How COWBOY BEBOP Can Right Live-Action Anime Wrongs

Anime fans know that live-action versions of popular anime in Japan aren’t anything new; however, fans have justifiable criticism of adaptations in the United States. Consider the numerous issues with Death Note and Dragonball Evolution, among others. Still, Cowboy Bebop‘s live-action series may right some of the wrongs of previous U.S. live-action adaptations.

Anime’s roots run deep, tracing back to chalk films in 1917. From those early drawings to ’40s propaganda films, anime appeared in visual snippets until production companies like Japan Animated Films (then known as Toei) rose in the 1940s. Anime films’ expansion into television shows created an undeniable increase in its popularity. Astro Boy’s monstrous commercial success in 1963 led to stellar merchandise sales and syndication in multiple countries.

John Cho as Spike in Cowboy Bebop live-action adaptation
Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

The genre’s resurgence in popularity in the 1980s alongside higher international appeal (specifically in the United States) led to it becoming a global artform. In the states, we saw multiple Japanese properties translated into English, like Mobile Suit Gundam Wing. Others, like Sailor Moon, got adaptations to fit within the confines of Western culture.

So, live-action adaptations were an inevitable next step. Critics and audiences alike have deemed many of them successful, including Rurouni Kenshin and Assassination Classroom. The US followed this foray into creating live-action versions of anime. They had the fervor, but the delivery often missed the mark in many ways.

Live-action anime in Japan follows its animated counterparts with Asian actors portraying most, if not all, roles. But Western adaptations often whitewash the majority of their characters. This is the case in films like Ghost in the Shell and Speed Racer.

This is problematic, especially when the character’s racial/cultural identity is inherently tied to their story. The Cowboy Bebop casting announcement highlighted John Cho as Spike Spiegel, Daniella Pineda as Faye Valentine, and Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black. Cho is Asian, Pineda is Latinx, and Shakir is Black, three actors with marginalized racial/ethnic identities. This gives hope that the series will, at the very least, avoid this mistake. 

Spike, Mustafa, and Jet sit on a couch in Cowboy Bebop

There’s also a lack of a cardinal concept of anime known as  “ma.” In a 2002 interview with Roger Ebert, famed animation director Hayao Miyazaki discussed how this intentional emptiness or breathing space is just as important as the moments with it. Western entertainment is notorious for filling empty spaces. But doing this with live-action anime removes those moments which ground the character and audience, trapping them in the momentum. Of course, it remains to be seen if Cowboy Bebop will keep its reflective, quiet beats. 

Another cardinal sin is an egregious deviation from the source material. Artistic license is a supplemental component in most film adaptations. But some recent properties shift pivotal characters and storylines to a point of no return. For example, a Japanese live-action version of Death Note exists (and it’s good), but Netflix created its own version. However, its creators misunderstood the assignment. The US version shifts the setting to Seattle, whitewashing some of the lead characters and trying to justify that decision because of location. This take also changes important rules on how the Death Note functions. And this version contains major alterations in the motives and personalities of key characters in ways that are not improvements nor beneficial.  

Western shows heavily influenced by anime, like Avatar: The Last Airbender, have found great success in the States. However, its live-action film is known to many as one of the worst movies of 2010— possibly of all time. Whitewashing, poor dialogue, a choppy storyline, and a terrible alteration to “bending,” a key fighting style imbued with elemental telekinesis, made the perfect ingredients for a flop movie. And flop it did. 

animated cowboy bebop cast photo
Adult Swim

Needless to say, concern for future US live-action animes is high and the bar for a solid one is low. It may be unfair to prematurely judge the Cowboy Bebop series, but early skepticism isn’t unwarranted. Cowboy Bebop’s reach still resonates today, influencing many anime and western animated shows alike. Not to mention its stellar soundtrack, spearheaded by an iconic intro sequence.

To potentially tarnish the legacy of an iconic anime is risky business, but it appears Cowboy Bebop‘s live-action show will not deviate too far from its source material. The new intro sequence includes real people, obviously, but it’s still close to the incredible original. Additionally, a Netflix promotional video reveals that the new adaptation will highlight what fans love about the series, but also incorporate elements of North American and Asian cinema. It’s a balance of sticking to a solid script and artistic license. 

That’s all fine, if the show is good. Cowboy Bebop must bypass the mistakes of its live-action predecessors with a good story, as the anime did. (Early reviews seem mixed with some panning the series while others really like it.) My hope is that the creators of Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop can take note of other anime adaptations’ crimes. It’s true that not everything needs a live-action version. Still, if it’s going to receive one, it better be as good, if not better than the original anime and that’s a hefty challenge. In the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for anime’s favorite space cowboys.

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