Why Netflix’s ‘Cowboy Bebop’ Remake Ultimately Falls Short
The live-action reboot fails to capture the beautiful simplicity of the original.
Buried in the trumpet-gut-shot-pop-art-montage that makes up the iconic opening sequence of Shinchirō Watanabe’s 1998anime masterpiece Cowboy Bebop is a blink and you’ll miss it manifesto. It reads (in part):
…the bounty hunters who are gathering in the spaceship ‘BEBOP’ will play freely without fear of risky things. They must create new dreams and films by breaking traditional styles. The work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called…COWBOY BEBOP.
Few shows sucker-punch you with their driving thesis in their opening titles (or ever). But few shows are like Cowboy Bebop, which follows said sucker-punch up with consecutive roundhouse kicks. As soon as you hear that 3…2…1…let’s jam! you know you’re in for something different — a journey that, like a good jam session, is more experimental and exploratory than it is explanatory.
What follows is an anime that keeps one eye on the past and the other on the present, so as to better see the future, one that moves with kinetic energy at a blaring volume with stillness, silence, and selectivity. Like the jazz greats Jet Black loves so much, Cowboy Bebop knows it’s the notes you don’t play that matter.
But how does that philosophy hold up in the year 2021, decades into Hollywood’s reboot addiction, years into the streaming wars, the year that Netflix’s long anticipate/dreaded live-action Cowboy Bebop is released, and one year before the astral gate explosion that destroys the original Bebop’s planet Earth?
First, The History
Cowboy Bebop was produced in 1997 by Studio Sunrise. Its creator/director, Shinchirō Watanabe was a burgeoning OVA auteur, then best known for his work on Macross Plus and Mobile Suit Gundam: 0083. Watanabe was a pop-culture polyglot, drawing influences from Japanese, American, and European cinema, TV, music, literature, philosophy, tech and beyond.
In Bebop, Watanabe’s litany of influences slotted perfectly into the genius of his collaborators: screenwriter Keiko Nebumoto, character designer Toshiro Kawamoto, mechanical designer Kimitoshi Tamane, and, most memorably of all, composer Toko Kanno. This was the Bebop crew, and together they would make a show that was as romantic as it was revolutionary, as grand in scope as it was granular in detail, and as spontaneous as it was timeless.
The misadventures of the deadbeat space-bound bounty hunters Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, Faye Valentine, Ein the corgi, and Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV would leave an indelible mark on anime, and pop culture at large, forever. All this in 26 episodes (AKA “sessions”) and a movie. A deft trick, never to be repeated again.
It is difficult to exaggerate the impact Cowboy Bebop had on the West’s relationship to anime. The series arrived at a time in the post-Akira landscape when ‘serious’ anime was just starting to find a foothold in the west beyond gaijin otakus and fan conventions.
Twenty years later and Cowboy Bebop remains many people’s high-water mark for an anime series. It’s a cliche to see it or Evangelion at the top of any best of list. I myself remember spending many fruitless hours searching “anime like Cowboy Bebop” again and again only to be let down by every show that claimed to come close (apologies, Black Lagoon).
There is, truly, nothing that does what Cowboy Bebop does quite like Cowboy Bebop (and yes I don’t think Watanabe’s Samurai Champloo really comes close). So when Netflix announced their live-action adaptation a few years back, most fans (at best) shrugged. What could a live-action revival add to a text that was so complete, so perfect, and so profound?
The answer is: too much.
The Deafening (Lack Of) Silence
A disclaimer: I am a geek but I am not the type of geek that flips out at a piece of media if it doesn’t meet my precise expectations for costume, casting, or an actor’s cans. I am fairly indifferent to this type of thing. I didn’t come to the Netflix Bebop feeling bothered by things that (to me) are relatively meaningless.
Sure, John Cho’s middle-age undercuts Spike’s reckless youth and his old soul wariness, but Cho himself is charismatic, as are all the lead cast for that matter, with Mustafa Shakir’s Jet Black going beyond uncanny impersonation and into embodiment.
And sure, the sets go from looking like a million bucks to looking like something from a Power Rangers porn parody, the design choices lack the original’s boldness and diversity, and the cinematography and editing were bunged up by that rote film school muddiness that seems to make every mainstream action film or show look like you’re watching it through a filthy Coke bottle.
Sure sure sure, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is, in these ways and more, an imperfect beast. Yet none of these things is responsible for the show being a failure — which it is. That is rooted in something much simpler and much bigger than an actress not showing nerds the appropriate amount of T and A.
Netflix’s Bebop never shuts up. It is the malformed progeny of a generation of screenwriters who sunk 800k into a NYU screenplay course only to emerge as a blob of gene-spliced Whedon/Sorkin/Daniels homunculi, full of American water cooler banter and little else.
Banter is a cancer. Joss Whedon, the MCU, the American Office: for two decades now Hollywood has mainlined banter, reducing every character down to a Chris Pratt paste level of palatability, a kind of comfortable gruel, that sustains audiences on two-bit quips, eye rolls, and sarcastic clap-backs not worth the Woolongs.
The original Bebop’s characters bounced off each other, sure, and they certainly rapped a lot of guff, but they were also, intimately, quiet. A show about three maladjusted loners with diverging brands of misanthropy, the original Bebop crew understood the value of shutting up. Silence speaks to solitude, but it can also speak to growth, and respect. When the Bebop crew are talking they tend to be winding each other up or complaining about one another’s bad habits. We see their true selves when they’re alone: Spike practicing his martial arts, Faye watching old videotapes in her room, Jet trimming his bonsai trees: when they are apart together, we come to realise how together they are when they’re apart.
It approaches the loneliness at the heart of Cowboy Bebop with a typically American mindset, that being that loneliness is something that can be, and should be, cured.
The Netflix adaptation approaches the loneliness at the heart of Cowboy Bebop with a typically American mindset, that being that loneliness is something that can be, and should be, cured. From the get go, Netflix’s Bebop’s crew is chummy, in that Parks and Recreation way. Sure, my co-workers make my eyes roll, but we’re all one big happy family, no? These characters are warm, kindly, and accepting of one another — they go out of their way to help each other out, and worry out loud when one of them is absent, be it emotionally or literally. They’re sarcastic and sassy, but it’s all in good fun.
The original Bebop is the opposite of this. These characters are as atomised as they are connected. They are three people running away from something, brought together by work and circumstance. Partners maybe, friends barely. The original Spike and Jet get along, but they remain mysteries and frustrations to one another. Faye, likewise, has mistrust built into her very character: she is a con artist who is herself the victim of an incredibly cruel con. Together, they are curmudgeonly roommates who fall into a pattern of co-dependency that’s more akin to Mark and Jez than it is to their Netflix counterpart’s Bert and Ernie.
What connections they have remain fragile and tenuous, right up to the end, and therein lies the beauty of their relationships. What is so exciting, and often heart-rending, about the original Cowboy Bebop is witnessing these characters come to understand that they are little more than ships in the night passing through one another’s lives, and that despite this rough silhouette of a family, they can come and go as they please, without the other’s really caring, or even noticing.
It’s within this dynamic that the anime can achieve what the reboot cannot: silence. The anime is as contemplative as it is percussive: it relishes the quiet downtime, the ever-looming boredom, that is these very lived-in lives in its very lived-in universe. “Don’t you want to hang out and waste your life with us?” says Spike in one of the post-credit previews. And the answer is yes you do, because by daring to be still and quiet where another show would be scared to, the anime is able to transport you wholly into its world, mechanic ashtrays and all.
By the end of episode one of the Netflix show any pretext of quiet, mystery, and enigma has been dispensed with. Characters backstories, which are drip-fed to us in the anime in kaleidoscopic flashes, are now spewed out in expository monologues and prequel episodes. Nothing is left unsaid, and nothing is left to guess at.
We are told the stakes explicitly: Spike hiding his syndicate past from Jet because he believes Jet will hate him for it. He voices this fear several times before it chunkily comes to pass. Where the original Jet was largely indifferent to Spike’s hitman past, here it is used to draw the tedious rules and boundaries of a show that is determined to stick within them. All questions are to be asked up front, and the answers are to be repeated, ad nauseam, for any latecomers in the nosebleeds. The Netflix adaptation is playing strip poker while holding its cards back to front.
In this way, the adaptation reveals itself to be the one thing the anime never was: scared of itself. Where the anime dared to be ‘the shōnen about nothing’ while being about everything, the adaptation seems wary of being anything at all. Anything, that is, other than content.
Bebop In The Age Of Content
How do you adapt nothingness for an audience trained to demand everything? You can’t. We live in a time when content rules, and when audiences must have their demands met, or else. It is Cinematic Universe Syndrome, and it’s resulted in a kind of corporate WPA program, where something like a tentpole summer blockbuster can be made on the backhand of a Wikipedia entry about a plot hole from a decades-old piece of beloved media.
Where does Cowboy Bebop, an anime that demands and excites a certain degree of cultural literacy, belong in the era of Star Trek: Lower Decks and headlines like THE ENDING OF COWBOY BEBOP EXPLAINED!”? Audiences are now conditioned to expect the transaction between them and content to pass one way.
Forget the past is the ongoing refrain in the Cowboy Bebop anime. The past pulls us back, but for what? Death and destruction. When Faye tries to turn Spike away from his suicidal assault on Vicious in the finale she repeats his own words back at him, accusatorially: “You told me to forget the past, it doesn’t matter.”
It leads you elegantly to life’s most difficult truth: the past is the past, and you can’t return there.
Again and again, we see the characters drawn back to the pasts they’re supposedly escaping, only to have their selves shattered when what is no longer syncs up with what was. Faye can never return to the person she was 50 years before she was cryogenically frozen, Jet can never return to the love that left him or the respect he once held for the law, and Spike can never return to Julia, not without getting her, himself, and everyone else killed.
There are no takebacks in Cowboy Bebop. The reason, I think, the show hits so hard the first, second, and tenth time you watch it is that it leads you elegantly to life’s most difficult truth: the past is the past, and you can’t return there. Watching it for the first time at 15 I held that childlike hope that Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed, and even Ein could fix themselves, or at least, fix one another. As an adult, watching it after years of grief and loss, the low sweet melody at the anime’s core cuts deeper than ever. There is a difference between being lonely and being alone, and accepting that difference is bittersweet.
I think the beautiful simplicity of the anime’s honesty is impossible to reboot, by default. You’re doomed once you glimpse in the rearview mirror at an artwork that explicitly told you don’t look back.
This is why Netflix’s reboot is a pillar of space salt. It suffers for being what it is: a streaming show, a Frankenstein revival, haunting a platform that asks you to “skip intro” and “skip credits” on a show that blasts its manifesto(s) in both.
At one point in the anime, Spike tells Faye to look at his eyes. He reveals that one of them is a fake, that he lost in an accident: “Since then, I’ve been seeing the past in one eye, and the present in the other.” It’s looking back that ultimately kills Spike, and likewise, the reboot, which somehow forgets the bassline (NOTE: pun) lesson of the anime: you’re gonna carry that weight.