Cowboy Bebop Goes Netflix
Updated: Nov 21, 2021
I have been looking forward to the new Cowboy Bebop live-action series possibly more than any other show in recent memory. I love the anime, and have rewatched it more than once. It is a masterpiece—but a slippery one that works its magic like a ninja.
I remember following the development of a feature film maybe 10–15 years ago that would have starred Keanu Reeves, thinking, “Oh no, they’ll mess it up.”
Now, with this live-action series starring John Cho—did they mess it up? The reviews are mixed—it’s sitting around 50% both from critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes.
I’ve watched, so far, the first two episodes. I agree with the consensus that there’s a lot to like (the leads, the music)…and, unfortunately, a lot that comes up short: the devotion to replicating the look of the anime, while losing sight of its tone.
And there’s quite obviously too much Vicious and Julia.
I would like to be a filmmaker and screenwriter myself, so the last thing I want to do is leave a paper trail in this blog of me crapping on other people’s work. I don’t want to spend the rest of my career thinking, “Oh God, did I trash those guys?” if I should be so lucky to get a meeting with them.
So my rule is I will say exactly the same thing in writing that I would say to any of the makers, if they asked me.
Because, in truth, I have immense respect for everybody who does this. It is so demanding and difficult. You’re fighting for your vision—when most of the time it just comes down to opinions. If you build a suspension bridge, you’ve got engineering studies saying, “This will hold up” or “This won’t.” You make a TV show—there’s no study! It’s your call to say—no, I want the costumes to look exactly like in the anime. Or not.
For Cowboy Bebop—no, I would not have replicated the look of the anime so precisely. Live-action is not animation. What looks great in animation, and what’s accepted as a convention (the characters always wearing the same clothes), seems unnatural on human beings.
There is something Dick Tracy-artificial to the new Cowboy Bebop that feels…strange. I don’t know cinematography well enough to know how to describe what they did with the lenses and lighting, but it feels too bright and stagebound.
The production design feels too cartoony. The anime was never designed as a period piece; it used 1990s technology because that’s when it was created.
So I would have updated the technology, and opted for more verisimilitude to the production design, costumes, and look-and-feel. Keep it a blend of genres—but, please, give the actors some different clothes to wear.
I wouldn’t have put the mutton chops on Jet because my eye goes right to the seam between his real and fake facial hair. In general, there are too many wigs, and they don’t look good.
I read that on the first Harry Potter film, the filmmakers considered giving Daniel Radcliffe green contact lenses, and Emma Watson prosthetic buck teeth, to replicate how their characters are described in the books. But it looked bad so they said, forget it.
Of course, that was translating a book to a movie, where it exists only in imagination.
John Cho is too old for Spike but he is perfect in every other way, so what can you do? We all think of Hugh Jackman as the perfect Wolverine, when the Wolverine of the comics was described as being five-foot-two.
I remember reading about Harrison Ford’s costume fitting on the first Star Wars film. Here’s how he told it in J.W. Rinzler’s official making-of book: “George [Lucas] had made suggestions to the costume designer who had prepared a costume for me to try on. It included the shirt that I wore, but instead of the small collar, it had a huge Peter Pan shawl-type collar. I said, ‘No, no, no. That’s wrong. Can’t wear that.’ So they took it off. Later on the set, George never missed the collar. He had a concept of the costume, but it was loose.”
Maybe I am thinking of Spike’s large collar? Spike’s costume actually looks pretty good, but I wish they had extrapolated the concepts of the anime, instead of replicating them literally.
Maybe they should have brought Harrison Ford in to help out? Nobody has better commercial instincts than Mr. Ford! Right down to insisting in Blade Runner that Deckard is a human (or at least could be), so the audience has something to relate to.
There’s also something off in Cowboy Bebop to the tone. This is, to me, the bigger problem.
The anime is about the coming together of a surrogate family and, just as quickly (spoilers), the dissolution of that family. It is about belonging. It is very melancholy and unusual.
I would have stayed away from the Syndicate backstory because part of the magic of the anime came from the characters withholding of their true selves from each other.
It’s sort of the oldest trick in the book: they love each other, but they are afraid to show themselves. So they bicker, they grumble, they disrespect each other. They pretend not to care—when, really, they do. A lot.
Spike was always going to be hard to translate to an hour-long show because he’s designed in the anime as a kind of anti-protagonist—a passive lead. He has this laissez-faire death wish that is sometimes brought into the live-action show (“Whatever happens, happens”) but mostly not.
But when it starts to edge into Spike seeking noodles, like he’s a ninja turtle lusting for pizza...what exactly are we doing here?
I think making the lead characters’ pasts more explicit demystifies them. Leave us in mystery and let us be fascinated by their behavior. Don’t just tell us the answers.
Instead of the Syndicate business, I would have leaned into the anthology aspects of the hunts for the bounties. This is something the anime does brilliantly despite the brief run times: sketch out sympathetic “guest stars” and make us care about their lives.
It’s classic TV writing: the recurring characters change gradually due to their interactions with the guest stars. But the guest stars reach catharsis—while the leads are sent back to their lives contemplating what it means for them. (This was especially evident in the 2001 feature film, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, and probably led to it not being a huge commercial hit.)
Playing up the bounties would have allowed more of the world to be shown as well. And leaning into the procedural aspects of the chases would have made the lead characters seem smarter and more competent—you always want that.
There are, finally, some distressing moments where the show goes beyond being a genre pastiche into borderline parody. This is…not good.
In the opening of the first episode, Spike and Jet break up a space-casino robbery. There’s a huge gunfight, it looks like our heroes have won—when one last bad guy flushes a toilet and stumbles out of the bathroom, unaware of the fight, leading to one more showdown (with catastrophic results).
Wait a minute! Is this bad guy deaf? Does he have earphones on? How could he have been in the bathroom and not heard this massive, ten-minute-long gunfight? (I forget if this is literally replicated from the anime. I don’t remember it.)
You can mess with the rules of reality in your show—except for human behavior. If you are altering human behavior for plot convenience, or a joke, or both, it cheapens your work.
In episode two, we see the “Punch and Judy” bounty hunter show, “Big Shot,” faithfully replicated from the anime. But at the end, one host breaks character to complain to the other about stealing a line.
But wait, is this a live show? It didn’t really seem like it, because of the way it was cut. So they made this show-within-the-show and just left the outtake in? Or are we, somehow, watching the outtakes?
This is the kind of choice I just don’t understand. Maybe I’m being a bummer and way too literal. But it threw me out of the story.
I will be so pissed off one day if I am up for a big job and somebody Googles me and finds this column nitpicking Cowboy Bebop!
Well…“Whatever happens, happens.”