Cowboy Bebop is one of the most beloved anime of all time. It was never one of the most popular or widely watched but it was unique and its fans have managed to keep the flame of it alive since 1998. There’s not that much like it out there with a used universe, Western motifs, space travel, and noir crime drama. I mean, Outlaw Star, Firefly, and The Expanse are pretty much it. However, being such a well-regarded piece of animation means that any adaptation is going to have a lot of people sharpening their knives about it.
The premise is Spike (John Cho) and Jet (Mustafa Shakir) are a pair of bounty hunters living in the Sol system after the destruction of Earth. Humanity continues to thrive-ish with colonies on Mars, Jupiter’s moons, and a large number of artificial habitats. They are not very good at their jobs due to the fact they’re both so lethal that they keep killing their targets. They’re also associated with the mysterious Faye Valine (Daniella Pineda), who may or may not be a bounty hunter herself or is just passing herself off as one.
This is one of those adaptations that come with a caveat that I recommend people watch before the original. If you’re familiar with the original anime, you’ll probably enjoy this but there’s a big sense of, “Why did they change X or Y?” This isn’t a complete disaster of a live action like the Death Note one but I feel like a lot of things were simplified in order to make this reach the broadest possible audience. There’s also a few things, as a longtime fan of the anime, that I feel were inferior to the original.
The positives first: John Cho does an excellent job as Spike Spiegel. He isn’t quite as fluid and graceful as a guy based partially on Bruce Lee but that’s a tall order for any actor and a minor complaint. I also love Mustafa Shakir’s Jet as he manages to perfectly channel the anime character. He’s gruff, tough, and probably the only decent man left in the human race. Daniella Penada’s Faye is the best, though, as she manages to properly channel the charming and self-interested character we all fell in love with with only a few false moments.
Well, no, there’s one better character than Faye: Ein. Ein is awesome. Whenever Ein is not on screen, I’m like, “Where’s Ein?” Like an unironic version of that Simpsons skit about Poochie. The dog should be in every scene and when he’s not, everyone should be wondering where he is. I almost stopped watching when they briefly abandoned him.
There’s some decent-ish adaptations of episodes but the show is actually at its best when it’s trying to do its own thing. It’s bright, colorful, and reminds me of a live action cartoon in a way similar to the Wachkowski Sisters’ Speed Racer movie. This might have been a mistake as the show could easily have been a more grounded and grittier take without losing anything. On the other hand, this is a show that has people turned into trees by a bio-weapon and it’s genuinely horrifying.
The best changes are making Jet into a divorced father rather than just a guy with an ex-girlfriend. The anime character always read as older and the new family is something that helps ground him as someone who has something to lose unlike Spike. Jet doesn’t want to live as an outlaw criminal but it’s the only way to make use of his police officer skills and possibly generate enough money to get back a semblance of his old life. I also enjoyed the changes to Faye’s story of trying to regain her past as giving her another con woman to play off of works well.
The worst changes are definitely the changes to the Red Dragon Syndicate, Julia, and Vicious. In the anime, all three of them are used sparingly and full of mystery that contributes to Spike’s character development. Here, they’re overused and sucked of most of their allure. We get to see every painful detail of Julia and Spike’s relationship and I wouldn’t believe he’d remember a week after their breakup let alone carry an all-consuming torch for years. Vicious is just utterly drained of menace and reminds me of Theon Greyjoy or Visery Targaryen versus the terrifying killer that Spike could not beat on his best day.
Cowboy Bebop is a pretty fun series but not something I would state is as good as the original. On the other hand, there’s a lot of people who would never watch the anime that would watch the live action version. The ten episodes also end on a cliffhanger and I hope we’ll see a second season that goes off in its own direction.
Cowboy Bebop is currently streaming on Netflix.