It’s a daunting task to transform one of the most groundbreaking and influential anime series of the last 25 years into a live-action series. That would Cowboy bebop, a stylish, genre-breaking neo-noir space-western that received universal recognition when it premiered in 1998. Truly count yours among his many admirers. So I had some reservations about Netflix’s decision to turn the original into a live-action streaming series – why mess with perfection?
Die-hard purists are unlikely to be happy; The new series is a different beast. But I found that Netflix Cowboy bebop mostly found a balance between preserving the anime’s most beloved elements and remixing it in fresh, intriguing ways for a new dramatic format. Is it flawless? Barely. But it’s still damn entertaining.
(Spoilers for the 1998 anime series below. Some spoilers for the live-action series, but no major revelations – except for a smaller one at the very end. We’ll give you a warning when we get there.)
The original anime series takes place in 2071 and is about a group of bounty hunters on a spaceship named Bebop. The earth has become largely uninhabitable and humans have colonized the various rocky planets and moons of our solar system. The Inter Solar System Police (ISSP) relies on contracts with bounty hunters called “cowboys” to keep criminal activity at bay, despite the fact that the mighty Red Dragon Syndicate is still successful.
The main character is Spike Spiegel, a Mars born bounty hunter with a history of violent gang activity and a penchant for punching fists, not to mention a tragic romance in his past. His best friend and business partner is Jet Black, captain of the Bebop and a former cop with a cybernetic arm. Her crew expands over the course of the series. Faye Valentine is a scammer and bounty hunter who has been in suspended animation for over 50 years following a space shuttle accident and is therefore suffering from amnesia. One is an adorable, genetically engineered Welsh corgi. And Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivruski IV, also known as Radical Ed, is an eccentric and energetic teenage girl who knows her way around computer hacking and makes up much of the show’s weird relief.
In addition to their weekly adventures, every member of the Bebop‘s crew each had broader arcs and explored their respective backstories – especially Spike’s. Spike had repeated tense encounters with archenemy Vicious, an ambitious Syndicate member. Vicious and Spike were blood brothers until Spike had an affair with Vicious’s friend Julia. The two planned to run away together, but no one leaves the Syndicate alive. Julie had to go into hiding, and Spike faked his own death and eventually joined Jet Black on board the Bebop. A final showdown between Spike and Vicious was the tragic climax of the series. Director Shinichirō Watanabe didn’t blink in that regard; The show ran a single glorious season and helped redefine what people thought anime could be in.
Cowboy bebop was critically acclaimed and became a cult hit, thanks in part to its distinctive visual style and strong thematic elements – and of course its incredible, eclectic soundtrack is courtesy of Yoko Kanno (whose mannerisms inspired Ed’s character). The term “masterpiece” isn’t tossed around that often in relation to anime, but it is in the case of Cowboy bebop, the nickname is well deserved. I recently re-watched the entire series as I hadn’t seen it in years, and it’s as fresh and fun as the first time.
That was the respect for showrunner André Nemec and his team when they took on the challenge of creating a live-action adaptation. (Nemec previously worked as a writer and producer on Alias, as well as the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie.)
“I knew that we were walking on sacred ground” he told the Los Angeles TimesRealizing that he and his writers needed to approach the task with equal parts awe and a willingness to deviate from the canon and reinvent if necessary. After all, two decades have passed and a streaming series is a very different medium from the original half-hour format. Her mantra: “It is Cowboy bebopLet’s not open this up. ”It helped that Watanabe consulted for the new show and that Kanno returned to compose the soundtrack for the series.
The live-action series begins with an action-packed set piece in which Spike and Jet attempt to thwart a heist in a space casino – with disastrous results. Next they find a bounty named Asimov Solensan (Jan Uddin) and his wife Katarina (Lydia Peckham). The couple stole a batch of a sensory enhancement drug called Red-Eye from the Syndicate and tried to sell it in New Tijuana. This is straight from the anime’s pilot, with just a few tweaks here and there – namely, the presence of Faye as a rival bounty hunter hired by Katarina’s wealthy father to rescue her.
The eco-fascist terrorist Maria Murdock (Adrienne Barbeau, carnival), another favorite from the anime, shows up in a later episode – except that the gas it releases turns people into trees, not monkeys. Also the face-changing thief Abdul Hakim (Cali Nelle), who steals one before the corgi joins the crew of the Bebop; the crazy Pierrot Le Fou (Josh Randall, Ed, scrubs); and the infamous “Teddy Bomber” (voiced by Rodney Cook). And Punch and Judy (Ira Munn and Lucy Currey) make themselves comfortable as co-presenters of the fictional show Close upwho chases bounties and those who hunt them. It’s a kind of public service.
Nemec and Co. successfully established the Chandler-like neo-noir tone, Kanno’s new score is pure joy and the line-up is perfect. John Cho (Star Trek, Sleepy Hollow) brings Spike a tired, jaded nihilism, with just enough of the naive, hopeless romance intact to keep him sympathetically vulnerable. Alex Hassell (On site) plays a suitably edgy and violent Vicious; Daniella Pineda (Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom) plays a spirited Faye Valentine; and Mustafa Shakir (Hatch cage) brings out the basic decency and strong moral code of Jet Black, not just its outward harshness.
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