There really is nothing else that looks like it. As a stylized, over-the-top galaxy-thrilling sci-fi adventure, it combines the pace of an old-fashioned Hong Kong action movie with the melodrama of classic westerns – all to the tunes of an offensive jazz soundtrack. The landmark anime series from 1998, which focused on rum cowboys and lost souls, was simply a mood and a richly eclectic one.
It’s no secret that Cowboy Bebop is among one of the most sacred and influential anime shows of the last 20 years, and it’s a series that I have great admiration for. That was what made the prospect of a live-action adaptation something to feel a little worried about.
Fortunately, Netflix’s debut season of live action Cowboy Bebop is not only a fun and exciting tumult that gets the pulsating, soulful gestalt from the original series, it also makes its own mark in ways that sometimes enhance the anime of creator Shinichirō Watanabe.
Like the original, live-action Cowboy Bebop sees a dysfunctional crew of bounty hunters running on a thin line between poverty and pleasant misery in the distant future. During the 10-episode season, the trio of bounty hunters, Spike Spiegel (John Cho), Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda) and Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), take on different tasks throughout the galaxy. These concerts confuse them with quirky criminals and nervous villains and pull in different threads associated with each character’s tragic past.
The backbone of the new series is the chemistry between the trio of bounty hunters. When not quarreling over food and minor hassles, they are caught up in missions across different planets stuck in a culturally stagnant society gripped by late-stage capitalism. John Cho’s portrayal of the remote but always cunning Spike is a great ride for the actor. Cho manages to nail Spike’s natural cool and bubbly along with his iconic, soft hair. As Spike’s dark past emerges, Cho effectively shows the darker side of his character.
Jet Black is the crew’s rock that serves as the unofficial captain of Bebop – the ship they use to travel across the galaxy. Mustafa Shakir’s bid for the character is a death knell for his animated counterpart. He perfectly captures the subdued nature of the Jets, while also showing his tenderness when tying ties to his crew and loved ones.
But the clear standout is Daniella Pineda as femme fatale Faye Valentine. Pineda’s view is not only true to Faye’s seductive and ruthless nature, but adds a far more playful and captivating spin. She is an absolute blast to watch on screen and lifts an already large cast, giving the trio of bounty hunters a charming sense of camaraderie.
In general, characters mirror their anime counterparts, but a notable discrepancy concerns Vicious (Alex Hassell) and Julia (Elena Satine), respectively, Spike’s primary antagonist and long-lost love. They have a bigger dimension in the Netflix series and get more to do within the plot – which is an interesting, if useful, dive into the more sinister side of the criminal underworld in the distant future. The two characters actually have pathos and weight in the story. In particular, Hassell seems to enjoy every single scene he joins, as Vicious, while Satine successfully evokes some ambiguity in Julia’s presence, especially during the later episodes.
Although I generally liked what the live-action show does for Vicious and Julia, part of me felt that their collective climax was underdeveloped, even though I liked the direction it sets for future seasons. With an ensemble crew, the show spends a lot of time juggling different story lines, and unfortunately Vicious and Julia’s bow suffers as a result.
The live-action show also updates some of the more unpleasant aspects of the original series that are better back in the past. The anime contained several outdated views on sexuality. The live-action show solves this by renewing characters, such as Gren (Mason Alexander Park), who is now a recurring, non-binary character with more relevance to the story. Some episodes from the anime series contained outdated stereotypes of gay and transgender characters, so it’s nice to see the new show give these characters a more enlightened and meaningful presence.
While the new series uses many familiar characters, story lines, and iconic scenes as building blocks, its more serialized plot differs from anime in amazing ways that I will not ruin here. Instead of the original’s largely episodic character, with many episodes isolated from the larger plot, the live-action show carries a more connected storyline throughout the season. This consistency helps to set the framework for the galactic civilization of 2071 and the many distasteful and endearing characters within.
It also dives deeper into the original series’ less-seen and unknown aspects, which I found super enticing. Early episodes keep things simple, but the locks gradually open up explaining civilization “post-earth” and how life has become complicated after humanity’s forced expansion into the stars. The live-action show does well in illustrating the scope of Cowboy Bebop’s universe, and despite keeping things quiet, the ambition and craftsmanship are still there.
There’s plenty of action to watch unfold throughout the season, seamlessly blending fierce martial arts fights and John Woo-style gun fights. The actors are still stylized in their approach to action and scenery, but they cannot distort and bend in the same impossible ways as their animated counterparts. This leaves some of the more amplified action scenes that feel subdued and scaled down, which can go against the pace of the story. Still, there are exciting moments that alternate between exciting and cool fights into truly gruesome moments.
I enjoyed watching this rearrangement of stories put together to tell a more coherent plot, and it was great to see moments and characters heralded. However, the Netflix series sometimes struggles to keep its momentum going, especially after a strong set of opening episodes. This is especially noticeable at the back end of the season, where some characters and plot threads feel undercooked. Still, the live action series managed to win me back with its captivating sense of style and lovable characters, which ended the season with a good twist and teasing for what’s to come.
The anime series was largely a show from its era, and the live-action show retains the late 90s aesthetic with retro technology such as CRT monitors and analog computers. This gives the feeling that the show’s universe feels uncomfortable and embodied, with characters clinging to worn and broken relics of the past – both technologically and philosophically. It is a visually appealing and grounded look at life in space.
Like anime, there is an active element of social commentary in Netflix’s show that sheds light on capitalism in space and how life has been devalued in the future. Though largely on the periphery, there is a compelling anti-capitalist undercurrent throughout, with characters condemning corporate progress and how the police serve the ruling class. This in turn helps to elevate the original series’ framework and premises, so that it feels even more gripping as a show in 2021.
The new series mostly succeeds in recreating and expanding the original’s signature style and soulful tone. One of the reasons for this is the original composer Yoko Kanno’s work on the live-action series. Classic songs like Rush, Green Bird and The Real Folk Blues are also returning. But because Kanno and her band The Seatbelts produced a brand new soundtrack to the show, the music feels just as nostalgic and fresh. If you told me these songs were from a lost album from the original show, I would believe it.
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop stays close to the spirit of the original series, but it’s really the best when it’s doing its own thing. It does not always stick to the landing, and some aspects of the show are perhaps better left to animation, yet these stumbles do not take away from the fact that I still had fun through the season. It’s one of the rare successful live-action adaptations, and Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop manages to be a fun and solid first outing that serves as a good companion to the original series. It may not hit all the right notes, but it has the spark that will keep the music going.