When one hears that a popular Japanese anime is set to become Hollywood’s latest victim of a live-action remake, the instant reaction is a resounding no, thank you. Oftentimes adaptations are stripped of their cultural touchstones and relevance – Japanese characters are played by white Americans, and well, they are just not good. However, Cowboy Bebop is one of the few anime that lends itself to a live-action adaptation with its expansive science fiction world-building, melded with a narrative inspired by film noir and westerns. All the pieces for a smooth transition from anime to live-action are right there, so how does the show compare? It’s a mixed bag, but good!
Cowboy Bebop is brought to us by Tomorrow Studios, the partnership between Marty Adelstein and Sunrise Inc. (which also produced the original anime). The series was developed by André Nemec and written by Christopher Yost. This live-action adaptation has a ton of high expectations to meet. The 26-episode anime it’s based on is considered one of the best, with an intricate story that delves into existentialism, loneliness, chosen family, and overcoming one’s past. For fans of the anime, there will be a mixed reaction. The 10-episode live-action series does follow the anime closely, but with a few tweaks to accommodate the shorter episode length and expanded roles of a few characters. In short, the adaption condenses a ton of story and forgoes many of Spike, Jet, and Faye’s misadventures from the anime to get through it all. So, don’t expect every favourite side character or side-adventure to be translated to live-action.
In addition to this, the show makes some bold changes by completely altering certain characters’ trajectories from the anime and giving others more fully formed character arcs, namely Vicious (Alex Hassell) and Julia (Elena Satine). What one expects from a live-action adaptation will determine how much one enjoys the series. Some may want a replica, a beat-for-beat adaptation of the anime. Some may want a live-action interpretation rather than a replica. Others (myself included) may want the series showrunner and writer to take a chance and give our favourite bounty-hunting team an entirely new story. In the end, the 10 episodes will either satisfy, enrage or delight viewers. As for the non-fans who have never seen the anime, the show is a fine genre-bending story about space bounty hunters and the odd little family they create as they grapple with their individual past traumas and seek out better days.
The casting of the main trio is inspired and does wonders to bring our beloved Bebop crew from anime to live-action. There were a ton of rumblings regarding the casting, many disapproving for various reasons. In comparison to most American adaptations of Japanese anime, Bebop was set up from the beginning to be an international affair, and it is only right if the cast reflected that. Having said that, the show fails to take advantage of that fully by casting white actors in a few significant roles and doesn’t have any Asian women in a significant role. In my humble opinion, if Faye wasn’t going to be played by an Asian woman, then it should have been Julia.
On that note, let’s discuss Daniella Pineda as Faye first. Yes, in the original anime Faye is from Singapore. Here, there is no reference to Singapore but a nod to Daniella Pineda being Mexican. For me, with the absence of a substantive role for an Asian actress, the casting of Pineda stands out as particularly odd. However, her casting does reflect the global feel the creative forces behind the scenes clearly wanted, and ultimately, all one can hope for is a good performance. If you ask any man what is the most important thing about casting Faye, well, you will get a lot of physical attributes listed but nothing about her actual character. Often with anime women, what is written about them is obscured by how they are designed. Well, the amnesiac con artist with the perpetual wedgie no longer has her full bust out or is flaunting her hourglass figure. Instead, 90% of Faye’s character attributes remain intact as Pineda plays a near-identical replica of her anime counterpart. Pineda perfectly portrays Faye’s crafty persona, her brash and abrasive attitude, and also her sweet and vulnerable side. Pineda does a lot to honour her character and showcase all that fans love and more. Pineda nails so much of the ethos of the character that it distracts from her character getting maybe a little less than she deserves. The same could be said for Jet as well.
The casting of Mustafa Shakir accomplishes two things. One, it honours the casting of famed voice actor Beau Billingslea who is Black and has been the only version of Jet Black that many of the fans of the anime know. The second thing is that it solves an actual problem that the anime had, which was not having any Black characters with substantive roles. Many of the brown-skinned or Black people in the series were side characters, bounties Jet and Spike chased, or caricatures (see Mushroom Samba for more). The other thing to consider is that Shakir is a fabulous Jet Black, regardless of race. His voice is surprisingly a lot like Billingslea’s – a deep, gruff, heavy voice that soothes the soul. Shakir’s Jet is the same loveable, goofy, sometimes father figure on the Bebop. Jet’s maturity and wisdom shine through Shakir’s performance and he never lets Jet feel boring or one-note. However, as good as Shakir is in the role, the adaptation does not do Jet any favours with how they translate his story. Both he and Faye were always secondary to Spike, but the anime never sacrificed their moments the way the live-action series does.
Before we dive into what didn’t work, let’s talk about the fabulous John Cho. Cho may be a tad bit older than Spike Spiegel, but his age brings heft to Spike’s struggle with his past. By no means is Cho a weathered old man, but Spike in the anime carried many years of violence and regret on his shoulders so a mature actor is required. Cho brings a sense of realness to Spike’s existential ennui. Furthermore, John Cho is a great actor. Cho’s charisma is inexplicably perfect, with his comedic chops and superb drama skills coming together to create the best live-action Spike. Oh, and he is very attractive.
The ensemble cast is a mixed group of one-off and recurring characters who are altered greatly to accommodate for their lack of story in the anime, namely Ana (Tamara Tunie), Vicious, and Julia. Vicious and Julia have been upgraded to more prominent roles with stories that run independently of Spike and flesh out the Syndicate. While this is all well and good for our femme fatale Julia, it does a disservice to Vicious. With his role expanded, he becomes a lot less menacing and ruthless than his anime counterpart. And if there was a character in this show that begged to be played by an Asian actor, it would be the katana-wielding Vicious and by extension, Julia. As I mentioned before, there is no substantive role for an Asian woman anywhere in this series, which is a running theme with many of these anime to live-action projects. Vicious on the other hand is played by Alex Hassell, and while he is a fine actor in his own right, his take on the character feels out of place. His Vicious is just not the Vicious fans of the series will expect, and new fans may wonder how this knock-off Targaryen managed to hop from a fantasy series to a sci-fi one to vie for another throne.
One of the greatest reasons live-action adaptations often fail to capture the magic of their animated tethered is that anime can go beyond the limitations of live-action. Cowboy Bebop does capture the essence of the anime, with its blend of science fiction, film noir, and westerns being highly visible in the aesthetic and production design. However, the show feels small; too much of it feels like it’s on a soundstage, and much of that can be blamed on budget constraints and a global pandemic that shut down production. Although the show doesn’t quite look big, it is still very well-produced with attention to detail that is hard to miss. Even if that fiery kinetic energy that the animation provided to the world-building and character movements is missing, what we get is as close to the thrill of the original series. The live-action show doesn’t shy away from its influences and proudly displays it. To top it off, the music of Yoko Konno really hits home how much of a cultural phenomenon Cowboy Bebop was and that the live-action series is ultimately a love letter to it.
This first season of Cowboy Bebop, assuming a second will get commissioned, is difficult to praise or critique. There are many directions the show could have gone, but what we have here is a show that aims to please everyone. But at what cost? I love these characters and I want to see more of them and their adventures, but most importantly, their growth as people. Much of the themes of the series tapped into normal human anxieties and struggles but was wrapped up in this highly imaginative, genre-bending narrative. However, it would be remiss of me to not detail how the series does fail these larger themes because of how rushed the whole thing is. By being beholden to the anime, the show sets itself up to fail because one cannot replicate the mastery of the 26-episode series in a 10-episode adaptation. There are sacrifices to be made and with Vicious given considerable screen time, characters like Gren, a.k.a. the most interesting character outside of the main trio, get sidelined. In addition, poor Radical Ed is inexplicably almost non-existent. The balance is off, the medium is not right, and perhaps Christopher Yost and Andre Nemec were not the right people to bring the show to life.
In a key scene where Faye is reflecting upon being an amnesiac, she mentions not having a frame of reference for how to live in this new world. How that relates to the show is that, unlike Faye, Cowboy Bebop has an expansive frame of reference. With a 26-episode series plus a movie, the live-action series has a lot to reference. However, what Nemec and Yost choose to reference is at the detriment of the whole show. It’s a bit of a faux pas to critique a project for something it is not, but in this case, it feels like too much of the work done in the anime was sliced and diced for convenience and to make a splashy action series. Much of the overt themes and character arcs that were steeped in emotion were stripped away to make a very shallow replica of a masterful story. It is in the actors where we get that depth. Beyond that, there is nothing that feels like it’s drawing people in. At least, not on paper. The core themes are only there if you know what is being referenced, if you are not familiar with the series, you may feel as lost as Faye.
For fans of the anime, Cowboy Bebop will feel hollow – perhaps just a surface-level interpretation of the series we all love. However, the show is still fun, with a lot of what we love replicated in live-action. There is a lot to learn from, so hopefully, there is a second season so the series can take off in another direction. Cho, Shakir, and Pineda are exquisite in their respective roles and for that reason alone, Spike, Jet, Faye, Ein, and maybe Ed will continue to thrill in more live-action adventures.
Cowboy Bebop will be available stream on Netflix starting November 19