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Aboard a spaceship called the Cowboy Bebop, cool guy Spike Spiegel navigates a near-future world where Earth is destroyed and the remnants of civilization are scattered throughout the solar system. With law and order a thing of the past, rival gangs and bounty hunters hold sway—and Spike, haunted by memories of a tragic lost love, has ties to both.
John Cho (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Star Trek), Mustafa Shakir (Luke Cage, American Gods), and Daniella Pineda (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, The Vampire Diaries) head up a diverse cast. In minor roles look for Tamara Tunie (Flight, Law & Order, As the World Turns) and Stockard Channing (Grease, The West Wing). The wonderful composer Yoko Kanno, who created the original soundtrack for the anime series, returns to update the music.
The conversation around this Netflix live-action series has largely centered on the iconic 26-episode animated series it’s based on—and hardcore fans of the original have proved tough to please.
That’s understandable, since the source material was the kind of an immortal cultural artifact that smart teenagers could build their whole personalities around worshipping: an unforgettable pastiche of nihilistic, retro-futurist themes set to a blisteringly cool original soundtrack. But the haters are missing out, because there’s much to enjoy in the live-action reinvention.
Of course, part of the fun is in comparing the new with the old. Episode one shamelessly indulges that temptation, with certain shots composed within the outlines of the anime, as if screenshots from the original were laid down as marks for the actors to hit. But a faithful shot-by-shot recreation of the original would have been doomed to fail (see: aforementioned haters), and truthfully, one episode of faithful homage feels like enough. The remake soon departs for quicker and more streamlined shores, with an eye to tidying up loose plot ends, trimming extraneous characters, and setting the stage for a possible Season 2.
To be sure, some things work better in an animated world. Shoot-‘em-up scenes with cartoon blood, bullets, and explosions can be handled with a certain light touch that would feel unsettling here, even with fake blood. That may explain why one comic-relief character—animated human noodle Edward— is much less in evidence in the new show’s slightly altered universe.
But the reverse is also true—some things work better in a live-action world. John Cho, atop whose slim frame Spike’s big anime hair looks somehow perfectly natural and convincing, also nails Spike’s cool, unbothered attitude. But no actor, no matter how nonchalant, can make his face as blank and smooth as a cartoon. Any actor’s three-dimensional face and frame, marked by lived experience, would add depth. Where the animated Spike was emotionless, Cho’s Spike seems wounded and wary. We never doubt that he’s feeling something; he’s just too cool to show us what it is.
As the amnesiac assassin and hottie Faye Valentine, Daniella Pineda brings a little more nuance too. For starters, she’s noticeably more clothed than her animated counterpart: not so much a feminist move—the actress has said—as a result of the physical demands of doing stunt work without ending each day of shooting as a mass of cuts and bruises and skinned knees and elbows. And Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), captain of the Cowboy Bebop, shows a wider emotional range, giving the tentative loyalty between him and Spike more gravitas. The lived-in, battered ship and grubby tech make every set pause-worthy; I spotted a celadon-green Tupperware colander in the Bebop kitchen that my Mom used to use in the 1970s.
But the soundtrack is the real star. In the US, Yoko Kanno’s original score landed like a Technicolor comet in the bland barren landscape of US post-Telecommunications-Act-radio. The new music, which draws from multiple sources, from jazz and dancehall to ska and maybe even reggaeton, is like the bizarre and colorful flora that would grow, decades later, from the rich soil of that comet’s impact crater.
A strange, poignant, and funny adventure with amazing music, a talented cast, and beautifully detailed costumes and sets, the live action Cowboy Bebop adaptation makes you nostalgic for the original. And hey, guess what’s also streaming on Netflix? All 26 original episodes!
Your whole crew from back in the ’90s.
The show had a major needle-scratch moment on social media with one very problematic line in Episode 3, when a minor character named Woodcock turned the word “blackmail” into an ill-advised pun.