Review by James Lindorf
In 1998 director Shinichirō Watanabe and Sunrise Inc. released “Cowboy Bebop,” a 26 episode neo-noir space western. The popular Japanese anime made its move to the United States in 2001 as part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup. Overnight a whole new audience fell in love with its over-the-top violence and the blaring horns and blues riffs of composer Yoko Kanno’s score. Now twenty years later “Double Indemnity,” meets “For a Few Dollars More” meets “Blade Runner” in “Cowboy Bebop,” the latest Netflix Original from showrunner André Nemec and directors Alex Garcia Lopez and Michael Katleman. All ten episodes of this season have a runtime of about 60 minutes and will be available to binge starting November 19th.
Adaptations are always a catch 22. On the one hand, they come with a built-in fan base which means attention and money. On the other is the expectations and the fans that will never be happy. The best approach is to make the best product you can and hope to please old, with the primary goal being to find new ones. When it comes to “Cowboy Bebop,” three things are critical to making a successful adaptation. The easiest part is the music. That was pretty much taken care of when Kanno was brought back to score the new series. Kanno knows that the soul of noir or neo-noir is in the double bass and snare drum, and you can expect to hear a lot of them throughout the series. He compliments those low smooth tones with lively brass notes from the sax and trumpet to add energy to fights and other choreographed scenes. Those horns can also be used with instruments like the guitar, harmonica, and ocarina to emphasize the western themes of the series. The music of “Cowboy Bebop” is bold because it is unlike anything else, and for the fact that it stands out more than you would typically expect. Instead of complimenting or enhancing what is going on in the scene, the music is often incongruous and waltzes to its own beat.
The second key element is best summed up as the vibe. The original anime has themes of loneliness, makeshift families, and obsession. Edward is a bit of an anomaly; she has a troubled past but doesn’t seem to be ruled by it like the others. The other three main characters are obsessed with their history, whether it was their former career, a lost love, or the lack of a past. Between the quiet moments of reflection and desperation, the series is all about fun and swagger. The new series has a lot of that same feeling but is presented in a slightly different manner. Spike has his melancholic moments, but his more genuine connection to Jet lessons the loneliness he feels. Instead, that falls on Faye and the added emphasis on her amnesia. It leaves her without a sense of self and a place to call home. Jet is haunted by how his career as a cop ended and what it cost him. Being a cowboy is far from his list of life goals, but it is a means to an end that lets him keep his tenuous connections to his past. The experiences may not be identical, but the story is now being told in a much deeper way, making the emotions more complex and multidimensional.
The third and most crucial element is capturing the essence of the beloved characters. The music could be bad, and the vibe could be off, but fans of the series would watch that quartet in any story. John Cho (Spike Spiegel), Mustafa Shakir (Jet Black), and Daniella Pineda (Faye Valentine) all give excellent performances. Still, Mustafa and Jet are the best of the bunch. It is the truest to what was done in the anime and the best expansion of a personal story. Faye is a bit hit or miss. Pineda is great, and Faye is still a bit eccentric, but it isn’t as over the top as in the anime, which grounds her and makes her more relatable. The problem with Faye’s character and the series overall is that the comedy is too juvenile. It feels like they are cursing because they can, not because they need to emphasize an emotion, and frankly, I can only hear someone say balls so many times.
John Cho, as Spike, is our lead character and who the world of “Cowboy Bebop” revolves around. Everyone has their own thing, but his past coming back to haunt them drives the overall story. Even though Cho is twice the age of Spike’s character in the anime and lacks any background in action, he is surprisingly competent as the assassin turned bounty hunter. Cho is the first to acknowledge the great work of the stunt team to make him look good, but he deserves credit for his commitment. Cho’s Spike isn’t quite as smooth as the animated version, but he is intelligent and quippy. It is like watching a deadly version of his “cool” Harold from “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.” Cho may not pull off Spike’s swashbuckling nature, but he brings the heart that he needs and likes to keep hidden. Of the main cast, Spike may be the furthest from the anime, but it is hard to take your eyes off of him. The two primary sources of Spike’s past and current troubles, Alex Hassell (Vicious) and Elena Satine (Julia), also get expanded storylines. In the 26 episodes of the anime, they have maybe 15 total minutes of screentime. They have almost no personality or motivation and exist solely to love or kill Spike. They have so much more to do in the new series and will develop the kind of fan base they never had before.
Live-action adaptations of anime have a history of disappointing old fans and failing to find new ones. Thanks to solid performances in all three critical categories, “Cowboy Bebop” is by far the best adaptation to date. With a 3.5 out of 5, the series is a lot of fun but still has room to grow. It does a better job at telling the story of the crew of the Bebop than the anime ever could. A season two has yet to be announced, but I hope to see these cowboys later.
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