By Ian M. Geary
So, let’s get something straight first: Cowboy Bebop is not for everyone.
Many hard-core anime fans are going to watch it and complain that it’s too muted, it’s just not the original. Hard-core sci-fi fans are going to be confused by how it looks like they’re in the 70’s one minute, the 80’s the next, and the 40’s the moment after that and not at all like the “future.” And Noir and Western fans are going to wonder what the hell a spaceship is doing in their genre in the first place.
Yeah, Cowboy Bebop is not for everyone.
But we’re not just anyone, are we? And Cowboy Bebop was definitely for me.
And hopefully for you too.
If you keep reading, then know that I’m going to keep this first part spoiler-free as I talk about the show, its ups and downs, and everything else. The second part of this article is going to spoil the shit out of everything, but I’ll give you plenty of warning.
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop, as I’m sure many of you know, is a live-action remake of the original anime from 1998.
For those of you who don’t know, the original Cowboy Bebop is widely considered to be one of the best animes ever made. Not only that, but the English dub version (headed by none other than industry legend Steve Blum) is considered to be one of the best examples of dubbing out there. I don’t know if this actually answers the age-old question of sub vs. dub but it does give you something to think about.
The original was goofy as all hell but also surprisingly deep, with lots of themes of loss, loneliness, ennui, and vast amounts of existentialism.
And you know what? The new one does too. Let’s dive into that a little, shall we?
Once upon a time in the future…
The set up for this universe is interesting… and confusing, but mostly interesting. The story takes place fifty years after some accident left much of the earth uninhabitable. As a result, people began settling the planets and moons and asteroids of the solar system, turning their little pockets of terraforming into copies of old earth.
Why none of them copied Venice but instead went for what looks like 1940’s Detroit is beyond me.
In true Noir fashion, there are lots of decrepit buildings and dirty streets juxtaposed against the bright flashes of neon light. Gangsters and cops seem to be the only real authority on these worlds, and sometimes it’s a little hard to tell the two apart.
Helping the cops catch bad guys, however, are a group of Bounty Hunters called Cowboys. Our story, such as it is, follows the adventures of the cowboys aboard the starship Bebop—named after the musical movement. The ship’s owner is a cynical former cop named Jet Black, joined by a foul-mouthed amnesiac Faye Valentine.
Heading up this cast of characters is Spike Spiegel, a former hitman for the Red Dragon Syndicate where he was known by his nom de guerre, Fearless. Trying to kill Spike is his old best friend, Vicious, who also married Spike’s lover, a former singer named Julia.
There’s also a corgi named Ein with a mysterious past and a bat-shit crazy hacker named Radical Ed, who we don’t see until the very end of the season.
So this is the set-up. But, I hear you ask, how’d they do?
Really good! I mean, honestly, they did a really good job with the story. It’s not an exact replica of the 90’s anime, but they managed to stick to the essence of the characters while building on them to make them more relatable to modern audiences.
Admittedly, this is going to rub some people the wrong way.
Frankly, I get it. The original anime was perfect… as an anime, but it’s a lot like trying to adapt a book where things have to be changed in order for it to work.
But unlike with a lot of adaptations, this clearly isn’t just a money grab and obviously the people involved in this have taken a lot of time and effort to make this a labor of love. They know and love these characters just as much as we do, and they wanted to tell the anime’s story through a different medium.
And instead of the old way of trying to cram all 26 episodes into one two-hour movie, they are actually going the distance and trying to make it into at least two seasons of a television show.
First thing’s first, let’s talk about how the actors did.
The answer is amazing. John Cho leads the cast as Spike Spiegel. He manages to keep Spike’s “cool” factor, his laconic wit, while also bringing Spike’s heartbroken vibes to the performance. John Cho really comes across as a fun guy to hang around with who has just seen way too much shit in his life.
Mustafa Shakir is Jet Black, the captain of the Bebop. Much like with Cho, Shakir brings a real maturity to the role, giving him a great “badass dad” vibes. And, while he pulls off the gruff and cool façade, he makes it impossible for you to ignore the tragedy of his life.
Next, we have Daniella Pineda as Faye Valentine. Quick-witted, foul-mouthed, and perfect, Pineda works really well with her other two co-stars and, just like them, makes you laugh and then cry at how shitty and depressing her life really is.
Finally, as part of the Bebop’s crew, we have Charlie and Harry who both played the Welsh Corgi genius Ein. They were both good boys. Yes, they were, oh yes they were.
Next, we have Elena Satine as Julia and Alex Hassell as Vicious. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked them, but I can see why other people didn’t. Both of their characters were very stylized and leaned heavily into tropes. I liked it and I thought it was consistent with the world the show had made—the characters in the original anime were also very tropey but in different ways.
That said, they didn’t quite fit into the aesthetic of the other three leads… which was kind of the point, but we’ll get into that later.
And last, but not least, we had—for all of ten seconds at the end—Eden Perkins as Radical Ed. From what I could see she did a good job of embodying all of the wackiness that is Ed from the anime. Before we continue, I would like to say that I felt it was a good thing they left Ed out of most of the show. While her antics worked well for the anime, it wouldn’t have fit in a live-action setting.
Before we continue on, I’d like to give a shout-out to the casting directors and our three leads. All three leads are people of color, and it is not a big deal at all in the show. This is fantastic and I hope that it will continue with future castings.
Now, let’s talk about the people we didn’t see.
The series was developed by André Nemec and written by (among others) Sean Cummings and Christopher Yost. I don’t have much to say about them except that I liked the directions that they went with the characters and the show itself. The stylistic choices, while not always easy to tell, were specific and reminded me a lot of Baz Luhrmann’s movies. Though a lot of the credit for that also belongs with the Art Directors Simon Barker, Robert Key, and Helen Strevens among others.
The set decoration by Anneke Botha received a lot of heat from critics, mainly in the form of saying that it looks low-budget. Personally, I had no problems with it. The set designs fit the art direction well and really made you feel like you were visiting the poor neighborhoods of the solar system. As opposed to most sci-fi where even the poor parts of town seem to have nice shiny, expensive-looking things. It was no Mandalorian in terms of set design, but I still liked it.
Jane Holland also received a lot of—in my humble opinion—unfair criticism online for her costume designs. I liked the costumes and felt that they were faithful adaptations of the original anime.
Yet another example of “things that work in anime but not in real life” is Faye’s original outfit. We all love how sexy Faye looks, but Daniella Pineda still looks great in Jane Holland’s outfit, plus it actually looks like something that a bounty hunter could wear.
I saved the best one for last.
Yoko Kanno, the woman behind the music of the original anime, returned to deliver the music for this remake. Yoko Kanno is perhaps the biggest driving force behind all of Cowboy Bebop, oftentimes making the music well before they had done the episode for the anime.
That music made Cowboy Bebop and it makes Cowboy Bebop now. Allegedly, John Cho only agreed to be a part of the series after first hearing that Yoko Kanno was signed on.
So why all the hate?
If you’ve read its Wikipedia article, or Rotten Tomatoes, or whatever you choose to look at to get your criticism, you may have noticed that Bebop has been getting a lot of negative reactions. It’s gotten some good too, but it’s usually given a “mixed” response.
If you haven’t thrown your phone away in fury at my inability to understand your position on why the show is so God-awful bad, then you’re probably wondering the same thing.
While I do not presume to speak for everyone, I think that I can at least postulate that there are two main reasons for people not vibing with the Bebop: their inability to “get it” and their inability to separate this version with the original anime.
So, you remember how I started off this article by saying that Cowboy Bebop isn’t for everyone? Yeah, I wasn’t joking, it’s not. This is a weird and sometimes trippy show that leans heavily into film and literary tropes and is stylized out the wazoo!
But even comparing it to heavily stylized movies like Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby won’t do it justice. The show’s style is a lot like its music: it’s jazz. There are parts and elements drawn in from all over the place and looked at individually it makes no goddamn sense. But when taken as a whole, when you look at all of the genres and tropes that are thrown in, you start to get the art.
The original anime suffered from the same thing.
And while we’re on the subject…
Let’s talk about the original anime
Cowboy Bebop only lasted for 26 episodes and one movie. And it was amazing. Seriously, it somehow managed to be goofy as all hell and super depressing. Like most noir fiction.
For many of us who watched it on Adult Swim in the ‘90s, Cowboy Bebop was our gateway drug into anime. (Mine was actually Pokémon, but we don’t need to go into that). We fell in love with Japanese animation because of the tragic, bitter-sweet, and beautiful stories of Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed, and Ein.
Here’s the thing: that show was so influential that it took on a life of its own. It’s what I call “the Star Wars effect”: you watch something that defines a part of your life (usually childhood), and then over the years you don’t really remember the actual thing itself but the way it made you feel at that point in your life.
But not only that: when we think of Star Wars, we don’t just think of A New Hope, we think of the entire original trilogy, and the prequel trilogy, and the books in the Expanded Universe, and The Force Awakens (I personally have chosen to ignore the other two movies in the sequel trilogy with the sole exception of the porgs, but that is just me).
So, part of the problem that many fans are having is that they’re looking at the entirety of the original show and what it meant to them. Not just what happened in the show, or even in parts where the show didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but how the show impacted them at that time.
Not something you can easily overcome.
So there are two things to remember: the first is that, much like a step-parent, this show is not trying to replace your Cowboy Bebop. It never will. But it is trying to pay homage to the original while also making it new. It’s like with a good cover song: you’ll never sing it the same way as the Rolling Stones, but if you sing it as yourself, you can make something great.
The second thing to remember is that this isn’t the entirety of the show. The Netflix show was only ten episodes long and we’ve been teased that they want to do a second season. Maybe we’ll get to see some more of our favorite villains, and maybe, just like Gren, we’ll get to see them in ways or places that we weren’t expecting.
If you’re still unsure, then all I ask for is patience.
So how was it, Space Cowboy?
All in all, this was a good show. The cast was definitely the best part of the show with the actors playing the Bebop’s crew really able to play off of each other and deliver a great batch of banter and fun. The show as a whole managed to stick to the original vibe of the anime without trying to redo it.
With some good writing, it also managed to avoid the trap of looking like a cheap cash grab. They changed, for me at least, just enough to make it work in a live-action setting while also keeping enough of the anime’s original weirdness to prevent it from being a totally different story with the same characters’ names.
It’s not for everyone, but I enjoyed the hell out of it.
My last point is that FINALLY someone made a sci-fi/western/noir epic with bright lighting. Thank God. I’ve been getting real tired of not being able to see anything in my sci-fi shows.
If I had to complain about anything, it’s mainly that there isn’t more of it.
I’ll watch it again, and I’ll let everyone I know, including you, that it’s worth a watch.
Now’s the part of the article where I come out and Spoil. Some. Plot points! Not only do I intend to spoil this Cowboy Bebop, but I also intend to spoil the shit out of the original anime.
You have been warned.
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Give yourself a high five if you started jamming out with me on that sax solo. While you’re at it, give the faceless old man behind you a high five as well. He’s the one doing all the work.
Now that I made you look, let’s talk about that ending and that plot twist.
I liked it. At the beginning of the show, I was really worried that she had the Hot Girl Disease™ that so many female characters fall victim to. Hot Girl Disease™, for those of you who don’t know, is a terrible affliction that affects many female protagonists. Common symptoms include: being hot and not having any other discernable character traits beyond that.
The biggest problem with Hot Girl Disease™ is that it makes us question why the lead (often male) wants to be with her. Yeah, she’s “not like other girls” (whatever the fuck that means), but she also doesn’t have anything going on behind her eyes. She’s just hot. And nothing else.
For a while, this is what it looked like they were doing to Julia. And, honestly, I wasn’t upset by the prospect. She looked and acted like a classic 1940’s femme fatale.
But then, if you’re a fan of old hardboiled detective fiction (in film it’s called noir), then you might remember that femme fatale is not the same thing as Hot Girl Disease™.
Because Julia, smoking hot as she is, didn’t have Hot Girl Disease™ and she didn’t have it in an interesting way.
She’s not the manic pixie dream girl and the fact that she was given a story (or part of one, we never really saw all that much of her life, did we) is proof of that. She is the object of everything that Spike wants in life, but here’s the thing, Space Cowboy…
He’s in love with the idea of Julia, of someone who wants to get away from the Syndicate and who is “alive” and “living life to the fullest.” But she isn’t living life to the fullest, she’s just scared all of the time. First of Vicious, then of the Elders. And because of that, she learned how to take care of herself.
And she liked it.
I don’t know that Spike actually “created” her in the way that she claimed, but I do think that she learned how to take care of herself.
As a mob wife.
See, in the second episode, we saw in Julia a side of her that we didn’t get in the anime: the ambitious woman. She wasn’t satisfied as just being a capo’s wife, she wanted to be the boss’s wife, a position that would have made her untouchable.
And then, as she realized (through playing Russian Roulette), being the puppet master makes you even more untouchable. Anyone who rebels would rebel against Vicious, wouldn’t they? They wouldn’t dream of hurting his poor, battered wife.
I believe that her motivation this entire time was in trying to be protected, but the thing is that she was never some fragile doll that needed to be wrapped up in egg crates. She could take care of herself and always could.
Fearless and Vicious wanted her to be something precious that they could protect, and that’s what she was to them. It’s a brilliant piece of feminist lit, and I am all for it.
That said, in order to make the plot twist in the cathedral work, they had to really set the audience up that Julia had Hot Girl Disease™ and just wanted to be with the man she loved.
The end result is that, on the surface, she looks to be contradicting herself. And maybe she is contradicting herself, but that’s kind of what humans do. But it still can’t be helped that, until we figured out what she was up to, she was kind of boring, often a terminal side-effect of Hot Girl Disease™.
But that build-up made her betrayal of Spike and Vicious land so well. I think my sister said it the best, “This was the only way it could have (believably) ended, yet it still surprised us.”
What does this mean?
This plot twist actually gives me a lot of hope for the show as a whole. They’ve already proven—to me, at least—that they’re not falling down the same hole that M. Night Shyamalan fell down with his adaptation of The Last Airbender, but—and this is the key point here—they’re changing just enough that we don’t know what’s going to happen.
What does this mean for Spike now that Julia isn’t getting shot while running away with him? Is Vicious not the big bad anymore? And if they changed this much for those three, what does this mean for Faye? For Ed?
Does Spike now have a shot at a happy ending, whatever that means for him now? Does this mean that the rest of them can get their own happy ending?
This opens up a lot more possibilities. It would be a mistake for them to change everything, but even the hint of them changing something is enough to keep us on our toes. And that’s exciting.
As I said, nothing is ever going to replace the anime’s handling of that existential powerhouse of an ending where Spike goes out with a “bang” (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and I don’t want them to try. The anime’s handing of their show was powerful and tragic and I don’t want someone to try that exact same thing and fail.
Nothing will ever hit your soul the same way that the anime did, so don’t try. Do something different.
The show has also proven that they can create their own characters, like with Iron Mink, and I’d like to see more of that and I can’t wait for that and everything else to happen.
And before we leave, because this cannot be stated enough, well done to the show for casting all three of the Bebop’s crew as people of color and for bringing in and reimagining the character of Gren as non-binary with a non-binary actor. And for having several independent women in powerful positions and not making a thing of it.
See you later Space Cowboy…