After all the speculation, all the worries, all the delays, and all the hype, the mere fact Netflix's live-action Cowboy Bebop exists at all is cause for celebration. As live-action anime adaptations go, it's at the high end of the curve, with a game cast, lavish visuals, and all the fun byplay and background details we expect. Its main problem is twofold: it doesn't always know how to translate the underlying material; and it makes explicit much of what was only once implied about its people, thus paradoxically lessening its emotional power. But what does work — the look of it, the jocularity, the anarchic energy — is quite nice. If this hasn't raised the upper bound for anime-to-live-action, it sure has raised the lower bound.
Wild horses, easy riders, raging bulls
There's a good chance you know the original story, but here it is again. Sometime in the future, humanity has spread out across the solar system; lawlessness and violence are as rampant then as they are now. Bounty hunters get tasked with cleaning up the worst of the messes, and the good ship Bebop is crewed by two such folks: laid-back Spike Spiegel (John Cho) and the more uptight ex-cop Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir). Most of their bounties barely cover expenditures, as they have a bad tendency to leave a mess behind them. Spike and Jet are only together because they trust each other marginally more than they do the rest of the world, but every now and then we see enough to convince us the friendship is more than one of convenience.
A sort-of third joints the team: Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), a smart-aleck hunter whose memories went missing when she was defrosted from cryosleep. At first the other two resist the idea of having her on board — both had, and continue to have, women issues — but she wins them over with her tenacity and quick thinking. And eventually there is a sort-of fourth as well, a dog named Ein, whose initial function as a team mascot ends up, uh, mutating.
Individual episodes, and pieces of them, hearken back to the original as they ought, although this incarnation of the show uses them as springboards to build a new story. The opening episode, for instance, is an almost direct reworking of the original opening episode, where Spike and Jet go after a bounty dealing in a psychosis-inducing drug that's sprayed into one's eyes. But other episodes either riff loosely on existing material (e.g., the way the last episode of the first season remixes bits of episode 5) or are entirely new inventions, the better to support a new storyline.
That new storyline is, again, made up of bits of the original, chiefly in how each of the characters lives in the shadow of their pasts. With Jet, it's the police job he lost and went to prison over; with Faye, it's a past she doesn't even know anything about. And with Spike, it's how a shadow from his past, Vicious (Alex Hassell), has returned to haunt him as he claws his way up through the underworld with Spike's old flame Julia (Elena Satine) by his side.
The good, the bad, and the shaky
Let's start with the good things, because there are many of them, and they all deserve mention. The casting, first and foremost: Cho nails Spike's crooked smile and hands-in-the-pockets saunter, but also the silent gravity in the moments when Spike looks down into himself and hates what he sees looking back. Shakir as Jet not only has the physique, but the big-daddy exasperation, the eye-rolling of having to clean up everyone else's mess. And Pineda's Faye doesn't just steal her scenes but pawns them for drinking money too. (I also liked Tamara Tunie as Julie's bar-owner mentor/den mother Ana, who exudes magnificent Pam Grier energy.) They've also been given a production lavish and stylish enough to support them; no one is going to complain about how much money was thrown at the screen.
The show's biggest weakness, as I hinted earlier, was that it doesn't know when to stop spelling things out. I'm referring specifically to Spike's past with his nemesis Vicious, and Vicious's expanded presence in this show. The expansion is tricky enough, but it's coupled with a performance that undermines its larger intentions. In the original, Vicious was a shadow from the past who existed chiefly to haunt Spike. Here, he drives more of the plot (albeit mostly in a parallel lane to the main action), but Hassell's performance hasn't been modulated to match. Instead of having genuine menace, he just comes off as garden-variety creepy.
However, with an expanded role for Vicious comes an expanded role for Julia, who goes from sad torch-song fatale to chessplayer — and maybe also Lady Macbeth, much to Vicious's growing chagrin. It's a worthy note the original story didn't strike as strongly. But it's also still a balancing act, one that's hard to maintain when the original material's reticence about these people worked so well. Sometimes the best way to tell us something about someone is to tell us nothing and show us just enough. Hence the flashback episode that traces Spike, Vicious, and Julia's mutual origins, which trades the shadowy suggestions of the original show for explicit cliché, and gives us information but not insight. It's not a good swap.
The other issue is how the show sometimes miscalculates how to film this material, and that's a common issue with anime-to-live-action. What's jaunty and spontaneous as animation, because it's animation, sometimes comes off as rubbery and raffish when made into live action. It's even harder with a project like this, where the original show rode knife edges between being realistic, being absurdist, and being cartoonish (see: Spike pulling a wrapped sandwich out of his mouth, something mercifully not done here). But again, how that kind of absurdity is represented in live action is different from animation. At best, they get the kind of screwloose nuttiness of a Coen Brothers movie; at worst, it's mere boxing-glove-on-a-spring slapstick. I actually didn't have a problem with the way the title sequence is a reworked nod back to the source material, because it felt as much like it was hearkening back to the era of '50s/'60s movies that had animated credits (see: The Pink Panther) as it did the original series.
Bringing back Yoko Kanno to score the show seemed inevitable, if only because in the hearts of the shows' fans (me being one) her music is inseparable from the original. The new show sports as fine a score as I expected to hear — and who isn't going to feel their blood move a little faster when the opening notes of "Tank!" blast out over the credits? The show also wisely makes a lot of room throughout for the presence of that music (e.g., the nightclub where Julia cut her teeth), and the flavors it conjures up in this world. I imagine they could have simply licensed a few of the key original tracks (the title, "The Real Folk Blues", etc.), and paved over the rest, but why not have Kanno if you can?
The real folk blues, or some reasonable facsimile thereof
I suspect much of the mixed-to-negative reaction around this show is not because it's actually bad, but because of two complicating issues. Where fans of the original were concerned, expectations around it were outsized (as they always are) and probably unfulfillable; where everyone else was concerned, it was that they didn't have the magic flavor of the original still in their mouths to pave over where the show does indeed fall short.
Nothing will ever replace the original, both because of what it is (a great story, grandly and hilariously told) and what it means (a landmark anime unlike anything before or since). A remake of any kind can never quite do that; all it can do is provide commentary on the original in a new age, and maybe build out in a different direction. CB'21 had little to no chance of being a new instance of lightning in a bottle, but that's not the worst thing that can happen.
If nothing else, I imagined CB'21 would be a fascinating case study. How do you take something that has this iconic a status in certain circles, and adapt it for a new audience? Maybe the answer is: you don't "adapt"; you just make something that's a good as it can be given the material and circumstances, and kiss up the rest. But you also learn from both the mistakes and the achievements of your predecessors, and maybe you leave them something to build on. If nothing else, this show's proof we've come quite far on two fronts: treating Japanese popular culture as source material with intelligence and respect, and having the results speak for themselves. Yes, even if the results sometimes muff their lines.