Cowboy Bebop, the 26-episode Sunrise anime from 1998, directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, is, to me, peak fiction. You can talk about classic literature, independent theater, popular museum art, and the golden age of television or film as works of artistic brilliance, and you'd hear little argument from me, except perhaps some of the specific titles. But I think that, that specific Japanese cartoon is every bit as genius as any of the things in those categories. Maybe someday I'll see that view as embarrassing, and some may see it as already disqualifying for my opinions, but it's honestly where I stand. I think Cowboy Bebop is brilliant, it was shaped by brilliant minds and crafted with brilliant hands, and is the crown jewel of my anime fandom. I don't see it as mere entertainment, I see it as genuine art.
So, as you might imagine, I was quite skeptical when I learned that there would be a live-action adaptation done for Netflix. It seemed wrongheaded. For one, what works in animation or in non-moving sequential art, doesn't necesasrily work in live-action. Sure, there was little in the original series that was extravagantly supernatural or impossible to depict with current effects, but at the same time, there was a certain energy and aesthetic that was better captured in animation. Second of all, who were these people producing it? Who could possibly recapture the magic of Bebop in live-action? They would have to be at least as brilliant as the people who crafted the original. Sadly, the list of participants left little to be confident in. But I largely bit my tongue as I saw the production develop, hoping that it would at least be an interesting footnote in the history of Bebop.
And, really, that's what we got. The live-action Cowboy Bebop is fascinating, in its own way. But is it good? Not really.
Cho and Shakir as Spike and Jet.
The ten-episode live-action version of CB was developed by André Nemec, who wrote the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie and Christopher Yost, whose major works include such golden nuggets as Thor: Dark World and Max Steel. A few of the episodes were written by Yost, and original anime director Shinichiro Watanabe is listed as a consultant (though I imagine he's just a name and had little, if anything, to do with this version). They managed to wrangle original musical composer Yoko Kanno, even including her and her band's "Tank!" as the opening theme. But there aren't any Japanese episode writers or directors, as far as I can tell. Each episode is nearly an hour in length, as opposed to the original anime's 20-something minute entries. And the show stars John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, and Daniella Pineda. All of the episodes of the first season were released on November 19 and, presumably, there are plans to make a second season.
And honestly? I'd watch a second season. Just to see how further they misunderstand the original work. I hate to call it a "hate watch", but I mostly got through these first ten episodes on sheer fascination with its incompetence.
But you would think I would be utterly repelled and offended by this show. So why aren't I? I mean, by all rights, I ought to be. Cowboy Bebop is my favorite anime, one of my favorite TV shows of all time, and this? This is a campy mess.
Pineda's Faye is too quippy.
For one, nearly everything about this show, even its campiness, is conventional. The way shots are framed, the relationship between the actors and their surroundings, the dynamism (or lack thereof) of the action, the development of the storylines, all rote, predictable, and standard. I mean especially compared to the anime, but even compared to better live-action TV shows.
It comes across as incredibly insecure with itself, unsure whether or not it can be sincere with its subject matter. That comes across in a lot of the dialogue, a sense of cynical mockery and eye-rolling that these characters are even in this show. Because of this lack of sincerity, because of this overabundance of quippy, you-aren't-actually-taking-this-seriously-are-you incredulity, it takes the viewer out of the experience and forces them to likewise roll their own eyes at the subject matter. It holds back, emotionally, like the writers and directors are afraid you might find the surroundings and characters too unrealistic or goofy, so it adds a layer of skepticism, as if to say, "Yeah, we know, it's bounty hunters in space, isn't that a wacky premise?" No, it isn't, live-action Cowboy Bebop. At least, it wasn't in the anime.
Take the character of Faye Valentine. Much was made from a certain group of people that Faye was being somehow lessened by the progressive sensibilities of Hollywood writers, her sexuality neutered in favor of "woke" "girl power". But the problem with the Faye in this series isn't that she isn't overtly flouting her goods, but that she wears her insecurities on her sleeve, rather than burying them under a veneer of self-confidence. They replace it with a series of overdone pop-quippy dialogue that renders her conventional, in the mold of any Marvel Cinematic Universe or 90s Joss Whedon character. Her sexuality being held back is therefore just an extension of this cynical fear of going all the way with the Bebop characters. They go the safer route, not, I imagine, out of some misguided attempt to improve a "problematic" character like anime Faye, but because it's just easier to write in the mold.
Faye becomes a mixed bag, because while they do occasionally give her some actual room for character growth, they're constantly choosing the "Hey, look, don't worry, we know this was based on a cartoon, we don't take her seriously, either" strategy of blunt jokiness. The writers fail Faye by making her somebody who is practically leaning on the fourth wall, always commenting on how crazy everything is, as if to assure us we don't have to take anything seriously. And while live-action Faye's superficial humor and the little tidbits of direction they give to her character may have grown on me by the end, I still longed for the more complex and difficult Faye of the anime, the complicated, traumatized Faye.
Why does Vicious have to be so goofy?
It's one thing when they try to diffuse sincerity with cynicism, but they also made the mistake of giving us more when less is better in the case of main antagonist Vicious. It was a mistake to expand Vicious' role, especially in the manner they did it in this show. The Vicious in the anime is cold, calculating, and taciturn. He only speaks when he has something to say. He only appears when things are at pitch tension. There is no wasted time or movement with Vicious of the anime. There's exactly as much of him as necessary. But in this series, they were determined to make him a reoccurring character with a complete arc, and that was wrongheaded, because it entirely misses the point of Vicious.
It didn't help that the personality they gave Vicious to fill him out was that of a petulant, tantrum-throwing little wiener, a baby-man par excellence with severe and obvious insecurities and a lack of even basic dignity. It makes him appear not as an intimidating, implacable foe, the personification of Spike's dark past, a reflection of who he could have been, but as a goofy, comedic, mustache-twirling stock villain. It's hard for me to hold back my laughter every time actor Alex Hassell makes those exaggerated expressions that depict Vicious as just being a greasy, over-amped frat boy with sexual frustrations. It's a big problem when your main, and frequently reappearing main antagonist is the source of unintended comedy when the writers desperately want him to be seen as a deadly threat.
They don't really do Spike's beloved Julia any favors, either. Sure, she was little more than a plot device in the original anime, a shadow of longing, the representation of Spike's ideal, his missing piece, but she still had presence in her small role in the narrative. The Julia in this series is every bit as conniving, underhanded, and unforgiving as Vicious, just in a doe-eyed, "Woe is me. Please pass the poison, uwu" kind of way. And maybe that's an interesting direction to take Julia, showing that Spike's idealized love isn't as perfect as he made her out to be, but it hardly seems necessary, because she only exists as a reaction to Vicious, and her interaction with Spike comes only at the end of the season, when we've already been exposed to her wiliness.
The live-action Cowboy Bebop wants to share certain developments and moments with the original anime that, frankly, it doesn't earn. Sometimes it does something interestingly different with elements like the Space Warriors, Doctor Londes, or Whitney, but not in a way that earns it the right to have moments like Faye's Tape, or the Green Bird scene. Make your own memorable moments if you want to change so much about those classic episodes, writers. Otherwise, your just obviously and pathetically chasing the anime's spotlight. You can't have "Rain" in the same episode where Faye exclaims, "Welcome to the ouch, motherfuckers!" Somebody was paid to write that line.
An actual decent episode.
I will give this show some credit, though. The chemistry between John Cho's Spike Spiegel and Mustafa Shakir's Jet Black, despite some rockiness in the dialogue, is genuinely good. I can really buy these two as partners in bounty hunting and as friends who've been through a lot together. I actually felt something when the season finale had them, in the end, at odds. Sometimes Pineda's Faye even adds something to the mix that works, even if it isn't in a classical Faye way. Cho is older than Spike is in the anime and Shakir isn't as bulky, but other than that, they do a decent job inhabiting those roles, whether they're at rest or in action. If there's any saving grace to this series, it's Spike and Jet's relationship. I wanted to see them through all the trouble they got into together.
The music, of course, is good, because much of it is music Yoko Kanno already composed for the original anime. I am a bit bothered with some of its actual use, and the lack of noteworthy original pieces for this show, but it wouldn't feel like Bebop at all without Kanno's music. Maybe a second season will allow Kanno to stretch out a bit more, so the show isn't depending solely on aping the music from the anime.
The action can be decent, too, though as I said, it lacks the dynamic sensibilities of movement that the anime had. There are some good hand-to-hand bits, but everything is hampered by the direction. Maybe this is why Bebop works better in animation, because everything felt really fluid, but without appearing too staged in the original series. It all came off as being natural, an extension of the energy of the show. Here, the energy is muted by cynicism, so the action can occasionally appear forced. Like many things with this show, it's a mixed bag.
The live-action Bebop's biggest problem isn't that its creators necessarily don't understand what made the original work, so much that they might understand, but are embarrassed by it. They want the glamour of being like the original show, because of its high quality, but committing to Bebop requires them being cool with a lot of things a cynical Hollywood production outfit might find too corny or sentimental for today's audiences. So instead, they give us this version which, because it apologizes for itself so much, comes across even more kitcsh than the original could ever be, because it wants to wink and nod and be the audience's friend rather than go on and tell worthwhile stories.
But I don't want the show to be my friend. I want the show to be good. And those things aren't mutually exclusive, but they aren't the same thing, either, and when you fail to challenge your audience, all you have is mere entertainment. And that's what this show is. It's not the work of brilliance the anime is. It's afraid of brilliance, because then it might look like it's taking itself seriously, and we can't have that in today's landscape, now can we?
No. You haven't earned this.
Cowboy Bebop, the anime, can be serious. It can be funny. It can be exciting. It can be tragic. It can be quirky. But whatever it is, it is with sincerity and clarity. It doesn't give a shit whether you're a friend or not. It's unapologetically itself. And that "self" is well-crafted and genius. It was shaped by the likes of Keiko Nobumoto and Shinichiro Watanabe. The people behind this live-action version certainly don't share the same flame of brilliance as they do, or if they do, it's not showing here.
But why don't I loathe this... thing? Why am I looking for more of it, even? I don't know. Maybe I'm just desperate for more Bebop content. Or maybe somewhere inside me, I think there's potential for growth. I think, ultimately, what draws me to it, is that it's a perfect example of the difference between trying to do something and succeeding in doing something. The difference? Sincerity.
Better dialogue wouldn't hurt, either. Welcome to the ouch, motherfuckers.
Of all the things to adapt, maybe Edward could use some toning down for live-action.
- Penguin Truth