It has been 23 years since Cowboy Bebop first premiered on TV Tokyo, gracing Japanese television screens for the first time. Since the colorful debut of the now-iconic series, which was inspired by old westerns and pulp fiction, the very cool yet mysterious leading man Spike Spiegel and his comrades Jet Black and Faye Valentine have become synonymous with the global anime takeover. The neo-noir drama has become an invaluable part of pop culture with a legion of fans that still consider it one of the best series from the ‘90s.
It’s no wonder why the show has been in talks for a live adaptation for several years, facing numerous roadblocks and changes from budget constrictions to talks of Keanu Reeves taking on the role of Spike. Fast forward to 2018, streaming juggernaut Netflix announced that it would be releasing its own adaptation of the famous anime, led by showrunner André Nemec. The news was met with mixed responses, with longtime fans wondering if the adaptation and its characters can live up to the original.
Now that the live-action Cowboy Bebop is finally streaming, we’re outlining are some key differences and similarities between the show and its source material.
While Netflix’s version comes with a handful of changes, anime fans would appreciate the tribute to jazz, which is intertwined with Cowboy Bebop’s legacy. Each episode keeps the iconic “Tank!” theme song composed by Yoko Kanno as well as the “Real Folk Blues” ending theme. The show takes the influence deeper with many scenes set in Ana’s (Tamara Tunie) jazz club and making Julia (Elena Satine) a jazz singer even though in the anime, she was associated with the syndicate tied to Spike’s nemesis Vicious (Alex Hassell).
The look and feel of the show, layered with the music, actually do a stunning job at bringing the anime to a live-action audience. It keeps hallmarks of the original, from the spaceship Bebop to the hokey bounty commercials. Iconic lines (“And she too shall bleed tears of the scarlet”) are kept in the script and recited verbatim. The show pays respect to its predecessor and what people love about it.
Cast and Characters
Beyond the aesthetics, the cast also makes the adaptation exciting. John Cho, who plays Spike Spiegel, does a brilliant job at bringing the character’s mystery and playfulness to life on screen, which is only further illuminated by the impish banter he shares with Mustafa Shakir, who plays Spike’s partner, Jet Black. Daniella Pineda adds to the vibrant dynamic through her role as Faye, who is more vivacious and affectionate in the live-action.
But this is where things take a turn–particularly for longtime fans of anime. Despite the many elements the adaption preserves, including its memorable villains like Mad Pierrot, and a spirited Ed who arrives in the season finale, making room for a possible second season, the overall tone of the show feels very different. There is an exaggerated lightheartedness, and the few missing or changed elements cause a rift in the emotion that’s very stark for original fans. While the actors do a great job at portraying the characters’ campier alter egos, a lot of the heaviness and sadness are gone, particularly in the love story between Spike and Julia.
Julia is the most different from her anime counterpart. Despite her betrayal to Spike in the season finale, there is a still softness present that wasn’t there in the anime, mostly due to the fact that she wasn’t very present at all in the original. In the anime, viewers learned about Julia’s character mostly through Spike’s recollections, in addition to anecdotes from the character Gren Eckener in “Jupiter Jazz (Part 2)” and her in-person encounter with Faye in “Real Folk Blues (Part 1).” In one poignant scene, when Faye returns to the Bebop and Jet asks her what Julia is like and Faye says, “The kind of beautiful, dangerous ordinary that you just can’t leave alone.” In the anime, Julia was described and remembered—there was mystery and something dangerous about her. In the adaptation, while Julia has more screen time, she is still at the mercy of Vicious and doesn’t reclaim any sense of agency until the end of the series when she betrays Spike.
This shift in dynamic changes one of the central themes of the anime, which was the tragic love story between Spike and Julia. Their Romeo-and-Juliet-esque affair never had a happy ending, and any time or hope for one disappeared with Julia’s death in the original. Her demise was the sign of the end of Spike, which both Faye and Jet—and the viewer—wrestle to accept.
This contributes to one of the main differences between the show and its predecessor that always made a live adaptation difficult—the anime did not give the characters a happy ending. Despite their stoic or aloof facades, the three main characters’ backstories and fates were tragic. There is a reoccurring theme of loss and how the ghosts of their past follow them. Even though the more hopeful outlook of the series will probably be appealing to those unfamiliar with the original anime, for longtime fans there is an emotional depth missing that made the original so deeply revered. The anime shows more dimension to the characters that aren’t always pleasant to deal with but leaves you with a greater understanding of who those characters are.
Overall, Netflix’s adaption of Cowboy Bebop is a lighthearted introduction to the anime fandom that still does an extraordinary job at honoring its long legacy with its American fans, and leaves room to continue the story for a possible second season. Until then, see you later cowboy.
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