Netflix's live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop deserves another chance

The jazz-like improvisational remake is completely in tune with the tone of the original source material.
Cowboy Bebop | Opening Credits | Netflix
Cowboy Bebop | Opening Credits | Netflix / Netflix

People absolutely love the new One Piece adaptation on Netflix. As of this writing, it is certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with an 83% positive critic score and an astonishing 96% positive audience score. It is safe to say that Netflix's third foray into anime-to-live-action adaptation is going extremely well. But that just means it's time to go back to look at their other two attempts.

Netflix's first attempt probably isn't well-remembered by most, but they attempted to make their own live-action version of Death Note. They converted the two-season series into a single, feature-length movie starring Willem Defoe as Ryuk the Shinigami. It received a 36% critic score and an abysmal 23% audience score. And, in truth, those feel about right. It has a few fun moments but otherwise feels very divorced from the tense tone of the original anime. Changes will occur whenever a story is converted from one medium to another, but the tone, at least, should be the same.

That takes us to Netflix's sophomore effort.

Cowboy Bebop is better than the ratings

Cowboy Bebop was always an interesting choice for adaptation as its source material was among the more bizarre out there. It's a neo-noir story disguised as a western disguised as a science fiction show with a heavy focus on musical meta-storytelling and philosophy. If that seems like a complicated description, it pales in comparison to the execution.

The show has so many layers to its story-telling that when it first came to the United States via Cartoon Network's Adult Swim it was an absolute revelation to teenagers everywhere. It doesn't hurt that it was the first anime aired during that programming block, meaning the very medium was new to so many.

The nostalgia this created is probably what led Netflix to view it as a great second launching point for their efforts to mine old anime for new content. Unfortunately, this ended up being the reason the series was so poorly received, as well. It holds a rotten rating of 46% with critics and a slightly more positive rating of 60% with audience members. So what went wrong?

Ironically, their first, and perhaps biggest problem, is that they tried to hew very close to the source material for their pilot episode. The first episode of the Netflix series is excessively similar to the first episode of the anime, telling the exact same story with very similar story beats. This is easily the worst episode of the live-action show as it provides too many easy comparison points for anime fans to notice how it differs.

The actors, in an effort to follow the lead of the writing, also are too similar to their anime counterparts but naturally fail to be entirely identical. It creates something akin to the uncanny valley effect humans often feel when looking at something very similar to a human in appearance but not quite right. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and this was a huge turn-off for many.

The only other problem the show faced that compared to the first in terms of scale was that the nostalgia for the original anime caused people to see it as something more than it was. On the Rotten Tomatoes page for the show, they attempt to summarize the critic reaction:

"Maybe next time, Space Cowboy -- this live-action Bebop has a fun enough crew to spend time with, but it disappointingly replaces the soulfulness of the source material with kitsch."

Rotten Tomatoes

It seems likely that many people haven't gone back to watch the original anime in some time. And even those who have will almost certainly still have their view of it colored by their initial impression. I watched it for the first time before watching the adaptation and I found it very enjoyable, but not nearly so "soulful" or "lacking in kitsch" as this summary would imply. Cyberpunk/neo-noir stories are chock full of kitsch. It's part of the cynical projection of a future similar to the reality we live in that is core to the definition of those stories.

So, yeah, the Cowboy Bebop live-action adaptation can be a bit kitschy, but so can the original anime. I defy you to watch the Big Shot segments of the original anime and tell me with a straight face that there is no kitsch there. Or perhaps you could watch the episode entitled "Mushroom Samba" in which the crew all gets high on space magic mushrooms. Michaelangelo, it ain't.

Once you get past the admittedly terrible first episode, the show changes drastically from the source material. The overarching plot of the relationship between Spike and Vicious remains the same, but the smaller stories that are built on that foundation are completely different even when they sometimes borrow characters or ideas from the source material. Some fans might dislike this in concept, but the jazz-like improvisation is completely in tune with the tone of the original source material and it works very well.

Rather than feeling like a tired rerun of a decades-old story many of us had already seen, it felt like a fresh opportunity to see the same characters in new - if sometimes similar - circumstances and continue their journeys. Even better, the first season ended with the seeming conclusion of the original over-arching plot and made room for stories to be told that would go even further in new and interesting directions, which would have allowed Spike and his friends to spread their wings even further.

Sadly, that vision will almost certainly never come to be. Despite the best efforts of the artists working on the show, the initial fan reaction was simply too negative and Netflix ultimately canceled any future plans. It's possible that the show could be revived with a sudden, huge influx of viewers and positivity, but we are likely past even that opportunity now.

Still, the show stands on its own without any true cliffhanger moments and is worth watching even now if you're at all interested or enjoyed the original anime. If this describes you, I highly recommend you give it a go.

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