By Ben Konuch
“See you later, space cowboy…”
As an adaptation of the anime series of the same name, Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” puzzles me. It gets a lot right, such as the phenomenal casting of John Cho as Spike, Daniella Pineda as Faye and especially Mustafa Shakir as Jet. Yet, it also manages to get some of the fundamentals of the story very wrong.
Starting with the positives, of which there are many, most of the subtle tweaks they make to Spike’s and Jet’s backstories worked for me. Most notable is the change that Jet has a daughter, meaning his backstory and motivations now revolve around trying to get back into her life after being framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Very different from his anime backstory of lost love, it helps make Jet’s past and motivations distinct and complements his character very well.
Faye and Spike have good chemistry, but that chemistry is hindered by a poor adaptation of Faye’s character.
Unfortunately, there are times when the showrunners get carried away, most noticeable in the case of Faye’s character. I loved her casting and her costuming, but the writing of her character doesn’t complement the anime or add to the show’s new canon at all. She has very little character development besides being sarcastic, swearing like a child who just discovered curse words and, in a weirdly shoehorned-in side plot, discovering her sexuality and sexual identity.
All in all, the new series completely misses the nuances of her character that made her so tragically compelling in the anime. It fills out the checklist of her story beats, like her gradual discovering of her past, but these story pieces do very little narratively because they don’t feel earned. The show never focuses on making us understand or empathize with Faye as a person, and it hurts the overall show and its theme of “found family” tremendously.
Perhaps the biggest change in Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” is how it handles Vicious. My biggest complaint about the original anime was how little the main villain was actually in it. I understand that sometimes less is more, but when you have a 26-episode anime series and your main villain appears for only four of those episodes, it makes your main plot line feel more like an episode-of-the-week side plot instead of giving it the importance it deserves.
By contrast, the live-action series introduces Vicious at the end of episode one and follows his side of the story throughout the series, though he seldom crosses paths with our protagonists. I did enjoy this change, because it made Vicious have far more of a presence in the show as a villain. Unfortunately, his characterization falls short for the most part.
The problem does not lie in actor Alexander Hassell, who does the best with the material he is given and delivers a truly phenomenal performance later in the series when the writing improves. Unfortunately, for the first half of the series, he comes across as weak, whiny and almost incompetent. Julia, who is given far more screen time in the role of Vicious’ abused wife, seems to be pulling his strings like a puppet. This dynamic isn’t necessarily a bad idea on its own merits, but fans of the source material could definitely be frustrated with this character’s tweaking.
Thankfully, the last three episodes aren’t just amazing episodes in general, but they’re amazing for Vicious’ character as well, allowing him to grow into the cunning, brutal and dread-inducing villain that he deserves to be. Unfortunately for some fans, it may be too late to salvage what initially feels like a wreck of a character arc.
John Cho perfectly portrays Spike, especially in scenes where we get to see his dark past.
Lastly, Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” makes one important change that tremendously boosted my viewing experience and my emotional attachment to this series: it showed us Spike’s dark past. In the anime, his past is discussed, and we see tiny snippets – barely anything more than a few frames really – but Netflix’s adaptation gives us an entire episode dedicated to what happened between Spike and Vicious in the Syndicate, making “Blue Crow Waltz” the best episode of the series in my opinion
Seeing how Vicious and Spike became friends in the Syndicate, how the sins Spike committed drained a piece of his soul, how Julia and Spike fell in love behind Vicious’ back and how Vicious came to be completely and utterly consumed with rageful vengeance did so much for me in terms of storytelling. Actually being able to witness this backstory gave the story an emotional weight greater than anything the anime left me feeling and gave me a greater understanding of these characters and the true tragedy of their pasts.
In conclusion, Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” isn’t a perfect adaptation, but overall, I did find it enjoyable. I was frustrated by some of the changes that messed with the show’s legacy but was pleasantly surprised with how many of the changes complemented or even improved the story. In musical terms, you could say that this adaptation is more of a remix than a remake. A remix of a song doesn’t try to replace the original or remake it completely but instead aims to add new flavor to or put a new spin on something you already love. A remix is a different way of enjoying the original from a new perspective, and that’s the feeling I have with Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop”.
As an adaptation, I give Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” a 7/10.
“Cowboy Bebop” is currently streaming on Netflix, where you can also find the original anime.
Ben Konuch is a freshman strategic communications student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and failing horribly at wallyball with his friends.