there’s really nothing like it, As a stylized, over-the-top galaxy-spanning sci-fi adventure, it combines the pacing of an old-school Hong Kong action film with the melodrama of classic Westerns – all to the tune of a bumping jazz soundtrack. The 1998 historical anime series, which focused on space cowboys and lost souls, simply put, was a lively one and a richly eclectic one.
It’s no secret that Cowboy Bebop is one of the more sacred and influential anime shows of the past 20 years, and it’s a series that I greatly admire. This made the prospect of a live-action adaptation something to feel apprehensive about.
Thankfully, the first season of Netflix’s live-action Cowboy Bebop is not only a fun and thrilling romp that captures the lively, soulful gesture of the original series, it also makes its mark in ways that sometimes creator Shinichiro Let’s improve the anime from Watanabe. ,
Like the original, the live-action Cowboy Bebop sees a dysfunctional crew of bounty hunters riding a thin line between poverty and comfortable dirt in the distant future. Over the course of a 10-episode season, a trio of bounty hunters, Spike Spiegel (John Cho), Faye Valentine (Daniela Pineda), and Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), work separately in the galaxy. These gigs entangle them with quirky criminals and troublesome villains, and pull different threads from each character’s tragic past.
The backbone of the new series is the chemistry between the trio of bounty hunters. When they are not debating food and petty inconveniences, they are trapped in missions to various planets in a culturally stable society gripped by late capitalism. John Cho’s portrayal of the detached but always cunning Spike is a brilliant turning point for the actor. Cho manages to nail Spike’s natural cool and swagger, with his iconic fluffy hair. When Spike’s suspicious past comes to light, Cho effectively shows the dark side of his character.
The Jet Black crew is the rock, serving as the unofficial captain of Bebop – the ship they use to travel across the galaxy. Mustafa Shakir’s take on the character is a dead bell for his animated counterpart. He perfectly captures the dead nature of Jet while showing his tenderness while bonding with his crew and loved ones.
But the obvious standout is Daniela Pineda as femme fatale Faye Valentine. Pineda’s idea not only holds true to Faye’s seductive and ruthless nature, but adds a more playful and endearing spin. She’s an absolute blast to watch on screen and elevates an already great cast, giving the trio of bounty hunters a charming sense of camaraderie.
In general, the characters mirror their anime counterparts, but a notable divergence relates to Vicious (Alex Hassel) and Julia (Elena Satin), Spike’s primary antagonists and long-lost love, respectively. He has more dimensions to the Netflix series, and he’s given more to do within the plot—which is an interesting one if Serviceable dives into the murky side of the criminal underworld in the future. The two characters in the story have a real path and weight. Hassel in particular seems to like every scene he is in as the vicious, while Satine successfully casts some ambiguity in Julia’s appearance, especially during the later episodes.
While I generally preferred the live-action shows for Vicious and Julia, a part of me felt their collective climax was underdeveloped, even though I liked the direction it was set for future seasons. As with the ensemble cast, the show spends a lot of time juggling different storylines, and unfortunately, Vicious and Julia’s arc has to bear the consequences.
The live-action show also updates some of the more obnoxious aspects of the original series that are better left in the past. There were many old ideas of sexuality in anime. The live-action show addresses this by revamping characters like Gren (Mason Alexander Park), who is now a recurring, non-binary character with more relevance to the story. Some episodes of the anime series featured dated stereotypes of gay and transgender characters, so it’s great to see new shows giving these characters a more enlightening and meaningful presence.
While the new series uses many familiar characters, story, and iconic visuals as building blocks, its more serial plot deviates well enough from the anime that I won’t spoil here. Rather than the largely episodic nature of the original, with many episodes separated by the larger plot, the live-action show features a more connected story thread throughout the season. This continuity helps create the outline of the galactic civilization of 2071 and the many uncanny and lovable characters within it.
It also dives deeply into lesser-seen and unknown aspects of the original series, which I found super enticing. The early episodes keep things simple, but the floodgates slowly open, explaining civilization “after Earth” and how life has become complicated after humanity’s forcible expansion to the stars. The live-action show does well to illustrate the scope of Cowboy Bebop’s universe, and despite keeping things low-key, the ambition and craft are still there.
There’s a lot of action to watch throughout the season, which seamlessly ties together fierce martial-arts brawls and John Woo-style gunfights. While still stylized in their approach to action and set pieces, the actors can’t contrast and twist in the same impossible ways as their animated counterparts. It subdues and cuts back some of the overly elongated action sequences, which can be at odds with the pace of the story. Still, there are thrilling moments that turn into really gruesome moments between fights that look exciting and cool.
I loved seeing this rearrangement of stories put together to tell a more connected plot, and love seeing the moments and characters foreshadowed. However, the Netflix series sometimes struggles to keep up with its momentum, especially after a strong set of opening episodes. This is especially felt in the back end of the season, with some characters and plot threads feeling underpowered. Still, the live action series managed to win me back with its style and lovable characters, which closed the season with a nice twist and a tease for what’s to come.
The anime series was a show of its era, and the live-action show retains that late-’90s aesthetic, incorporating retro technology such as CRT monitors and analog computers. It gives the show’s universe a sense of feeling uneasy and lived-in, with characters clinging to old and broken relics of the past—both technical and philosophical. It’s a delightfully grounded look at life in space.
Like anime, Netflix’s shows have an active element of social commentary, shedding light on capitalism in the space and how life has been devalued in the future. While this is largely fringe, there is a compelling anti-capitalist undercurrent, with characters brimming with the rise of corporations and how the police serve the ruling class. This in turn helps elevate the setting and premise of the original series, making it feel more poignant as a show in 2021.
The new series mostly succeeds in recreating and expanding the signature style and soulful tone of the original. One reason for this is the original composer Yoko Kanno’s work on the live-action series. Classic songs like Rush, Green Bird and The Real Folk Blues also return. But because Kanno and his band The Seatbelts created an entirely new soundtrack for the show, the music sounds equally nostalgic and refreshing. If you told me these songs were from the original show’s lost album, I’d believe it.
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop stays close to the spirit of the original series, but it really is at its best when it does its job. It doesn’t always last until the landing, and while some aspects of the show could be better left to animation, those stumbling blocks don’t take away from the fact that I still had a blast during the season. It’s one of the rare successful live-action adaptations, and Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop manages to be a fun and solid first outing that serves as a good companion to the original series. It may not hit every perfect note, but it has the spark that will keep the music going.