Review: Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” Misses on Multiple Levels

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A few weeks ago I had middling but also what I felt were reasonable expectations of Netflix’s “live-action” Cowboy Bebop adaptation.

I never once thought this could rise to anywhere near the same level as the anime, after all, it’s damn near perfect in my estimation, but I felt it could at least get a few things right. At the very least it should be a fun watch if nothing else. The cast seemed somewhat inspired, even if John Cho is definitely too old to play Spike at this stage, and the session zero trailer seemed hip and fun enough that I felt it would at least capture that aspect of the series’ aesthetics. Even the official trailer seemed to be getting things at least mostly right.

The warning signs were there though, and my expectations before the series release officially hit its low when this tweet went out about the showrunner’s tonal vision for the show:

I don’t know who needs to hear this but “Cowboy Bebop” ain’t fucking Star Trek. It’s not a vision of a hopeful future. It’s not supposed to feel like things will be good down the road for the human race when/if we ever colonize space. It’s a pretty bleak story when we really look into it, one with very relevant themes to today, and for the showrunner to completely miss that point because basically “Oooo cowboys in space with jazz music!” is like watching “Mad Max” and your only takeaway being “it would be pretty cool to drive around the desert with those guys.”

Still though, I tried to keep an open mind as November 19th drew nearer, as I’m the type of nerd these days to not take these things too personally (unless it’s Imperialist propaganda), but nothing quite prepared me for how jarring this adaptation would be compared to the original.

I originally planned a blog entry on this before the series’ release date. I wanted to talk a little about what I felt were these reasonable expectations I had of this show because I felt some fans were perhaps overreacting to issues they saw in the trailer. This is what I was hoping to see from this adaptation:

  1. Give time for vibes (A major feature of Bebop are the quiet moments).
  2. Mix it up (Bebop is not a very stagnant anime. It bends and twists genres from all over the place and the show should too).
  3. Don’t try too hard to be exactly like the anime by playing to fan service. Relate back to the anime without making us just want to watch the anime instead.
  4. Give us something new to chew on about the characters without completely changing them (admittedly a difficult one to do, but still).
  5. Bebop is NOT “Firefly.”

In short, the adaptation whiffs on all of these points and manages to do some far worse things with the source material. Again, I am not the type of nerd to typically get to bent out of shape over pop culture things anymore, the Game of Thrones finale didn’t even move the needle that much for me for example, but the way Netflix ruined an all-time favorite for myself here legitimately makes me VERY upset.

So, let’s discuss what the fuck happened shall we!

Netflix’s Bebop more or less has the same setup as the original. Spike and his ex-cop partner Jet look to make ends meet as bounty hunters in the far future. Along the way, they run into another bounty hunter named Faye Valentine also looking to cash in on their prizes as well and wacky hijinks ensue as the three join forces. Unbeknownst to Jet and Faye though, Spike harbors a dark past tied to the criminal underworld and it’s about to finally catch up to him as they traverse the solar system.

Tonally, the best way to describe Netflix’s Bebop is if the CW had a hand in creating this series. Not too shocking given “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” is one of the more popular series to come out on this platform and its connection to other shows such as “Riverdale.” I actually like the former quite a bit, it’s one of my favorites for a multitude of reasons and part of its charm is the CW-esque hokiness and melodrama. It works for a show such as “Sabrina” because it is a silly story with witches, warlocks, and demons centered around high school drama. It makes it fun! Tonally that kind of production value is what a story like that needs.

Seriously, one of my favorite shows in recent memory. Give it a watch!

Applying that same cheese to something like Bebop, however, works in parts but most of the time does not fit at all to put it mildly.

While a character like Spike in the anime is aloof, superficial, and a “go with the flow” type the story isn’t this so much. The themes the series often tackles are pretty hard subjects that deserve sincerity even if our lead character is a bit of a dip shit. “Cowboy Bebop” is a story about struggle, struggle with yourself, struggle with your past, struggle with the outside, societal forces that make it especially more difficult while making ends meet in a dystopian future. Space is a bleak and melancholic place in the original anime and not some fun space adventure romp ala something like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and this show very much feels like it’s trying to copy that energy instead.

This is what I mean by vibes with that first earlier point. Netflix’s Bebop doesn’t understand what those quieter moments in Bebop were trying to communicate to the audience. Some of the best scenes in the original anime are literally just Spike, Jet, and Faye disassociating after something pretty terrible, tragic, or just plain melancholic happens. Whether it’s a couple of outlaws getting gunned down by cops, an ancient child finally experiencing death at long last, or a sadistic clown serial killer turning out to be a victim of state-sanctioned experiments and abuse, the anime always let us sit and stew on these dark moments in the series and contemplate the meaning of all this senselessness.

“You’re going to carry that weight” means something here and the live-action adaptation misses this mark entirely.

A good example of what I mean by vibes.

The anime was also a great series because it knew how to mix it up. Though on paper this is a cyberpunk action series, the anime dives into multiple other genres including noir of course, hard sci-fi, horror, westerns, kung fu flicks, romance, comedy, and all others in between.

Netflix’s “Bebop,” however, feels very married to one style and that’s leaning heavily on the noir and the cyberpunk aspects the most and it’s questionable “Firefly” like dialogue (which is weirdly heavy on the curse words). The result is a series that feels very much about aesthetics rather than authenticity. To be fair, when adapting something it’s hard to truly be original but here it feels very much like the writers involved with the project phoned it in, which leads to one of the most damning aspects of this show really…

If there was one thing I felt this series could get right it would be that at least I wouldn’t be bored watching it. I fully expected the show to miss the point, and it does with multiple characters which I’ll get into later, but surely the action with this kind of production value would still work, right? John Cho might be a little too old for Spike but he’s a good actor and a professional, so he could sell the energy of the show right?

The answer is no, a hard no.

It’s not even fun bad…

The story beats are a huge problem but what could’ve saved it or at least masked those problems would have been the editing. When the session zero trailer came out, I had hope that the series would have that same pace and tone to it. The sharp cuts and action stylized to the beat of the music felt very Bebop to me. It’s legitimately good and has some fun things going for it but almost none of that makes an appearance in the finished product.

A good example of what I mean by how bad the editing was is how they use legendary original anime composer Yoko Kanno’s music in this series. When Kanno’s music kicks into gear in the anime, you know the pace of episode is about to hit 11 typically. Songs like “Too Good Too Bad” are tied directly to scenes like the finale of session 4’s “Gateway Shuffle” as Spike and Faye frantically work to stop eco-terrorists from unleashing their virus on Mars. Whenever the song “Odd Ones” plays a chase is typically ensuing or a frantic rush to stop some bounty or retrieve an item the crew of the Bebop need. And of course, “Rain” iconically captures Spike’s confrontation with Vicious at the cathedral and his own death wish.

Here Yoko Kanno’s music is often played as cheap background music, almost like it’s meant to be played in the elevator as the editing rarely matches the energy of the soundtrack. It doesn’t help too that each episode of this series, aside from session 9, is a direct riff on the original episodes which unfortunately leads viewers to drawing comparisons with the far superior product. It makes it impossible not to notice its minor to major flaws.

But how does this series use Bebop’s original story? I was hoping that this series would stick to the original’s episodic nature as I felt that was always one of the anime’s strongest points. Some anime fans who are bigger on narrative-driven television have taken issue with this to some degree. The “main” story arc of Bebop, involving Vicious, Spike, and Julia, are relegated to six whole episodes in the original and much of the background behind it all is left mostly to the viewers’ imagination. Fans have speculated, and probably written a bunch of terrible fan fiction on it, for decades but part of the original’s charm is that it is mysterious and very much left up to the viewer’s own interpretation.

The backgrounds on Spike, Vicious, and Julia never really needed to be elaborated on. They served their purpose and told viewers everything we needed to know in the best most minimal way. Spike once was a hitman, Vicious was one of his best buds in the criminal Syndicate, Julia got between them and led to a falling out and an eventual departure from the criminal underworld in the worst way for Spike. It never needed to be more than this and yet here the writers have decided to not only expand upon it but make it the new series central storyline that hangs over each episode.

The result is all those fun one-off adventures, side missions, and explorations throughout the solar system of Bebop become all about Spike, and this past of his and the result makes its world feel much smaller. Making characters like Pierrot Le Fou, Asimov Solensan, and a number of other original characters from the series all related to Vicious in some way makes them less interesting and changes thematic story beats. I understand the writers’ urge to change things, cause of course they have to in an adaptation, you have to make it your own in some way, but Vicious never needed to be more than a shadow of Spike and a violent, sadistic sociopath. And Julia certainly never needed to be more than someone Spike never got over.

Seriously, all we need to know about all three of them are shown right here.

I know there are some feminists’ critiques of Julia’s depiction in the original out there, and I’ve listened to them with open ears (and I encourage you to listen for yourself), but I strongly disagree that she needed to be more than that. You start to create a different story when that happens.

But hey, expanding on character backgrounds is not entirely a bad idea and with the right writing team, it could even work as a throughline for all these original stories from the anime. But unfortunately, the changes they make to Vicious and Julia especially are by far the worst ideas used in this series.

Going back to the editing problem a bit here, by making Vicious and Julia the biggest parts of the overall story, we end up having episodes with stilted pacing and weird tonal shifts. At times through episode 7 for instance (which is by far the best and only good episode of this series), cutting back and forth to this undercooked plotline involving Vicious making a powerplay for the Syndicate throne continually stunted momentum from the rest of the episode’s much more enjoyable beats.

The worst part is neither Vicious nor Julia, in this series are interesting enough to carry these cutaways.

Adding context to Vicious’s storyline was presumably to make us care and understand the character more but all it really does is turn him into a generic bad guy instead of one of anime’s most iconic villains. We didn’t need to know how Vicious met Julia. We didn’t need to know Vicious helped adopt Spike into his family. We DEFINITELY didn’t need to know he has daddy issues of all things.

But no character is done worse than Julia here.

There is a movement in Hollywood these days when doing adaptations of old stories to make the female characters more “feminist.” Disney live-action reboots are especially notorious for this. Belle can no longer be someone who helps the Beast simply find his best self, she also has to appear “rebellious” by teaching little girls how to read. Cinderella can’t just be a woman who helped raise herself out of a bad situation with her stepfamily through compassion, she also needs to be a small business owner and entrepreneur. And modern Disney flicks reeeeaaaallly like to overemphasize that these princesses don’t have or rely on male love interests anymore.

I’m not advocating for a return to “traditional morals” and the domestication of women in the household. Far from it. But these modern “feminist” readings of these old stories I think tend to misinterpret these old fairytales, leading to some bad readings of what was “wrong” about them, and plenty of fairly problematic depictions of women in their own way.

A couple videos by female YouTubers who discuss further what I’m getting at here.

The writers of Netflix’s “Bebop” very much have learned this same wrong lesson here. They must have seen that Julia is a small character in the original and decided to “correct” that by turning her into a generic girl boss. This Julia goes from damsel in distress to head of the criminal underworld by the season’s end and it’s just needless. Julia is not a weak character in the anime; she’s exactly what she needs to be for the story. Someone Spike is deeply hung up on. The reason Spike can barely allow himself to care about events that take place around him. It’s the reason he is emotionally stunted in the anime.

Making Julia a now “strong” character is also problematic in its own way. To suggest that certain female characters are “weak” because they don’t take matters into their own hands or lift themselves out of horrible situations by themselves sends a pretty toxic message to women who find themselves in their own abusive relationships. You may as well say “wELl wHy DidN’t yOu LeAvE??”

I know writers and certain culture war critics might look at the original Julia and think she’s “underwritten” and to that I say yea, that’s kind of why it works.

A podcaster and writer I really like, named R.S. Benedict, said on her show once…

“A story is a type of conversation with the reader. If you don’t leave room for the reader to speak, you’re a terrible conversationalist.”

The empty spaces around Julia and certainly Vicious and Spike too in the original anime is part of what makes them compelling characters. As viewers, we are left to ponder their mysteriousness and what made them who they are and by allowing us to use our imagination to fill in the blanks it gives us all our own interpretations of these characters and who they are. It’s what makes each of those characters great in the anime.

By expanding on their original backstories, this series is effectively talking over us. Robbing us of the original’s mystery. Vicious was a compelling villain exactly because we DON’T understand him. Julia was an interesting character because she could be basically anything that we the viewers were hung up on in real life.

Spike was cool because he rarely let us in on what makes him tick episode to episode but when he did it was a special moment. It made us feel privileged when he did open up, even if it was just a little.

Sometimes the saying “Show, don’t tell” is misused when it comes to discussing storytelling but here it very much applies to the anime and how this adaptation completely misses the mark.

I don’t have much else to say here. There are some other smaller issues, such as the series’ incessant need to shoot each scene in a dutch angle for whatever reason. But at this point, you’ve probably read and heard everything negative about the series as it is (thank you for reading this far btw haha). I will say Mustafa Shakir does play a pretty good Jet for what its worth and Daniella Pineda is a solid Faye (stop being assholes toward her, fanboys). Hell, visually at times it even looks pretty good but other than one episode in particular this series is just another in a long line of failed live-action anime adaptations. It just sucks that it couldn’t even leap the low bar I set going in.

I can’t think of too many ways Netflix can right the ship here other than completely revamping the writing and directing staff, so I’ll just say watch the anime because there’s nothing you’re missing here.

Until next time…

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