Any time some beloved piece of media rolls up to the remake/reboot/reimagine altar, fans tend to get very nervous. With good reason; will said remake tarnish, taint, or otherwise topple the good name of the thing? Netflix’s live-action Cowboy Bebop has been a topic of speculation for quite a long while. Each new piece of information or shot of a costume, the question as to whether it would be a straight remake of the 1998 anime or not has been on many lips. I was as skeptical and worried as anyone. But now having seen the whole thing, I can assure you all: it’s really good. How’s that for a review?
Having said it’s good, I feel the need to immediately follow that up with a caveat: this version of Cowboy Bebop draws heavily from the anime but it is inherently not a carbon copy. Yes, a lot of the characters’ given circumstances and personalities are intact. Obviously visually the characters and settings are pretty damn close to the anime. There’s all the wonderful Yoko Kanno music you love. BUT, and this is key, the live-action Bebop is a remix, not a cover.
Times are different. The kinds of stories a Japanese animated series could tell in 1998 are not exactly the kinds of stories a live-action serialized drama on Netflix can tell in 2021. Naturally; it would be silly not to adapt, adopt, and improve (where applicable).
The first episode of this new Cowboy Bebop remakes the first episode of the anime, “Asteroid Blues,” almost entirely. The differences are minor. They include a lengthy action prologue of Spike Spiegel (John Cho) and Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) hunting a bounty. Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda) who doesn’t come in to the anime until the third episode, also joins the first episode, as a rival bounty hunter. Other than that, it’s largely the same.
But it’s from here that this new Cowboy Bebop really makes its own mark on the material. Spike’s past plays a huge part in the series, not only as backstory but as proper plot. His rival Vicious (Alex Hassell) is more than just a grunting adversary. Here, he’s an unhinged gangster with delusions of grandeur and an inferiority complex. Julia (Elena Satine), the third prong of this love triangle, has so much more inner life and agency of her own. These two characters, for me, rise way above what they got to do in the anime. They aren’t echoes of the past, but living, vibrant characters.
As for our main trio of heroes, their exploits are still largely episodic, but their relationship and growth feel modern and more realistic. Jet, a former police officer who left in disgrace, has an ex-wife and a daughter he’s trying to do right by, even if his bounty hunting gets in the way. Spike has stayed largely silent about his past, knowing Jet’s hatred of the Syndicate would likely lead to the dissolution of their partnership. Cho and Shakir are absolutely phenomenal and embody Spike and Jet to perfection.
But for me the undisputed standout of this very stellar main cast is Pineda as Faye. She in a lot of ways had the hardest job, taking a character from the anime who is equal parts annoying and eye candy and managed to make her a fun-loving con woman who is incredibly capable and yet deeply sad. Faye and Spike start out greatly disliking each other but eventually grow to have real respect and camaraderie. She gets to be heroic and hilarious and vulnerable and just owns every scene she’s in.
I definitely don’t want to give away much else about the story or how it does or doesn’t compare to the original anime. That’ll be for after the thing comes out. But what I will say is it looks great; the action is fun; it’s consistently humorous. It makes me excited to watch more when season two (hopefully) comes out. And as a live-action adaptation of an anime, that’s something of a minor miracle.