Back in the day, Shinichiro Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop was an ironclad argument in favor of anime’s coolness, a testament to the power of animation and its ability to tell unique stories other mediums struggled with. It’s since become ubiquitous—Spike Spiegel tees can be found at any local Urban Outfitters, parodies of the opening sequence featuring the Simpsons or the cast of Star Wars practically litter YouTube (including one featured in an official episode of The Amazing World of Gumball), and the anime consistently tops any list of the “best anime of all time,” including our own here at Paste. The show is, understandably, considered a sacred bastion by many fans; it was a gateway into anime for many Millennials who stayed up late enough to catch its maiden voyage on Adult Swim as one of its very first programs.
I’m not a person who feels particularly precious about Cowboy Bebop—it’s a wonderful show and one I’ve watched several times, but I wasn’t groaning with dismay like many when the live-action adaptation was announced back in late 2018. Bebop is a show heavily inspired by Western culture. Its diverse, eclectic blend of musical styles, genre conventions, and multicultural imagery is a huge part of its success outside of Japan, and is something that (or so I believed) could be caught on camera well enough. Seeing the show now, I can’t believe just how wrong I was.
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop often feels like a slap in the face. Many moments in these 10 hourlong episodes go beyond just your average cringey attempt at recapturing the magic of the source material it’s based on—it’s actively grotesque in its bastardization of the original show, which has been contorted into a full-blown black comedy by writer Christopher Yost, known for his work on Thor: Ragnarok and The Mandalorian. Seeing Yost’s name slapped on the show’s credits contextualizes a lot of the misgivings I have towards it—it’s almost as if, after finding out the original show was animated, Yost decided it must be as garishly cartoonish as possible. The result is a litany of cornball recycled jokes from his previous works and a certain Rick and Morty-esque tone that pervades odiously throughout each episode, rippling towards a staunch insincerity and near-offensive emotional whiplash which verges on the exploitative.
Cowboy Bebop is bloody, and needlessly so. Each episode arguably features more gore than is present in the entire anime. The rampant cruelty on display is also at odds with the jokey tone the show seems to be going for—while mowing down leagues of people, shooting them in gruesome places like the forehead or a supposedly pregnant belly, Spike (John Cho) and Jet (Mustafa Shakir) might quip about lost bounties, their disgust with space meat, or brutalizing their charges, all set to wacky music. One particular instance—a body horror scene involving a tree—felt so out of line with what anyone could expect going into the show (even as a fan of the anime) that it’s a wonder they managed to get it approved.
The buddy cop aspect of the anime is heightened to an extreme here, complete with flat dialogue and childish humor—there’s a lot of “I told you so’s,” petty arguments while being held hostage, and pissing contests among the core trio. Despite decent performances all around, the script renders each character as little more than a short list of comedic personality traits. Faye (Daniella Pineda) in particular lacks a lot of the cunning she displays in the anime, and instead exists for foul-mouthed reactions and awkward “quirky mess” punchlines (she’s disgusted by the taste of water for some reason?) Faye’s love of luxury, conman antics, and touching identity crisis are virtually absent here, or are explored quite shallowly—it seems instead like she’s meant to fulfill a “girl boss” sort of role, shying away from the messier aspects of her character in favor of justifying her actions, as a way to make her seem appealing to a wider audience. Her witticisms and desperation are instead replaced with hollow clapbacks and action heroics.
The fact is, none of Cowboy Bebop’s characters are role models, nor should you want to be like any of them, yet they carry an irrepressible coolness that’s impossible to deny. All that coolness is completely absent here, in part because we’re merely told these characters are cool instead of shown. Watanabe played these characters with a subtle hand; Spike and Vicious’ relationship in particular broiled with an undercurrent of fury, but manifested mostly as curt silences. Yost and showrunner André Nemec couldn’t be more obvious with it if they tried, though; their Spike and Vicious rivalry more closely resembles Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, complete with screwball pranks and teeth-gritting, shaking rage. Vicious’ (Alex Hassell) promotion to main character is particularly baffling, given how little he has to do in each episode outside of abusing his wife, gunning down a squadron of naked drug slaves, and wearing one of the worst Geralt of Rivia wigs available at Party City (it’s only the second worst wig in the show, after Jet’s lacefront beard).
Cowboy Bebop is often a cinematographic nightmare, something that’s been acutely apparent thanks to frequent Twitter posts comparing shots to the anime. Each episode shoehorns as many canted angles in as conceivably possible, and shots come in and out of focus to direct our attention to any given item a character might be carrying, so that we’re perfectly aware they have a gun, knife, etc. Many scenes seem intent on recreating the feeling of watching an anime, but lack the swift snappiness or visual style to make it work. The lighting is harsh and artificial in that stereotypically Netflix way. Yoko Kanno’s score is as wonderful as ever, but feels at odds with the show’s mood, and is often mixed bizarrely in each scene.
The mix-and-match nature of the original’s many one-off episodes means Netflix’s adaptation eschews being a one-to-one remake, which is totally a fine decision and preferable to the deep nostalgia-mining it could have fallen prey to. But the rush to the finish line siphons any heart the show could have had, erasing all the pensive moments required to truly communicate these complex characters. The unfortunate truth is Cowboy Bebop’s failings will be blamed on a market unwilling to compromise—it’s already happening with easy scapegoats like John Cho’s age or Daniella Pineda’s costume. The original Cowboy Bebop was conceived as a way to communicate the spirit of jazz, which is replicated here in a cursory way through debates on jazz history and some interesting cutaways (some have a vaguely Verhoeven feel). But Netflix’s show seems to forget that jazz needs time to breathe, to build, if it’s to have all the bombastic crescendos it’s so beloved for.
Cowboy Bebop premieres Friday, November 19th on Netflix.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire
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