Netflix's Cowboy Bebop review: A colorful, campy attempt at live-action anime doesn't justify itself
As anime becomes ever more popular in America, the temptation to adapt the genre's most prominent masterworks only grows. But the 21st century has already seen several unsuccessful attempts at live-action anime: the Wachowskis' Speed Racer has its devoted fans but was a flop at the box office and remains controversial to this day, while the less said about 2009's Dragon Ball: Evolution the better. Then again, there was a time when comic-book adaptations were seen as a laughingstock, and now they're the biggest movies in the world after special effects advanced and studios learned how to adapt the genre's interconnected continuity.
Could live-action anime adaptations follow a similar arc into the cultural spotlight? Netflix certainly hopes so. The streaming giant has been working hard in recent years to build up its anime library: Acquiring the rights to classics like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Fullmetal Alchemist, producing their own originals like Castlevania and Yasuke, and embarking on American remakes. Their new version of Cowboy Bebop is the latest in the latter category, and is a lot less embarrassing than previous attempts like the 2017 Death Note movie. The fight sequences are pretty fun, and there's some impressive camera work like a tracking shot through a disintegrating space station, but it still doesn't quite live up to the power of the original series.
Originally broadcast in Japan in 1998, the 26 episodes (or "sessions") and a movie that make up Cowboy Bebop have long been a common gateway to anime fandom. That's not just because 26 is such a manageable number compared to some of the format's other nearly-endless sagas, but also because Cowboy Bebop packs in so many different genre influences into its evocative brew: The characters follow film noir templates while embarking on Western-style bounty hunter plots in a cyberpunk world, set to a lively jazz soundtrack composed by Yoko Kanno.
As per the original anime's premise, the new Cowboy Bebop is set in 2071 and follows bounty hunters Spike Spiegel (John Cho) and Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) as they traverse the stars on their spaceship Bebop, looking for valuable marks as they both try to outrun their respective pasts as gangster and cop. Along the way they pick up fellow bounty hunter Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda) and an adorable corgi named Ein. Of the main cast, Faye has changed the most from her animated incarnation, which makes sense since those trademark yellow hot pants are a little too revealing for modern tastes. Pineda's Faye also has a more open sexuality and many more feelings about being cryogenically frozen for so many years. Unfortunately the Bebop crew's most colorful member, the androgynous hacker Ed a.k.a Radical Edward a.k.a. Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV, is absent from the proceedings — though eagle-eyed viewers should probably keep a look out for the occasional dropped hint.
Given that episodes of the live-action series average out at 20 minutes longer than the animated sessions, Faye's not the only character who's been expanded. Shakir's Jet retains the storm-worn solidity of the original, but now the Bebop's captain has a young daughter — so he spends less time cultivating his bonsai and more time chasing after presents to help rebuild his relationship with her. Cho's Spike retains the character's devil-may-care attitude (at one point he lights a cigarette while hanging upside down off the edge of a building), but there's a lot more emphasis on the heartbreak. Not a single episode goes by without Cho being plagued by memories of Julia (Elena Satine), a beautiful woman from his past who now spends her time with the murderous Vicious (Alex Hassell), whereas the original series would only drop the occasional flashback once every five or six sessions (as in the iconic "Ballad of Fallen Angels" episode).
In fact, the most annoying thing about the new Cowboy Bebop is its need to shoehorn Vicious and Julia into every single episode. One of the beauties of the original anime was its nature as an anthology; working within the framework of freelance bounty hunters, most episodes' plots were totally disconnected from each other. This is what gave weight to the iconic taglines that ended every episode: The usual "see you space cowboy" or occasional "easy come, easy go" emphasized the transience of the characters' lives and the mortality of the people they encountered in this frontier future. The new Cowboy Bebop retains those ending taglines, but they feel off when matched with a plot-building cliffhanger instead of a solid period mark on one individual story.
Why compare the new Cowboy Bebop to the original so much when any work should be able to stand on its own? For one thing, the new adaptation invites these comparisons by constantly recreating iconic moments from the anime (from the opening credits to Spike's enigmatic memory of a rose fallen in a rain puddle). The new series doesn't have many original plots to speak of either; aside from those aforementioned expansions of the characters' backstories, almost every episode is modeled after plot and characters from the original anime, with only slight adjustments.
For another thing, the fact that Netflix has now acquired the rights to the original Cowboy Bebop means that the two shows will sit side-by-side on the same platform for the foreseeable future. This invites what might be called the Disney+ Problem. Disney has spent the past two decades making live-action adaptations of its beloved animated classics, which was one thing when it gave families the chance to relive the experience of seeing the plot and songs of The Lion King in a movie theater. But now that the live-action Lion King and the original animated Lion King are both available on Disney+ for the same cost, who in their right mind would ever click play on the muddy, "realistic" version when the beautiful animated masterpiece is sitting right there? Live-action is not inherently more artistic or worthy of praise than animation; in fact, the best cartoons are capable of depicting actions and emotions too sublime to be captured in three dimensions.
The new Cowboy Bebop will probably excite anyone who's never seen the original anime, and those who have might be tickled by all the homages and recreations. But in each case, it'd be more fulfilling to move Netflix's cursor one spot over and check out the original series. Easy come, easy go. C+