By Ben Konuch
“Death follows you wherever you go. It’s in your bones, Spike…”
Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” really confused me. It’s the most recent in a long string of live-action anime remakes, following such failed attempts as “Dragonball: Evolution” and “Death Note.” Needless to say, studios have had a difficult time trying to adapt anime into live-action, especially with fans being very picky (and vocal) when they feel their favorite shows are being butchered in front of their horrified eyes.
It came as a surprise, then, when Netflix announced their live-action adaptation of the iconic 1999 space-western anime that has gathered an almost religious fanbase, and for good reason. The original “Cowboy Bebop” was an iconic classic that helped shape modern science fiction in anime, standing alongside other classics such as “Akira,” “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and “Ghost in the Shell.” If Netflix was going to adapt this beloved classic, it would have to be near-perfect to appease fans of the original.
Is “Cowboy Bebop” near-perfect? The short answer is no, not by a long shot. But is it as awful as most other Hollywood adaptations? The answer to that is also no. In fact, Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” is serviceable as an anime adaptation and excellent as a stand-alone series. It has issues of its own and many flaws compared to the original, but Netflix has also improved some elements from the anime. All in all, the new series manages to successfully capture the spirit of its predecessor, even if it sometimes misses its heart.
This live-action adaptation of the beloved anime follows bounty hunters Spike, Jet, and Faye as they collect bounties and grapple their inner demons
For those new to “Cowboy Bebop,” the story follows a crew of bounty hunters (called “cowboys” in the show) who gradually bond with each other as they struggle with their own demons. There’s Jet, the father figure to the group and an ex-cop just trying to get back to his old life. There’s Faye, the sarcastic con artist who’s only just recently woken from cryo-sleep and is trying to find her place in this world. Lastly there’s Spike, the series’ protagonist, a smooth-talking bounty hunter who is running from a dark criminal past that refuses to leave him be.
The series starts with Spike and Jet traveling planet to planet in search of the highest bounties. This interstellar wandering allows the series to explore new locations and plot lines in almost every episode, all while weaving in the main characters’ backstories as well as introducing the show’s main antagonist, a Syndicate assassin named Vicious.
Along the way, “Cowboy Bebop” pulls episode storylines straight from its source material, maintaining the plots and overall themes but changing up certain details or circumstances. This approach results in an exciting ride that utilizes the excellent storylines of the original anime while also boasting well-directed action, exotic new locales and sardonic humor all grounded in a foundational story of crime, revenge and lost love.
The style of “Cowboy Bebop” is also phenomenally captured, drawing inspiration from the anime while crafting an aesthetic all its own. Striking colors, unique costumes, purposefully eccentric acting and mostly stellar visual effects all add up to create a viewing experience unlike any science fiction show I’ve ever seen.
Striking visual shots like these help the magic of “Cowboy Bebop” come to life.
These visuals are complemented by the beautiful soundtrack composed by Yoko Kanno, the composer of the original anime’s music, who serenades the audience with her unique soft-jazz-mixed-with-western-
When Faye officially joins the crew in later episodes, the show’s main theme begins to come into full focus. “Cowboy Bebop” is about the past and how it continues to define us no matter how hard we run from or towards it. Midway through the series, the tone and plot lines gradually shift to become more refined and serious, showing the lasting consequences of past events and our inability to escape them.
Meanwhile, the scheming Vicious closes in on our protagonists, making their struggle for survival even more desperate and personal. Vicious grows into his potential to become a truly phenomenal villain in the last few episodes, and the show delivers an electric finale that leaves viewers anxious for a second season.
Unfortunately, “Cowboy Bebop” suffers from the same fate as many shows that try to maintain the “story of the week” format: uneven episodes. The first two episodes are incredibly strong, but the momentum is squandered by a flat third episode that throws in unnecessarily crass content for the sake of “comedy.” The fourth and fifth episodes have the same strength of the opening two, and other than the occasional misstep here and there, the show then continues to improve with each episode, building to a phenomenal final three episodes. However, new viewers who are not yet sold on “Cowboy Bebop” may be put off by its unfortunately placed third episode.
Overall, as a standalone series, I give the series an 8.5/10. It’s entertaining, fun, uniquely stylish and appropriately heartfelt.
“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.