Cowboy Bebop: Why Netflix’s live-action adaptation of cult anime series is a super-flop
Cowboy Bebop is the latest anime to get the live action treatment by Hollywood. The product, as expected, has been disappointing.
Is Netflix aware of how badly they have botched up their Cowboy Bebop live-action adaptation? Fans of the classic anime are already hating it. New viewers will either think it an average Netflix sci-fi series such as Altered Carbon or The OA, or at best, a mild curiosity, like Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. What is comical is that Netflix is streaming all 26 episodes of the anime as well, so anybody can watch and compare.
That’s not all. In the run-up to the release on November 19, Netflix’s social media team had been releasing videos in which scenes from the new series are placed alongside moments from the anime that inspired them, hoping they could get a thumbs-up from fans. But that only invited more judgement. It’s almost like Netflix set itself up for failure.
Why is Cowboy Bebop legendary?
The Shinichiro Watanabe-directed Cowboy Bebop anime series is set in the year 2071 and follows a group of bounty hunters moving from one mission to another. The team includes ex-criminal Spike Spiegel, ex-cop Jet, con woman Faye, hacker kid Radical Edward, and a genetically engineered corgi, Ein.
The USP of the Cowboy Bebop anime is its seamless infusion of genres such as Western, film noir, yakuza, and horror into science-fiction, particularly cyberpunk and space opera. Yoko Kanno’s eclectic score combining jazz, blues, country, rock, pop and electronica further plays up the anime’s postmodern energy.
The characters themselves are more archetypes than flesh-and-blood humans. The unruly and trigger-happy Spike, a hitman who has quit the Red Dragon crime syndicate, is a Western hero. His partner Jet, who left the police after feeling disgusted by its corruption, is straight out of film noir, as is Faye, with her femme fatale ways.
All three feel betrayed by individuals or institutions they trusted in their past, which continues to haunt them. The group’s otaku-representative Radical Edward is unsure of their past as well. Even the dog Ein, with its history of being experimented upon by scientists, is not spared from the series’ thorough line of unresolved past. All five are looking for closure, but they are mostly having fun in the 26 episodes, out of which, only nine concern their individual stories. The rest involve the group hunting down riff-raffs across the solar system.
What is most striking about Watanabe’s anime series, and the factor that has made it iconic and much-loved, is its attitude of unbridled coolness. The fluidity with which Cowboy Bebop’s multi-genre influences mix with one another and flow like fusion music or free jazz, is hard to replicate by another team because it is just so distinctive.
Cowboy Bebop’s legacy is like that of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Tarantino, the master-deejay of cinema, slices and dices a hundred different movies and builds something seemingly new from the pieces. His second film, Pulp Fiction provided the roadmap for other copycat directors, such as Gary Fleder, with Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995), and Doug Liman with Go (1999). Pulp Fiction clones aren’t quite the same as Pulp Fiction, is it? Such was the confidence of Watanabe and his team in the hipness of their work that they called Cowboy Bebop a “new genre unto itself”.
What went wrong with the live-action adaptation
An episode in the Cowboy Bebop anime has a self-contained story, unless it has two parts, and is no more than 25 minutes long. Naturally, the pace is brisk. The dialogue is hard-boiled, given the series’s roots in noir and Western genres. The humour is dry. Because the characters are archetypes, they don’t speak much, and mostly hover about to create an impression on the viewer. The main villain, Vicious, who only appears in four episodes, is the best example of this. His girlfriend Julia, who is Spike’s lost love, is seen even less in the anime series. Both loom like ghosts rather than being solidly etched out characters.
The Andre Nemec-created live-action Cowboy Bebop series has 10 episodes that are anywhere between 35 to 60 minutes long, and yet barely manage to communicate one anime episode’s worth of storytelling or inventiveness.
Nemec’s attempt is to turn impressionistic characters into fully-rounded human beings, add more meat to their interpersonal drama, and flesh out the thin plot of the anime series. This maybe a misguided idea, but not necessarily a bad one. But the writing is exceptionally terrible and does not help Nemec’s attempt at overexplaining the original’s tapestry and its implicit themes, to make it easily digestible for an imagined audience who do not watch anime.
For example, Vicious and Julia, who seldom appear in the anime series, and are therefore inscrutable, pop up in just about every episode of the live-action adaptation. This means the characters of Vicious (Alex Hassell) and Julia (Elena Satine) have been extended. What we get is a mean and abusive husband in Vicious (among the live-action series’s many needless and weird additions is that Vicious and Julia are now married), and Julia, who is a damsel in distress. Vicious is also shown to be bit of a wimp at times. The anime series’ Vicious was, as the name suggests, a merciless snake and a fierce fighter, while the anime’s Julia had an angelic touch-me-not vibe. Turning them into a squabbling couple caught in a bad marriage, threatens to turn Cowboy Bebop into a soap opera.
Now apply what Nemec has done with Vicious and Julia to the rest of the series, and you will get an idea of its quality. Spike, who oozes effortless cool, is played by John Cho. His on-screen presence is just too warm and genial for him to successfully play a dangerous hitman who is either shadowy or wry. Spike’s frequent banter with Jet is among the highlights of the anime series. There, the exchange of dialogue between them is crisp and cut to the bone. Here, Spike’s conversations with Jet (Mustafa Shakir) are not just bloated to the point that they sound like needless words written just to fill out 10 episodes.
As for Faye (Daniella Pineda), a positive change is stripping the character off her over-sexualised physicality. But Nemec has robbed Faye’s sexual charge along with it. In the anime series, she is frequently shown to be using her sexuality to fool men and have her way. In the live-action series, this aspect practically disappears. It just gets a perfunctory nod, as do many other elements which the creators feared they would have to retain to not piss off the fandom.
Instead, Faye is now queer. Why? No idea. Why is Jet now a Black man? No idea. An exercise in representing LGBTQ and people of colour? Sure, but why and how is it helping the story? No idea. At least, the decision to make Gren explicitly non-binary makes sense. The anime Gren is a man who develops breasts after being experimented upon with hormone-imbalancing drugs when he is imprisoned. In the series, he is played by non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park. The anime Gren is an ex armyman, a fine fighter, a cool cat who plays saxophone in a bar. In the series, Gren has lost the saxophone and is seen coaching burlesque dancers and gossiping with the patrons of their club. Why? No idea.
Cho, Shakir, Pineda, Satine, and Hassell try to do their best with bad material, but they can only do so much. It’s quite difficult to keep looking at them cosplaying as Cowboy Bebop characters. The Joss Whedon-ised quips in the dialogue is torturous to sit through.
This is not mere nitpicking. A creator has every right to change elements in their source material, but Nemec’s decisions, instead of improving the story, or at least maintaining the same standard, turn Cowboy Bebop into a sloppy mess. The backstories of many colourful villains in the anime are changed, which is fine, except the changes actually make the story worse. It is painful to see how absolutely excellent bad guys like Mad Pierrot or Teddy Bomber are made dull by Nemec.
Thankfully, Radical Edward is absent from the entire series, until the last few seconds of the finale. It is a pretty tricky character to capture in live-action. The Edward (Eden Perkins) that we get a glimpse of brings no hope.
The direction by Alex Garcia Lopez and Michael Katleman is just as uninspiring. Lacking a true vision like Watanabe’s, they try to give an impression of style with endless Dutch angles, bringing to mind one of the worst films of all time, Battlefield Earth (2000). The series is loaded with music. Although the anime’s composer Yoko Kanno is also part of the live-action series, the directors just do not know how to use her score. Watanabe used her music sparingly, so that after a section of silence, her tunes made a difference when they appeared. Here, they feel so wasted, it’s infuriating.
The locations in the anime Cowboy Bebop, despite being set across various planets and moons in the solar system, and switching genres frequently, seem to be all of a piece. There is a run-down, post-apocalyptic quality to the streets, buildings, and towns of the anime, regardless of the place being Earth, Mars, or Jupiter. The locations in the live-action series seem to have no connection with one another. One moment, the characters are inside a spaceship, which looks just the same as anything on Battlestar Galactica, and the next moment, they are in a suburb in America. Occasionally the show cuts to a scene with spaceships and satellites, just to remind us this is science-fiction. One episode, Darkside Tango, inspired by the anime episode Black Dog Serenade, is supposed to be a tribute to film noir. How is that achieved? The directors add a sepia tint.
The badness of the Cowboy Bebop live-action series must have been predictable to any fan who had been following the interviews Nemec had been giving to the press before the release. He kept repeating that he is trying to stay true to the “spirit” of the anime. That’s such a vague sentence. What does that mean anyway? What was worse was his evident misreading of the series. In one interview, Nemec said that he does not see the Cowboy Bebop anime series as a dystopian story, when, in fact, the entire series is set in a time where the Earth is ruined by environmental collapse, corporations run the political economy with the State visibly involved with just policing, crime has risen to a level where bounty hunters are required to maintain peace, and all characters are putting food on their table by getting involved in illegal or dehumanising professions. Apparently, “it’s Cowboy Bebop, let’s not f— this up” was the guiding mantra for Nemec and his team during production. Well, guess what?