André Nemec, showrunner for Netflix’s live-action adaptation of the iconic anime series Cowboy Bebop, recently sat down with Polygon to talk about his vision for the show, including his desire to “not fuck it up.” He explains in the piece that he didn’t want to “remake” Shinichirō Watanabe’s series, but rather to reassemble the elements that made the original anime work so well, and see if they can do so again “in the spirit of the anime.” The preview images that Netflix released of stars John Cho, Daniella Pineda, and Mustafa Shakir in costume as the show’s main trio of sci-fi bounty hunters back this up. They’re certainly dressed like their animated counterparts (within reason), but things have been tweaked where they could be while retaining the spirit of the anime invoked by Nemec.
That approach or philosophy is what places Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop in a surprisingly good position to handle the original anime’s main villain, a black-hearted criminal known only as Vicious. Like the Major from Ghost In The Shell (who probably should not have been translated to live-action), Vicious is a character who really should not work in any context other than anime, where aesthetics and emotion drive things more often than in live-action or Western animation. They’re both designed in a way that doesn’t necessarily translate to live-action, with the Major’s figure and Vicious’ stiff, sharp angles, and they move in ways that a human couldn’t. It all makes them both unbelievably cool characters, if only in the context of anime.
The thing about Vicious is that—on the surface at least—he’s barely a character. He absolutely rules, and you would be hard-pressed to find a Cowboy Bebop fan who disagrees, but his personality can be summed up with: “He’s a guy with a sword.” There’s clearly more happening underneath the surface, but his heart’s turned so cold that he has buried anything else he has ever thought or felt in favor of consciously embracing the fact that he’s a guy with a sword. Maybe it’s even more accurate to say that he is a sword—all intimidation and sharp edges and cold steel.
What little backstory Vicious gets is mostly shown and not told, and hardly acknowledged throughout. We know he fought in a future space war and met Cowboy Bebop protagonist Spike Spiegel (Cho’s character in the live-action version) while they were working for the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate. He was possibly in a relationship with a mysterious woman named Julia, who was also in a relationship with Spike. When Spike tried to convince Julia to run away with him, Vicious found out and tried to have Spike killed. Spike escaped and became a bounty hunter (setting up the main plot of the anime), Julia went into hiding, and Vicious gradually worked his way up the ranks of the Red Dragons until his aspirations hit a wall and he decided to start murdering his way to the top.
Whether it’s because of that old grudge or general bloodlust, Vicious’ life seems to be consumed with a desire to murder Spike—to the point where he’s repeatedly shown sitting silently in darkened rooms with his eyes closed, waiting patiently for an opportunity to kill his foe.
The original anime was able to get away with simply insisting that Vicious is a compelling villain because he seems like one: Aesthetics are so important that Vicious being drawn a certain way does a lot of the legwork, while another medium would struggle to find a way to accomplish that. He looks scary, with his lanky limbs, long white hair, and permanent scowl. The animation also makes his movements threatening, and his voice—particularly in the highly regarded English dub, where he’s played by Skip Stellrecht—is like an icicle impaling another icicle. Vicious’ dialogue is also unusually flowery and melodramatic for Cowboy Bebop, with lines like “you will shed tears of scarlet” and “he was a beast who lost his fangs, that’s why he had to die.” It takes a certain kind of character to make stuff like that seem cool, and Vicious is that kind of character.
So how and why would this possibly work in live-action? Why might Vicious work when the Major didn’t? Well, as Nemec told Polygon, he wants to evoke the “spirit” of the anime rather than dutifully recreate it, and Vicious is nothing if not “spirit.” John Cho has to worry (and worry he has) about looking like Spike and properly capturing the vibe of a guy with a lot of deep pain that he hides by acting like he’s super chill and doesn’t care about anything. But if Nemec can make Alex Hassell, who is playing live-action Vicious, at least look sufficiently like Vicious from the anime, most of the work will already be done. There are aspects of the character that the series will hopefully remain faithful to, but not so many that Nemec and Hassell won’t be able to find their own angles to explore.
Vicious, a character who has no right to ever be seen in live-action, actually presents a good opportunity for Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop to either lean into aesthetics like the anime did, or expand on the character in a way that the anime avoided. That being said, Vicious is also going to be an important test for the adaptation. If Nemec and Netflix can’t find a way to make Vicious work in live-action, then it’ll be hard to imagine any of Cowboy Bebop working in live-action.