Let's Film This is an ongoing series where we explore the idea of adapting different anime as live-action productions: what it would take, which shows would make for the best adaptations, and what issues would be raised in the translation.

Not what I was expecting, but I doubt many other people were, either: Cowboy Bebop, that now-classic noir/western romp in space, is being adapted into a live-action television series in the West, with the involvement of some of the original creative team. This has, as you might well already know or suspect, not gone down well in some circles. On my own end, I didn't react with horror and disgust, but guarded curiosity — the same emotion I try to cultivate whenever another project of this kind is announced. And the more I rummaged through my reactions, the more I saw many aspects of this project that work in its favor. From the perspective of sheer feasibility, there are many reasons to think it can be done well.

1. Of the properties that could be adapted, this is one that lends itself more readily to it than many others

There's this term I keep using for certain anime/manga titles that are easier to adapt to live-action Western versions than others: pre-localized. Meaning you don't have to adapt very much; the story in question doesn't have any immediate roots in Japanese-ness, and can be presented mostly as-is. Cowboy Bebop was always like that, and I suspect that was one of the reasons it's been enshrined as a perennial amongst anime fans — it's one of those shows that's very easy for the uninitiated to pick up on, whether as a gateway drug or a follow-up to same.

That leads to another question: Will that accessibility translate to a live-action version? I don't ask this question because I think the absolute success of the show hinges on mainstream acceptance. It's nice if they get a broader audience on board, but it only has to be just large enough of an audience to justify spending money on the project in the first place. But if you have your pick of projects, this is one that has far less of an uphill climb to adaptability than many others — like, oh, say, Ghost In The Shell.

2. There is almost no way to do it totally "right", but there are many ways to do it less wrong

Every fan of something this intensely cherished is always going to have their own vision for how to do it "right". I know I would love to see Yoko Kanno's jazz score resurrected and re-used. Cowboy Bebop is as closely married to its score as something like 2001 was. But I also know that's an opinion that stems from my own affection for the series. It's more likely they will find something that parallels the original, the way the live-action Ghost In The Shell kept Kenji Kawai's music over the closing credits, but drafted in Clint Mansell for the score at large (and it was a pretty good choice).

Because the original material doesn't require a lot of uprooting and transplanting to be coherent to a Western audience, it doesn't need nearly as much gratuitous tinkering, either. It's easier to make sensible decisions about who to cast — not just big, obvious things like who plays Spike or Jet, but trickier things like how to bring Ed to the screen. (The casting for that one is going to be interesting.) And sometimes even the things we think are no-gos, aren't: when people reminded us of the horrible possibility of, say, Keanu Reeves as Spike, I thought those expectations were quite brilliantly upended by the likes of John Wick.

3. It is far less inherently problematic than many other projects

Again, this is a loose restatement of the above points. Because Cowboy Bebop is pre-localized, and because that makes it a little less of an uphill climb to adapt in the first place, it's far less of a minefield of potential creative miscues. Ghost In The Shell was almost entirely wall-to-wall difficulties — how to deal with an originally nonwhite character as played by a Western actress? how to sell audiences on a techno-thriller when they're normally tepid about such things anyway? — and audiences were indifferent to it.

Cowboy Bebop is a far less inherently difficult project. It's an excursion in style and tone, a noir-western in space, and that leverages a wide range of accessibility. And even if it didn't, we do seem to be getting to a point where even hard SF is not a turnoff: look at the relative success of The Expanse. There's no question this project, and many others like it, must be sold to audiences made up mainly of non-fans — but because you don't have to do as much uprooting and refashioning, there's a better chance all that is best about it can survive intact.

4. A TV series might be the ideal medium for a property like this

Word had it back when a live-action movie version of Bebop was being teed up, the project was axed because the projected budget climbed to stratospherically unsustainable levels. TV budgets are modest by design, and put emphasis on drama and interaction rather than spectacle. Bebop has some action set-pieces, but it's primarily a story-, character-, and arc-driven series. The constraints of TV might actually work in its favor.

The other reason a TV series seems a better choice, at least as far as storytelling goes, is the amount of story and the way it's played off. Bebop had a few key character arcs — Spike and Vicious; Faye and her amnesiac past; Ed and her father — and they worked best when played off at a comfortable, staggered pace. Trying to cram that into a movie, or break it across a couple of them (assuming you ever get to make more than one), doesn't seem workable.

it's not my job to convince anyone who resents this project in principle that they're wrong. But I can make a case they're flipping up their noses at something that has a far better chance of being worthwhile than we might believe. I suspect what underlies most of the naysaying is a common fear for projects like this — the fear that the end result will be some bastard child, neither appealing to fans nor to mainstream audiences. After GITS, it's justified to have that fear. But there's nothing that says history has to repeat itself here, and plenty of reasons to think it won't.

About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@genjipress) () is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.
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