The powers that Bebop: How some Cowboys at Netflix kept the soul of a beloved anime alive
Thursday was "jam session" night on the New Zealand set of the new Cowboy Bebop, but not the type of jam session you may think. Instead, it was a weekly outdoor screening series that always kicked off with "3, 2, 1, let's jam!" — the key phrase heard in composer Yoko Kanno's iconic theme music that opens each installment of the Cowboy Bebop anime series. The blaring horns of Kanno's "Tank" became a celebrated sound among the crew, as episodes of the 1990s TV show played on a 15-foot-wide projector screen.
"I wanted to infuse the anime into our soul," showrunner André Nemec says of organizing the bonding event ahead of shooting Netflix's live-action version of the neo-noir space saga. Nemec believes nearly all in attendance had already devoured the source material many times over, but "it was a beautiful reminder for everybody who worked on the show — from costumes to props to set decoration to lighting to the accountants even — 'This is what we are making.'"
The original Cowboy Bebop series was an instant success upon its release on Japanese TV in 1998 — spawning a feature-length film in 2002. Powered by a catchy jazz soundtrack, the saga envisioned the year 2071 after a cataclysmic event led humanity to colonize the stars. In this law- less cosmos, three bounty hunters — Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, and Faye Valentine — are thrust together by circumstance to troll for their next big payday. The show's mix of Western influences with anime brought a global audience to the Japanese style that (to this day) can still feel niche.
John Cho understands Cowboy Bebop's legacy, and signed on to play live-action Spike knowing that others in Hollywood have tried adapting anime to diminishing acclaim. (See Ghost in the Shell, Dragonball Evolution, Speed Racer.) "There's a lot of speculation about what our approach is going to be," the actor says of his series, launching Nov. 19. "We were all in agreement that we wanted to honor the material and also contribute something original. What we talked about more than anything else was 'Is this in the spirit of Cowboy Bebop?'"
The new show features many direct callouts to the anime. (Specific scenes, like the "Ballad of Fallen Angels" fight and the Red Eye drug skirmish, are re-created. Shinichirō Watanabe, the director of the '90s version, served as a consultant and provided production with early Bebop concept art for reference.) But Nemec (Alias, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol) wasn't interested in a strict "one-to-one" adaptation. Frankly, he says, "That's no fun." He felt the soul of the anime lay in its inspirations: "spaghetti Westerns, noir classics, live-action movies from Double Indemnity to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to 2001: A Space Odyssey to Lethal Weapon." Those, Nemec adds, were "the best way to figure out how to make an anime into a live-action."
Also helping channel that spirit is Kanno, who's back as composer. "Music is the conduit," explains actor Mustafa Shakir (Luke Cage, The Deuce), a Bebop enthusiast of 20-plus years who now embodies Jet. "There's this rebellious, almost sociopolitical statement and energy about [the series] while it's couched in all of this music."
The score sets the mood, but Cho got into character by molding his body. Sure, the actor's been part of some blockbuster productions like J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movies, but playing Sulu didn't prepare him for the physical demands of portraying "a cowboy with a broken heart" who's also skilled in Jeet Kune Do (Bruce Lee's martial-arts style) and the sacred art of drop-kicking a casino chip straight into someone's eye. After throwing himself into training, "things started to fall into place," Cho says. The character's skill set "started to inform things."
Part of Cho's focus on physicality stemmed from his anxieties about bringing a two-dimensional character into the real world. "It's very difficult to directly translate an illustration into a person for me," the actor explains. "There's an inexactness about it." He points to how "more poetic" characters are rendered in anime, com- pared with "when you're dealing with flesh-and-blood people." That ranges from complex fight choreography to simple expressions. "As we uncovered Spike's backstory, which is a dark backstory, I was focused on making that feel very real," Cho says. "The journey of the season is under- standing everyone's past and what is motivating them in the present."
Shakir was also determined to do more than a "mimeograph" of his anime counterpart. "Jet's already the most cartoonish of them all," the actor says of his character, a former Inter-Solar System Police officer whose robotic arm and metal plate below his eye serve as lasting battle scars. "I chose to focus on him as a human being, just bringing that sense of urgency, that gruff approach, the big-heart brute."
Of all the cast, Daniella Pineda (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) perhaps faced the most scrutiny from anime purists. She celebrates the positive fan reaction to her character, Faye, but knows there were people dismayed over her… let's say look. In August, Pineda answered fan feedback on the internet by posting a sarcastic video reply to her Instagram Story, bemoaning how she doesn't "anatomically match" the "six-foot, double-D -size breasts, two-inch waist" depiction of Faye. "[The production] looked everywhere for that woman, and they couldn't find her. It's kinda weird. So they just went with my short ass," she said in the video. Funny enough, it was probably the most quintessential Faye thing she could've done. And fans took note. ("Humor was the right device to address some of those crazy details," Pineda reflects now.)
"The spirit of the anime is more than the costume of Faye Valentine," Nemec says. "There is a whole real person that exists underneath." Pineda describes that person as "a survivor." Faye may appear to be in her early 20s but is far older than she looks, having been cryogenically frozen for decades after a space-shuttle accident. "I felt a lot of empathy for her coming out of it and then not knowing anything about who you are, who your family is, if you were loved at one point," says the actress. "There's so many heartbreaking things about what she has to navigate, and yet she still is so incredibly strong and self-reliant. She's really funny. Any opportunity I got to add more comedic color to her, I really pushed for that."
Faye's evolution is just one way the 2021 version of Bebop speaks "in the language of the world that we currently live in," says Nemec, who finds another example in the character of Gren, played by actor Mason Alexander Park. In the anime, Gren was a man who grew breasts as a side effect of a drug. At a time with far less LGBTQ representation in media, many fans of the '90s series chose to envision Gren as what we would now identify as nonbinary. Two decades later, Nemec wanted to make that detail officially canon.
"Gren does not have a good history of becoming a nonbinary character. [It's] dark and didn't feel like the story that I thought was important to tell," Nemec says of reenvisioning the character's backstory for the new series. "I never wanted Cowboy Bebop to be a picture of a dystopian future. I wanted it to be nostalgic, but also hopeful. People, I believe, always find their ground, and a way to excel — to live in a better world. A person being nonbinary isn't a discussion. It's just a fact."
Beyond Gren's gender identity, Nemec focused on what made the character feel integral to the series. "With all of the characters, [I asked] 'What is the essence of that character within the anime?' Gren was driven by music. Taking that component and being able to expand upon it was the north star for who that character was," he says of fleshing out Gren's position as a confident master of ceremonies at the hottest jazz club on Mars. "Gren became part of the DNA of our show because we found what made Gren important to our storytelling."
Building on the established Bebop world was a mission Nemec's team extended beyond the characters. "We made sure every set and every location felt lived-in, that you could see the decades and decades that had come," says production designer Gary Mackay, who took inspiration from the nostalgic vibe of the original series, making the "junker" Bebop spaceship (the main trio's headquarters) and Spike's Swordfish jet look like they'd been operating constantly since the anime.
"You feel like you can see the stains from 20 years ago that have then been painted over. And then someone else has spilled something else on the floor and that's been painted over. And you just get these layers, and lay- ers, and layers."
Nemec anticipates some anime fans will criticize layers that have been added — he admittedly might've been one of those folks had he not adapted Cowboy Bebop himself. Regardless, the showrunner believes his team "told really beautiful stories along the way. I think the fans are really going to be pleased."
Then there's only one thing left to say: 3, 2, 1, let's jam!
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