It’s easy to look at Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop, an anime so highly regarded that even calling it a “masterpiece” might not cover it, and just assume that it never had a chance to live up to its potential.
The entertainment industry has a shaky history with live-action adaptations of anime, both on Netflix and elsewhere. To take on something like Cowboy Bebop, which has already proven itself so brilliant in its music, art style, and largely unimpeachable English dub, and try to make it into a new series that will inevitably be compared to one of the high-water marks of an entire artistic medium seems like nothing more than volunteering for failure.
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is not a complete and irredeemable disaster, but it’s definitely not going to challenge anyone’s assumptions about live-action anime. Its best moments come from playing to its own strengths rather than emulating those of the original. When it comes to expanding on the ideas or characters from the anime, the Netflix show offers only the most obvious and overused storytelling beats.
This new show, like the anime, is about a team of bounty hunters called “cowboys”—John Cho’s Spike, Mustafa Shakir’s Jet, and Daniella Pineda’s Faye—who are all running from various tragedies in their pasts. Once more, Spike’s past involves a heartless killer named Vicious (Alex Hassell) and a mysterious woman named Julia (Elena Satine). It takes place in the far future, with mankind having colonized various other planets in the wake of a disaster on Earth. The main crew lives on a junky old spaceship called the Bebop.
Unlike the anime, the live-action series sometimes feels like it’s embarrassed to be associated with any of this. Things that the original expects you to just accept, like character names, are questioned and underlined and over-explained here. Iconic lines or songs are dropped like someone was checking them off a list, and other moments directly pulled from the source material are needlessly expanded to clearly spell out character motivations. If there’s a cool thing from the anime, this Cowboy Bebop will fight like hell to make it sillier or stupider.
André Nemec’s adaptation doesn’t trust the audience nor does it trust itself; it plasters over that lack of confidence with a sense of cartoonish detachment in the sets and the performances that practically say, “We’re not taking any of this too seriously, so you don’t have to either.” The actors are mostly fine, given the heightened silliness of everything going on. But Cho is clearly putting his entire heart into the role, and he does a phenomenal job because of it. Pineda also finds new angles on Faye to make her feel like her own character, but Shakir is outpaced by Cho and gets lost between doing his own performance and trying to emulate the Jet from the anime.
They’re all let down by the writing, which goes down some interesting new paths in an attempt to set this Cowboy Bebop apart from the original, but there aren’t enough worthwhile things at the end of them. The problem isn’t that things are different—because any adaptation like this should make changes that better suit the new medium—but nearly all of the changes just make the show worse.
Some are done just for the sake of distinguishing this show from the anime, to introduce some new wrinkle or twist. Others are there to insert a more obvious justification for why someone would be so desperate for money that they’d risk their life hunting bounties in space (imagine the most obvious justification and you’ll get it).
Everyone’s backstory is altered, some more dramatically than others, but nobody suffers from this more than Vicious and Julia. Vicious is an emotionless snake in the anime, but in making him a more rounded person (a necessary move when he gets probably 10 times more screentime here than he does in the anime), he becomes a pathetic and lazy villain that we’ve seen many times before.
As for Julia, she’s a plot device for most of the anime and initially only appears fleetingly in flashbacks to establish her role in the ongoing feud between Spike and Vicious. But one of the clever moves that the show pulls off is that when she does show up, it turns out that she’s been living her own life with her own stories that just haven’t been depicted onscreen. She has agency, even if you don’t see it at first, and it actually sells the idea that she’s left an enormous crater in the lives of the show’s main hero and villain.
The live-action show’s take on Julia, on the other hand, is bafflingly misogynistic, regardless of how it differs from the anime. Most of the women are mishandled, even the ones who are totally new creations, and it’s all depressing. If they’re not “cool,” in a reductive “just one of the guys” way, they’re manipulative and/or power-hungry and/or objectified. One character in particular flip-flops from scene to scene between a damsel in distress and a Lady Macbeth-type.
You only need to see Faye’s outfit in the anime to recognize that the original Cowboy Bebop was not some anime monument to feminism, but the fact that the Netflix show can fix that while still hurtling backwards in so many other ways is just enormously disappointing.
But hey, the music is still damn good in the jazz-heavy soundtrack. Composer Yoko Kanno is back to score this new show, and even as so many other aspects drop the ball, she at least hasn’t lost her touch. Granted, most of the music is straight from the anime, but even the stuff that is completely wasted (“Real Folk Blues” pops up, if you’re wondering) is still killer—so much so that it feels like a cheat for the score to suddenly get extremely cool when the rest of the show is often colorless and drab.
It’s the music that makes Cowboy Bebop what it is. The original series was played like jazz, with every disparate piece working together to create something truly unique and special. The Netflix adaptation comes off like a cover band that kind of knows the songs and makes up for the rest by mugging to the crowd. It sucks, but at least it wants you to know it’s having some fun.