Cowboy Bebop is one of the most beloved and positively reviewed anime of all time – and now it’s got a Netflix adaptation. Such a hot property naturally has dedicated fans claiming mental ownership over it. Initial images and trailers for this live-action version predictably garnered frosty reception among the anime’s passionate fanbase.
The question is, are the fans’ worries justified? In some ways, yes, in others, no. Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is very good in some areas, but not so much in others as we explore in this review.
Cowboy Bebop‘s Awesome Cast
First, kudos (or a glass of Kudo) should be given to the casting. John Cho, Daniella Pineda, and Mustafa Shakir lead the charge as Spike, Faye, and Jet respectively. In every scene they’re in, this talented trio echoes the essence of their characters’ anime counterparts.
Cho exudes Spike’s charm and charisma while owning his brooding moments. This makes the fact that Cho is 20 years older than his character very forgivable. Alongside this charming cowboy is Shakir’s Jet Black, who pulls off the character’s toughness and paternal nature effortlessly. Meanwhile, Daniella Pineda carries off Faye Valentine’s snarky cockiness like a charm, while effectively portraying her underlying vulnerability. All in all, the casting director deserves a raise.
That said, the casting quality varies outside the main trio. Alex Hassell plays Spike’s nemesis, Vicious, and is devastatingly brilliant as the villain. However, there are scenes where his hamminess spins out of control to the point Vicious becomes unbelievable. Some fans may find difficulty in accepting the younger and more vulnerable Julia portrayed by Elena Satine.
Shaking Up the Story
Now, I feel the biggest controversy among Cowboy Bebop lovers is the way the Netflix version reviews and adapts the original stories. You see, the anime series consists of 26 20-minute episodes, each tackling a different theme and even utilizing varying cinematic styles. However, this first Netflix season is 10 episodes long, bearing a run-time of 40 to 50 minutes each. This means they’ve got to fill their runtime as much as possible without dragging things out.
How have they tried to achieve this? Well, by integrating some of the arcs with each other, make the flow tight and concise. In the Pierrot Le Fou episode, for example, Vincent is responsible for letting the mad villain loose on Spike, in an effort to kill his former partner. In the anime, Perriot has nothing to do with Vincent and is simply an escaped experiment worked on by the ISSP.
Unfortunately, while this method makes the series more concise, it has drawbacks. Having Perrot an escaped Police experiment in the anime gave us added another layer to Cowboy Bebop’s universe. It told us that even the ISSP was corrupt and occasionally untrustworthy. Here, it’s the Syndicate’s fault – indeed, it’s their fault for a lot of things and they get more screen-time in these 10 episodes than in 26 episodes of anime.
This leads to some changes fans may dislike. Being a Netflix series, Cowboy Bebop is designed for binging. Thus, in order to do so, the writers require a hook to keep casual viewers returning. Vincent and the Syndicate are that hook, with their story running parallel to Spike and Co.’s exploits.
Whereas Spike and his fellow cowboys are chasing different bounties episode-to-episode, Vincent’s arc follows a more consistent arc, centering around his tumultuous relationship with Julia and his gradual takeover of the Syndicate. This means we spend much more time with these characters and they are fleshed out more than their anime cousins.
Some of these changes are compelling. For example, Vicious now has Daddy and self-esteem issues as well as being a psycho. It helps us further understand his motivations – however, the effectiveness of this varies scene-to-scene. It’s a good idea in theory but isn’t executed to its fullest potential.
The biggest change by far is Julia’s presence. In the anime, Julia is like a ghost, a mysterious figure in Spike’s memories until we finally meet her in the last two episodes. However, Netflix has Julia married to Vicious, believing Spike dead and fearing what would happen if she left the Syndicate. Unfortunately, this setup means that Julia spends the season a more vulnerable character than the badass assertive female in the source material. She’s visibly younger and a lot less wise.
However, whereas the series disappoints on a narrative scale, it makes up for with its characters. As discussed previously, the main trio owns their roles. In particular, their chemistry feels natural and flows nicely. The banter between Spike, Jet, and Faye is funny and the dialogue deliciously witty. It’s hard not to crack a smile or two with these guys and it’s the area where Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is really good.
Like a double-edged sword, the banter is also the show’s downfall. I love the trio’s chemistry, sure, but there are far too many scenes of them snarking off on the Bebop. This leaves the show’s action scenes few and far between, particularly when compared to the anime.
Admittedly, when the action does get going, it’s good. Spike’s battle against Hakim and the final destined duel between him and Vicious comes to mind. However, some fight scenes pale in comparison to the original versions – the final Perrot Le Fou fight being a prime example. The aforementioned fight lacks the tension of the anime and ends up becoming forgettable fare.
Cowboy Bebop‘s Small Universe
Another victim of this adaptation is the show’s universe. Because most of it is spent on the Bebop, this means our view outside is limited. What we do see exudes the quirky cyberpunk atmosphere of the anime, but it’s shown too little. Most scenes outside the Bebop take place in other rooms – Anna’s bar being the show’s other locational crutch. Given the show tries to flesh out some of its characters, it’s a shame it couldn’t do so with its fictional universe.
You won’t even be able to find solace in Yoko Kanno’s soundtrack. Mainly, because it is barely used – and even when it is, its usage is questionable. Fan favorites Spokey Dokey and Jupiter Blues are present but this means nothing when they’re terribly applied. The music in the anime is like a melodic narrator, communicating the emotions and feelings of our heroes without the need for dialogue. The music is used wisely, implemented in scenes to enhance the atmosphere.
In the Netflix series, this isn’t the case. Rather, the music is used in a throwaway fashion. In the pilot, for example, Spike is casually listening to Spokey-Dokey on his headphones. However, it’s used while he is going down in an elevator to confront his bounty. Instead of elevating the scene as it did in the anime’s first episode, the soundtrack is used as a cheap nostalgic nod.
So, is Cowboy Bebop Worth Watching?
In review, it’s safe to say Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is not as good as its source material. However, I’d be lying if I said it’s beyond redemption. Again, I reiterate that the main cast and their interactions are enjoyable to watch. And, frankly, they’re well-written enough that you empathize with the characters a great deal. To the adaptation’s credit, there are also some narrative twists that cleverly subvert the expectations of longtime fans. The show is an intriguing novelty, boasting obvious love for the source material. It’s riddled with flaws, but there’s 10 episodes’ worth of flawed fun here if you’re in the mood for it.
Verdict: Flawed but fun, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop keeps the charm and quirkiness of the original anime. While it doesn’t deal with the themes as deeply or as subtly as the source material, it’s one of the better anime adaptations out there and is worth watching at least once.