Cowboy Bebop 2021: A Fresh Tune That Doesn’t Always Hit the Right Notes

Faye, Spike, and Jet sitting on a couch

The following contains spoilers for Netflix’s live-action Cowboy Bebop, along with the original anime

Let’s get this out of the way: to say I was skeptical about Netflix’s live-action Cowboy Bebop is…an understatement. Live-action anime adaptations aren’t necessarily new for Netflix—and given that they are currently working on a One Piece adaptation they’re not likely to stop anytime soon—but this is Cowboy Bebop we’re talking about.

If you’re not, in the words of the great Cab Calloway, hip to the jive, let me fill you in: Cowboy Bebop is one of the few anime that is almost unanimously regarded as being among the best of all time, one of the best gateways into the genre for people who are interested in the medium, and a huge part of why anime became as big in the western hemisphere as it did. Any adaptation of the series, regardless of the medium it’s in, is a tall order, and the fundamental question surrounding the new Cowboy Bebop is whether or not this new show even has any reason to exist.

The best way to describe the difference between the two is, appropriately enough, in musical terms. Cowboy Bebop the anime is like a concert—it’s looser, more freeform, and while it can seem aimless at times it’s never afraid to simply go where the mood takes it, whether it’s Ed and Ein going on a bizarre odyssey to find food before accidentally taking some magic mushrooms or Spike coming face to face with the specters of the past.

Live-action Cowboy Bebop, on the other hand, is more like an album. It’s more polished, more technically impressive, and more tightly constructed. But it’s missing that free-flowing quality that was so integral to the original, and being built around an overarching narrative means that the world of the live-action show feels much smaller than it did in the anime.

Spike holding a gun to Faye's head while Jet holds Ein the dog in the background

At last, they created a new genre in itself…

The biggest change of the adaptation is in the way the narrative is structured. Unlike anime Cowboy Bebop, which was almost entirely constructed of self-contained stories that were only tied together by playing into the backstory or development of one of the main cast, live-action Cowboy Bebop takes several of those iconic stories and restructures them around the overarching narrative of Spike vs. Vicious. It’s a good idea, and probably the best way to pay homage to the original anime while allowing it to have a fresh feel and an identity of its own that plays out like a remix of the anime. It’s fun to see how memorable characters, locations, and moments wind up making their way into the narrative, while also streamlining things and steering away from some of the elements that might not have necessarily worked in a live-action series in 2021.

But, that lack of a single overarching storyline was a big part of what made anime Cowboy Bebop so special. Not only did it allow the show to jump between genres from episode to episode, it meant that characters and their stories didn’t have to be connected or be a part of some grand design. They were allowed to simply exist as relatively small pieces in a vast universe, and it lent them an authenticity that is hard to find in any medium, not just anime. The impact that each new character had wasn’t on the universe, but on the crew of the Bebop that served as an anchor for the audience.

I appreciate this element of anime Cowboy Bebop so much because it’s literally the exact opposite of one of my biggest gripes with shows like Doctor Who. As much as Doctor Who gives us a sense of adventure and exploring alien worlds, almost all of it still ties around humans and continually makes them the most important, most impactful things in the universe (besides The Doctor himself). It makes sense why this is the case—humans are much easier to relate to, plus the famous BBC budget can’t support too many special effects and alien costumes—but it seems like almost everything revolves around the human race. Anime Cowboy Bebop is still filled with humans, but it never feels like the universe revolves around them and the world feels much more vast because of it.

A close up of Spike

This time around, so much of what happens gets tied into some overarching narrative. It isn’t always a bad thing—Faye being at Maria Murdock’s attack because she’s interrogating the doctor who illegally brought her out of cryosleep, for example, felt like an excellent way to get her thrown headfirst back into the action—but trying to tie everything together means that some stories wind up feeling like footnotes for “more important” narratives instead of existing in their own right. For example, this time around Asimov and Katerina get tied into the Spike vs. Vicious narrative—Asimov is expected by Vicious, and his failure to arrive leads to Vicious’ discovery that Spike is still alive. It’s a small change, but one that fundamentally undercuts the impact their story holds, which in the anime was one of the best examples of what it is I’m trying to get at.

Asimov and Katerina’s story in the anime—the centerpiece of series premiere “Asteroid Blues“—is a morally grey, beautiful tragedy that only gets better in hindsight. We do get the immediate impact of their story and its tragic ending, but after Spike takes a moment to dwell on it at the end of the episode we immediately fly off onto the next adventure. Later on, when we get more into the backstory of Spike, we look back at their story and realize just how deeply their story had impacted Spike in a way we would never have known at the time.

As it turns out, Spike could relate perfectly well to wanting to leave behind a crime syndicate and start over with the person you love, since that is almost exactly what happened with him and Julia. It even adds new context to those last, melancholy shots of Spike looking out the window at the end of the episode. Was he thinking about a girl who cradled her lover’s body, holding the gun that had just ended his life while realizing she would never see Mars? Or was he thinking of another couple who met a tragic end when they tried to leave the crime syndicates behind, what must have felt like a lifetime ago?

In the live-action Cowboy Bebop, their storyline mostly serves as a means to the end of getting the ball rolling on the Spike vs. Vicious narrative, and while you can understand why this is the case from a storytelling perspective, it loses a lot of the meaning that it held in the anime.

But the worst victim of this approach to Bebop‘s storytelling and structure is, unfortunately, Mad Pierrot. In the anime, “Pierrot Le Fou” was one of the series’ most memorable episodes, a jarring detour into psychological horror as Spike faced off against a psychotic killing machine with the mind of a child. While the episode’s equivalent in the live-action series certainly gives us ample amounts of terror through its nighttime carnival imagery and Mad Pierrot’s backstory combined with his ultimate fate, the greatest terror of “Pierrot Le Fou” in the anime came directly from its disconnect to any sort of wider narrative.

A man in a clown costume standing in front of a roller coaster

See, Mad Pierrot isn’t a bounty that Spike and company are trying to pursue. He’s not a specter from anyone’s past out to haunt them. What made “Pierrot Le Fou” so chilling is because it was an entirely random encounter—Spike just happened to leave a bar at the wrong time, witnessed Pierrot murdering a group of men, and became the madman’s latest target after barely managing to escape with his life. This underlying current formed the deeper terror of the episode: the chaotic nature of the universe, and how something as simple as leaving a bar at the wrong time could lead you into a detour through a circle from hell.

Now, Mad Pierrot is the result of Syndicate experimentation, and makes his way into the storyline by Vicious setting him free and ordering him to kill Spike. It’s a significantly different take, and while it’s still a surface-level terrifying encounter—in large part due to Pierrot’s much scarier design—it loses most of the deeper existential horror that made the episode iconic.

The bounty hunters, who are gathering in spaceship “BEBOP”…

But Bebop‘s retooling isn’t limited to the story or its auxiliary players. Everyone in the main cast gets some tweaks to their backstory and character arcs, usually by taking elements from the anime that were hinted at and making them explicit.

Jet’s new backstory is probably my favorite: he gets a much more concrete reason for no longer being with the ISSP, having served three years in prison after being falsely accused of being a dirty cop. Alisa is no longer just an old lover, but is now his estranged wife—and the mother of their daughter. And the episode that dives into his backstory, “Darkside Tango,” is one of the high points of the series overall, finally delivering a full-on film noir pastiche that was only present in a few moments of the anime. The shot of Jet and his old partner waiting by the docks with Jupiter filling up the night sky is one of the most gorgeous shots I’ve seen in anything from the last few years, and brilliantly captures the anime’s iconic feel of old school meets new school.

Faye is still largely defined by her amnesia and her journey to discover her identity, but she does feel more like a fully formed person this time around. It helps that she shows up much earlier in the show than she did in the anime, and that the show frequently forces her to make difficult choices, stuff like “you can do the right thing and stop the missile OR you can get a clue that might lead you to your past” and “you can continue to focus on what’s missing in your past OR you can keep moving forward and rediscover or possibly redefine who you are on your own terms.”

Faye holding a gun and standing in front of a drum kit

Then, there’s Spike and Vicious. Their backstory and reignited conflict forms the series’ overarching narrative, so there’s much more detail given about their history this time around. It does define their conflict in much clearer terms than in the original series, and honestly you’re either going to like it or you won’t. It helps that they, like the rest of the Bebop‘s crew, are perfectly cast—John Cho, in particular, disappears into the role of Spike in a way very few people would have thought possible, capturing the character’s inner turmoil beneath his detached facade—but their shared history definitely leaves less room for interpretation and speculation than there was in the anime.

But the character most impacted by this is Julia. In the original series, she was mostly just there in the role of “enigmatic femme fatale,” and while her impact on Spike’s narrative was monumental she was very much an auxiliary player in someone else’s storyline and character. Here, her role is almost completely transformed: not only is she explicitly married to Vicious this time around as a means of trying to ensure her own safety, she actually gets to play much more of an active role in her own fate, leading to her storyline winding up drastically different then it was the first time around.

Speaking of which…the ending of live-action Cowboy Bebop is almost certainly going to be the most divisive element of the show, if only because anime Cowboy Bebop‘s ending is almost universally acclaimed for how well it wrapped things up. The ending of the live-action show finds everyone in a much different place than the ending of the anime. Faye leaves the Bebop to try and find answers about her past. Jet flies away on the Bebop—after telling Spike that he’ll kill him if he ever sees him again. Julia (noticeably still alive), now has Vicious (also noticeably still alive) imprisoned and is the de facto head of the Red Dragon Syndicate. And Spike (once again, noticeably still alive) does what he does when he’s feeling alone or lost: getting drunk to the point of passing out in the alley—until a certain spunky redhead and her genius dog come along with the promise of “bad man, BIG reward!”

Yes, I can finally confirm that Radical Ed does make a brief appearance in the flesh, and while I currently don’t know who they found to bring her to life, she’s perfectly cast, her brief appearance is fantastic, and it makes me want more of the live-action show just to see what they might do with the character.

It’s still a melancholy note to end on, but it’s also very much a “let’s leave things open for the possibility of future seasons” kind of ending which undercuts the impact that it has.

A close up of Spike, with the background behind him blurred

They must create new dreams and films…

Lastly, this is definitely a more modernized version of Cowboy Bebop. Once again, sometimes this approach works, sometimes it doesn’t. Faye actually gets to wear proper clothing this time around (which, and I cry every time I have to say something like this, is in fact a good thing) her journey of self-discovery includes some solid LGBTQ+ representation—shout out to lesbian mechanics with tattoos, pixie cuts, and black tanktops—and the show’s world benefits greatly from the increased diversity in a way that feels perfectly natural. Meanwhile, the streamlining also helps the show steer away from elements that might not translate well to live-action—or into 2021. Vicious’ bird is nowhere to be found, and characters like Laughing Bull are left behind as there’s not likely a way to translate them into a modern show that wouldn’t be a source of controversy.

On the other hand, the show feels very much like a product of 2021, and not necessarily in a good way. This is a more violent, more vulgar Cowboy Bebop, and it feels like a detriment to the series overall. 2021 Cowboy Bebop is often loud and gratuitously violent, with little of the subtlety and maturity that was present in the original series. There are times where it feels like every other word out of Faye’s mouth is some sort of curse word which gets very old and very grating very quickly. One of Jet’s contacts is a cougar known as Woodcock who openly thirsts for him while openly talking about how he’s “a nice tall glass of chocolate milk” and responding to Jet’s accusation of blackmail by saying “Yes, because you’re black, and you’re male.”

It’s the sort of stuff that makes you scratch your head and wonder how the hell it made it out of a writer’s room in 2021, and it’s a huge detriment to the show that makes it feel more juvenile than the original anime. Cowboy Bebop the anime was an excellent example of how to make an adult series that actually felt mature. The anime was definitely mature, but it didn’t feel that way because of gratuitous amounts of violence or language, but because it often explored themes that kids don’t normally think or care about. It was a show about loneliness, existential angst and ennui, trying to find your place in the universe, trying to outrun your past, and how the universe was filled with all sorts of people—some wonderful, some horrifying, almost all of them strange. There’s still some of that feeling present here, but a lot of it gets lost when we have scenes like Vicious having an entire room full of people killed after they’ve already been enslaved, had their eyes sewn shut, and been forced to work manufacturing Red Eye, especially when that scene is almost entirely in slow motion so that we can see every detail of their naked bodies being torn apart by bullets.

Ultimately, there’s quite a bit to like about the new Cowboy Bebop, and the fact that there is quite a bit to like is a more than pleasant surprise. The show approaches its source material well, finding a good balance of reverence for an iconic series and striking out on its own. It’s well-cast, dialogue is snappy, and the show does an excellent job of making us feel for the Bebop and their small, weird, found family.

But, comparing it to the anime isn’t even fair. It’s not surprising, given that we’re talking about one of the best anime of all time, but the show isn’t even in the same ballpark as said anime. That being said, it does work as a lovingly crafted homage to a genre-defining anime, and one that I certainly wouldn’t mean seeing what more they could do with the characters and setting in the future—and, if nothing else, is a great way to introduce a more general audience to what isn’t just one of the finest anime ever created, but one of the best stories and worlds that we’ve seen anytime, anywhere.

The words See You Space Cowboy... on a black background

Written by Timothy Glaraton

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