Spoiler alert: Cowboy Bebop (Netflix and original animated versions)
OK, so I’ve watched all of Cowboy Bebop, both the original and Netflix versions. I was an early viewer, so my opinions weren’t yet colored by the critical response to the series. Once I found out how split the reactions were, I was pretty puzzled. It was pretty well 50/50 whether people liked it or not.
And heads up, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Actually, I seem to be in a minority who really enjoyed both versions of the series.
Here’s what I think happened that torpedoed the show. And I’ll preface by saying that, despite its flaws, I think it’s better than it’s being given credit for.
For starters, the live action show had some clunky dialogue here and there. Fine. Fair. There were also complaints about the quality of the sets. Really? I’m not going to hold the show’s budget against it. I can enjoy the original Star Trek without getting in a snit over cardboard props and the same California desert being every alien planet.
I think the show would have done fine if those were the extent of the complaints.
The bigger “sins” were threefold:
They changed characterizations of the main castThe series shifted tonesMysterious antagonists and side characters gained more screen time
Let’s go through these in order.
Spike, the main character, went from a mysterious, sarcastic, brooding badass to a snarky, playful badass whose backstory played out in flashbacks. His history in the Red Dragon Syndicate came to the fore and everything started tying back to it, both giving the series more purpose and taking away from the sense of ennui that set the mood of the series. The early episodes of the anime were all about making ends meet, struggling to survive, and just looking for the next job. It’s also no coincidence that this is the tone I was looking to capture with the early missions of Black Ocean.
Faye Valentine shift was slighter on the surface but I think ran deeper. The source of her troubles came out a lot earlier and a lot more bluntly. The anime unraveled the story of Faye’s amnesia and medical debts (both a result of decades of cryo-sleep) much more slowly. As you learned about her, you marveled at how she adapted from lost and adrift to taking on a universe of starships and bounty hunting head on.
Also, they skipped the hilarious joke where they found a VHS player but had a Betamax tape from Faye’s pre-amnesia personal effects. I get that it was probably cut for run time and maybe being too dated a gag by now, but I still missed it.
Jet… I think his changes worked. He got more backstory but his fundamental character didn’t shift as a result. So, I don’t think too many people had a beef with Jet’s handling.
The next sin, the one of tone, is a function of the adaptation. Zaniness is a hallmark of anime. Sure, there are stone-cold serious anime series by the truckload, but casual insertion of utterly bonkers visuals and behavior, inherited from manga, are part of the charm. While Cowboy Bebop, the anime, was a noir space western with action and grit and melancholy, it still had its formulaic weirdo kid sidekick, its anthropomorphized animal, etc., but it made them fit their setting.
In the live version, the tone became zany action space show first, with a gritty universe painted onto the background behind it. In fact, the main use of the anime seemed to have been aesthetics rather than tone.
But I think the coffin nail for most anime fans was the upgrade of Viscious and Julia from ghosts of Spike’s past to major players in the show. Television needs villains (maybe?), and Cowboy Bebop was a revolving door of baddies and illusions of baddies throughout most of its run. Viscious as a Big Bad kept a focal point for an audience who might not have known about the conflicts in the animated version. The love triangle became a major driver in the Netflix series.
Unfortunately, without much to work from, Viscious was created mostly from whole cloth. Rather than being a Sephiroth-like force of violence incarnate, a sword wielder cowing terror in a world of guns and starships, he became a spoiled, incompetent psychopath, elevated up the ranks via nepotism.
Julia’s new characterization gave the character a level of depth that modern audience deserve and expect from love interests nowadays. Unfortunately, “damsel in distress” was a huge motivator for Spike’s arc and didn’t seem to gain anything to replace it that carried as much weight.
(Double Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched, seriously, bail now and come back later)
Spike ultimately threw himself headlong into a quest to save someone who didn’t need to be saved. Julia, despite all outward appearances, was playing her own angle. Spike got played right along with everyone else, ultimately removing the ultimate obstacle from her path—Viscious.
All that said, I STILL LIKED IT.
No, I LOVED it.
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop didn’t hit the same heights as one of the best anime titles of all time. I mean, The Tonight Show isn’t the same with Jimmy Fallon as it was with Jay Leno, nor with Johnny Carson. You’re allowed to enjoy things that aren’t as good as others, or that can be enjoyed from a different perspective.
TV needs more Cowboy Bebops.
TV needs more small crew space shows.
TV eventually needs Black Ocean.
Adaptations are adaptations. You can’t include every Tom Bombadill and House Elf Liberation Front. You can’t match tone and style between mediums. Television (even on prestige streaming services) has its own rules and limitations. You need to accept that any time a property switches mediums, there may be changes that steer it away from the source material.
But that’s not inherently a bad thing. Limitations also give rise to what makes each medium amazing. And even if our favorite stories change in the adaptation process, what results can still be great without being identical. I can only hope I’m so lucky when studios finally come knocking.
Have thoughts on the Cowboy Bebop live action series? Share them in the comments!
Just remember to be respectful and constructive, no matter what you thought of it, or your comment will be removed.