE to nail Ed or it won’t work. Which is concerning because the trailers haven’t shown Ed, and the actor playing Ed has been kept tightly under wraps…
Is this because they’re confident? Or should I be worried? Showrunner André Nemec was pressed recently in an interview and reassured that regarding Ed, “People will be ... very delighted when they watch the season.”
For all of our sakes, I hope Nemec is right.
The selling point of Cowboy Bebop wasn’t necessarily the story. It was the style, music, and tone.
Ask any fan what the overall plot of Cowboy Bebop’s 26 episodes was, you probably won’t get a solid answer. Yet, get a conversation going around their favorite episode, and you’ll see them light up… like the one about VT the interstellar space trucker in episode 7 Heavy Metal Queen, or the year old mutated food Spike forgot in the fridge in Toys in the Attic that terrorizes the ship. What connects many of these episodes is that they are simply slices of life anthologies surrounding these eclectic bounty hunters. The narrative starts and ends in a clean 25 minutes.
This strategy plays into the jazzy, bebop theme of the show.
Every episode has a different pacing, tone, and feel to it. Some are light-hearted, some are introspective, and a few of the episodes get dark and downright creepy. They can do this because there is so much mystery involving the vague backstory of Spike, Vicious and Julia. This allows the audience to focus more on the day-to-day happenings of these characters, and to be drawn into their unspoken qualities. At the same time, having a mysterious villain like Vicious and the vague memory of Julia give the audience a sense of intrigue that something bigger is happening behind the scenes.
This will be vital for Netflix’s live-action remake of Cowboy Bebop. They can’t get wrapped up in the story, to the detriment of its characters and overall vibe. If they follow this general episode structure, telling individual stories that introduce interesting side characters while fleshing out our familiar crew, they can avoid the cardinal sin of overexplaining the story to the point where it loses its identity.
There is so much to love about the original Cowboy Bebop series. It holds a special place in the hearts of many and has aged gracefully well into the 21st century as a vital piece of Anime history. It created harmony out of contrasting art forms, styles, and narrative philosophies in a way that convincingly proves to a wider audience that, yes, anime is true “art.”
With this in mind, do we need this show to be live-action? With so many risks involved and the odds of a lukewarm reception historically being the best-case scenario for live-action anime, we have to ask who this remake is really for.
I want to believe it’s for the fans and that this remake is intended to celebrate the qualities that made the show great in the first place. But there is a very cynical voice in the back of my mind that tells me this is just another attempt for Hollywood to leverage our nostalgia to make a buck.
Which would be a shame. Because that pop-culture mindset is exactly counter to what made Cowboy Bebop the phenomena that it is.