When Netflix first announced its live-action remake of the classic anime Cowboy Bebop, fans were understandably skeptical. Western live-action doesn’t have the greatest track record in terms of doing justice to anime as a source material–looking at you, Ghost In The Shell and Dragonball Evolution–but the cast of this particular project was enough to inspire some hope. The good news kept coming after the iconic Yoko Kanno, who also scored the anime, was brought on to provide music.
Now, as the show’s premiere date approaches, we hope we can lay some of the worries to rest because we’re here to report: Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is a jazzy, stylish binge–though certainly not a shot-for-shot remake of the anime, despite what the very faithful recreation of the show’s opening credits may have lead you to believe. This means your mileage will absolutely vary, depending on the expectations you set going in, and, critically, what your relationship with the anime is now. It’s been over 20 years since the original show first debuted, and chances are if you’re in the US, you first encountered it while watching Toonami’s Adult Swim block late at night, back when anime was extremely difficult to come by. If that’s the case, you may want to do a gut check about your own relationship (and memory) of the show and what you want from this new version before putting your foot on the gas.
Because if you are willing to come in with an open mind, you’re in for something fun.
Like the anime before it, Cowboy Bebop focuses on the lives of a rag-tag group of bounty hunters in a far-off cyberpunk-by-way-of-the-wild-west future. There’s Spike Spiegel (John Cho), a man with a dark past looking for a fresh start, Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), a begrudgingly fatherly, disillusioned ex-cop, and Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), an amnesiac trying to bluff her way into discovering her past. The crew is both helped and hindered by a sprawling ensemble cast–two figures from Spike’s past, Vicious (Alex Hassell) and Julia (Elena Satine), chief among them.
While Cho, Shakir, and Pineda ostensibly have the most to do as the main characters, absolutely everyone feels perfectly cast. Those who are already familiar with these names from the anime will recognize them immediately and those who are meeting them for the first time will find something to love (or hate, as the case may be) right off the bat. Cho, specifically, manages to embody the sort of easy-but-lethal charisma Spike is known for so naturally that imagining him played by any other actor in live action feels impossible.
There are some major deviations from the source material in terms of the major character arcs and the overarching plots. The story focuses on Spike trying to outrun his past and reunite with ex-lover Julia, while trying to make ends meet as a bounty hunter along the way, but there are plenty of surprises to be found. The show takes care to elaborate on some of the more mysterious parts of the anime–the reality of Spike’s relationship with Julia, for one, and his connection to Vicious–while also allowing space for the other characters to have their own storylines unfold as well. Things eventually come to a head with each disparate plot colliding into Spike’s, which is when the show really takes off.
On top of the stellar cast, Cowboy Bebop pulls out nearly every stop in terms of production design. There’s something strangely cyclical about a western live-action show inspired by an anime that was already heavily influenced by western aesthetics, but rather than fall into what could have easily been a feedback loop of all the wrong kinds of callbacks and nods, the show builds a world that feels at once familiar and new. Trailers and teasers may have led fans to believe that the project would include some sort of deeply meta fourth-wall breaking and comic-book flavored structure which couldn’t be further from the truth, and is perhaps a major misstep on the part of the marketing team. There are bits and pieces of vintage grindhouse aesthetics, junky, blue-collar sci-fi dystopia, and of course, good old fashioned space western tropes all blended together into a nice (and extremely watchable) cocktail.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some missteps to be found. While Cowboy Bebop is, by and large, extremely economical with its 10 episode season length and keeps a relatively healthy blend of the one-and-done bounty chasing stories with the overarching character plots, there are moments when things get lost in the weeds. Simply put, and without spoiling anything, there’s a lot going on in the show, and while the heavily updated and remixed plotlines do help to simplify things a bit, the pacing doesn’t always serve its own agenda. It can get difficult to keep track of who’s who, what’s what, and why it’s all important. On top of this, there are also a handful of moments–primarily those used in most of the marketing material–where it feels like it’s trying a little too hard to nail a memorable shot from the anime, which can feel less charming and more distracting. These moments stick out even more thanks to the sheer volume of fun, subtle Easter Eggs folded into the show that aren’t trying to be wholesale remakes of scenes or sequences from the anime.
Thankfully, by the latter half of the season, the show figures out exactly what it needs to emphasize and drives home an extremely strong finale–complete with potential Season 2 cliffhanger and teaser. It’s put in the groundwork, built an incredibly dense world, and crafted some surprising storylines, all of which deserve more time in the spotlight. With any luck, the show will continue and be allowed to do just that.