Cowboy Bebop, directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, remains one of the most iconic anime of all time. Lauded by mainstream critics and anime fans alike for its visual style, Yoko Kanno’s soundtrack, and its explorations of mortality, nihilism, and identity, Cowboy Bebop has enjoyed an excellent reputation since its 1998 premiere. And stateside, it is especially renowned for being many Americans’ first experience with anime, first airing in English on Cartoon Network in 2001 as part of the nascent Adult Swim programming block. All told, it remains one of the most beloved anime by new and old fans, who still praise it as a must-watch and a modern classic.
This legacy, however, is something of an albatross around the neck of Netflix’s 2021 live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop. Netflix’s take on the show has a love-hate relationship with its source material, retaining the premise and almost every single character from the original and re-creating and referencing memorable shots and scenes, but adding original elements like comically trite dialogue, embarrassing dramatic turns, and an original and unengaging plotline that only pull focus from the core story it’s trying to adapt. The result only creates unfavorable comparisons with the original and is likely to turn off both fans of the original and newcomers. If this Cowboy Bebop accomplishes anything, it’s to highlight the quality of the original series, justifying many anime fans’ belief that trying to translate anime series from one medium to another never works out.
Set in the year 2071, the original series tells the story of former crime syndicate member Spike Spiegel and ex–Inter Solar System Police officer Jet Black, both of whom make a living as bounty hunters while traveling across the galaxy on their ship, the Bebop. The pair are joined by Faye Valentine (a wannabe femme fatale drowning in mountains of debt), Radical Edward (an eccentric 13-year-old hacker), and a genius corgi, Ein. While Spike, Jet, and Faye remain at the Netflix take’s core, and the story is mostly similar, showrunner Andre Nemec also looks for ways to make this Bebop his own—to his detriment and our disappointment.
Most episodes of Netflix’s take on Cowboy Bebop follow the same formula: Take the plot from an episode from the anime in its entirety, add some original scenes or a subplot to fill the runtime, and fold in the new storyline for now-expanded characters Vicious (Alex Hassell), a member of the criminal Red Dragon Syndicate, from which Spike defected, and Julia (Elena Satine), Spike’s mysterious former lover. The premiere, for example, follows most of the beats of the anime’s first episode, establishes the Vicious plotline, and, for good measure, tacks on a redux of the opening of the well-received (but difficult-to-find) 2002 film Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. It’s a mess of fan service and attempted reinvention that only adds up to an overstuffed final product; each hourlong episode is packed full of as much stuff as the runtime will allow—unrelenting quips, endless exposition—without ever giving the viewer a moment to breathe.
The new, deadly serious Red Dragon Syndicate plotline is largely responsible for the show’s suffocating pace, taking up a massive amount of the season’s runtime. In the anime, we rarely see Vicious, who’s made menacing largely because his motivations are unclear, his cruelty often senseless as he plots to overtake the Red Dragon Syndicate, an organization whose activities are also ambiguous but involve drug trafficking and assassinations. Julia, similarly, appears almost entirely in Spike’s dreams as a ghost of his former life that he refuses to let go. Now Vicious and Julia—and their volatile relationship—are a driving force of the overall plot, appearing in every single episode and leaving nothing to the imagination. Vicious assumes the role of a by-the-numbers Big Bad, who explains his evil plans out loud at regular meetings with members of the Syndicate—he even gets a backstory this time around, complete with a cliched, villainy-justifying relationship with an abusive father. Julia goes through the same repetitive character beats, all while dressed like someone from a soap opera, and at the end of the season she makes a brutal turn that feels both obvious and ineffective. Vicious is never gone long enough for us to fear what he’s planning, and Julia is never gone long enough for us to miss her as Spike does, diminishing the impact of the two characters with whom Spike is meant to have his most fraught and complex relationships. This storyline builds to an explosive, unimaginative final confrontation, the motivations of which are comically unimaginative, and which needlessly re-creates an iconic scene from the original series in a completely new context.
Of everything that Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop tries to do, what works best are the moments where Jet, Faye, and Spike just hang out, talking about everything from jazz to bathing habits to sexual preferences. They’re the kind of relaxed character moments that bond us to our heroes while avoiding the constant, obvious exposition the rest of the show obsesses over. These are characters that anime fans continue to name among their all-time favorites, and when the Netflix show allows itself to slow down and play around with the cast more, you can almost see a version of this adaptation that feels acceptable, if not additive. Yet even when it attempts to delve into its characters’ inner lives, the show does so with weak writing that is neither subtle nor inspiring. Trite dialogue, like “Mercy is for the weak” and “Shitbag corporations—they control everything now,” flows endlessly throughout a show where the characters never stop talking, and it gets grating quickly. And in a seeming attempt to emphasize that this is a show for Adults Only™, there’s more cursing and a drastic increase in sexual references when compared with the anime. While these sexual references are often the setup for an easy joke, they sometimes allow for some more interesting exploration of character, and in one case lead to a very touching, intimate moment for Faye. It’s just a shame the show’s attempts at mimicking maturity couldn’t manifest in some subtler conversations.
At the center of it all is John Cho as Spike, who does his best to make the material come together but never quite manages to. He’s decades older than the original’s 27-year-old hero, and, maybe to accommodate the age change and keep up with the live-action take’s tone, Cho has toned down the character’s immaturity. In the anime, Spike tries to mask his hopelessness with charm and nonchalance, two traits that have been massively downplayed—this Spike’s a much more serious man. Another consequence of his age change is that, when we see what exactly Spike was up to during his time at the Syndicate in an exhausting flashback episode, we’re not seeing a teenage boy being unknowingly exploited by a shadowy crime syndicate, but a middle-aged man who should probably know better.
The original Cowboy Bebop is undeniably cool—a wonderful blend of unique, stylish characters, jazzy score, and outer space setting. But it’s also contemplative, depicting a bleak vision of the future in which people are struggling with social atomization, economic inequality, and ecological devastation, while still finding beauty and hope in the power of human connection and the fleeting nature of life. The anime takes its sweet time building its world and characters, devoting a lot of time to moments of quiet contemplation. Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop, despite borrowing so liberally from the anime, feels like a largely superficial adaptation.
The finale prepares viewers for another season, which promises to diverge even more from the anime’s story, but ends with a moment so cringeworthy that it may discourage viewers from continuing to watch the show at all. With the original series also streaming on Netflix, there’s no reason for deeply unsatisfied fans of the anime not to abandon ship and rewatch that instead, but newcomers may very well be turned off from the franchise altogether. This disappointing iteration of the Cowboy Bebop universe does have one positive, if unintended, effect—further cementing Bebop’s reputation as one of the greatest anime of all time, a piece of art that defies imitation.