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There’s a reason why anime plots work best when seen in the context of the genre. People have become used to the Japanese manner of sketching and presenting animated narratives, which provides for greater creative flexibility, narrative, and aesthetic options. That is why, even when developing live-action adaptations of popular anime series, Japanese directors have had little success, with the live-action productions falling well short of the animated originals. Unfortunately, as our review will show, this is also the case with Cowboy Bebop.

We appreciate the desire to reproduce an animated scene in a live-action setting, but this seldom works well. Netflix has now joined the realm of live-action anime adaptations, deciding to revive Cowboy Bebop, one of the most popular 1990s anime series and one of the most admired ever.

There’s a reason Cowboy Bebop has become a cult classic and is regarded as a work of art. It’s presumably for the same reason that no one has dared to touch it till now. Netflix confirmed in 2018 that the live-action series will be produced and streamed, with John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, Daniella Pineda, and Alex Hassell playing Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, Faye Valentine, and Vicious, respectively.

So, was Netflix’s effort a success, or is the live-action Cowboy Bebop simply another mediocre live-action anime adaptation? We’ve enjoyed watching the program, and here are our impressions of the live-action version.

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Cowboy Bebop is clearly trying to project a powerful image. Netflix, in particular, is well conscious of what it is adapting and the significance of Cowboy Bebop, which is why they sought to recreate the program as faithfully as possible. Now, live-action remakes aren’t the same as anime; the two genres follow distinct standards, but in terms of realism, Cowboy Bebop did all it could to look, taste, and feel like the original 1998 anime.

While a quick glance at the program seemed that it did just that, a closer look revealed that appearances may be misleading.

Cowboy Bebop is quite flamboyant, very colorful in terms of graphics, and we can’t dispute the effort put into the production design, particularly because the staff behind it pushed so hard to mimic the anime’s production design. Now, if it succeeded on the surface, if you scrape even a little beyond the surface – which we couldn’t do – you’ll realize that it’s a pale replica.

The ambience of the original Cowboy Bebop anime was distinct; it was a reflection of the 1990s, but it also reflected a long-standing anime history of creating magical worlds; the production design, in a sense, spoke for itself and communicated a significant portion of the tale. In the original anime, the production design was an integral element of the story, but here it was merely a façade, a type of pseudoarchitecture, as Le Corbusier would put it, with a showy exterior concealing very little, if anything at all.

The Complete Guide to Cowboy Bebop Watch Order

Unfortunately, this is true for a lot of the program, not just the production design. As previously said, the effort is obvious, and Netflix worked hard to make its version of Cowboy Bebop both accurate to the original and unique in its own right, resulting in a mix that wasn’t entirely faithful to the original, while its innate originality wasn’t enough to hold our interest.

There was just something lacking from the adaption as a whole. It wasn’t the storyline, since the program stayed true to the original story with little alterations; it wasn’t the cast, as we’ll discuss later; but it was something. The program had a lot of style, was flashy, and had a lot of action, but it wasn’t an anime. That was the problem.

Cowboy Bebop had a soul at the beginning, a soul that owed much of its existence to the fact that it was an anime. Anime is a very distinct form, and the Japanese artists who created some of the masterpieces generally succeed in capturing a very specific style as well as a very specific Japanese mood. Even for Japanese filmmakers attempting a live-action adaptation of an anime, this is tough to recreate, much alone for Western filmmakers who can only aspire to craft a decent imitation and nothing more.

And while Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop was a good replica, it was mostly soulless and ended up being a pale attempt, proving once again that a live-action remake is rarely a good idea; we know that live-action adaptations of One Piece and Sword Art Online are also in the works, but given how this one was made, we’re not optimistic.

 

But, if you thought this adaptation was horrible from start to finish, you must hear about the actors. If there was one thing Netflix got right, it was the casting. Mustafa Shakir (as Jet Black) and Daniella Pineda (as Spike Spiegel) help to round out John Cho’s performance as the adored Spike Spiegel (as Faye Valentine). The supporting cast, particularly the adversaries, was also expertly cast, with Elena Satine receiving special attention (as Julia).

We believed Alex Hassell’s casting as Vicious was problematic, not because he wasn’t a good option, but because the role looked more like a Sunday morning matinée evil or a classic Doctor Who villain than the original villain we knew from the anime. Eden Perkins also appears as “Radical Ed,” but we see so little of her that it’s more of a letdown than anything else (since we expected more).

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And with that, we may call our evaluation to a close. Cowboy Bebop isn’t a poor adaption; in fact, it does a fantastic job at everything it sets out to achieve. The trouble is, that’s not it. We’ve already seen what Cowboy Bebop can look like, and after seeing the genuine thing, why would you settle for a cheap knockoff that barely manages to match it? Because Netflix’s adaption is exactly that: a cheap knockoff attempting to cash in on a well-known and famous brand.

It isn’t terrible, nor is it defective, but it isn’t good either. It’s bad because we, the audience, know what we want. We all know what Cowboy Bebop is and what we want to see, and although Netflix’s version – despite its stellar cast – fell short, we can’t help but question whether it ever could. If you have adequate resources, it’s reasonably simple to imitate anything, but you can’t imitate the essence of the original work, and Netflix’s version just lacks that.

This is a tragic situation. Netflix’s version resembles a strange collection of Doctor Who episodes rather than an anime adaptation, but even in that regard, it falls short of what Doctor Who is known for. Congratulations on the casting, but everything else falls short of what we anticipated (and even deserved), which is why we couldn’t give it a better rating.

As of November 19, 2021, Cowboy Bebop is available on Netflix worldwide.

RATING: 4/10

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