How do you go about making a live-action adaptation of, “Cowboy Bebop,” one of the most iconic Japanese anime of all time? You make it real. For John Cho, who plays the series’ protagonist Spike Spiegel, it even got to the point of refusing to wear a wig. Like many anime characters, Spike has a distinctively crazy haircut, but Cho (“Star Trek,” “Searching”) instead chose to grow his hair until it was a close enough approximation of Spike’s. Now that’s dedication.
And for Cho, that’s what playing Spike has been all about. He wasn’t about doing a slavish copy of the anime. He wanted to make “Cowboy Bebop” real.
“I don’t know that I approached it thinking I’m going to be different,” Cho told Super over Zoom. “You know, I was trying to see if I could get inside there and bring myself in and see what happens if I you know what if I were that person and, I tried my best to humanize a two- dimensional illustration. I was really just trying to get in there look like him, move like him and then feel like him in those in those moments. And I don’t think I thought in terms of difference, or same, it was really more make real.”
“Cowboy Bebop,” released in 1998 is a 26-episode series (plus one movie) set in the future where an interstellar gate accident has rendered the Earth uninhabitable and thus humanity now lives in space. It can be an unforgiving place where bounty hunters called cowboys live from bounty to bounty while a criminal organization called the Red Dragon Syndicate runs the illegal side of town constantly ahead of the Inter Solar System Police (ISSP). “Cowboy Bebop” is considered one of the most original anime ever, partly due to the freedom its creators were given by studio Sunrise, but mostly by two people, director/mastermind Shinichiro Watanabe, and composer Yokko Kanno. The result is a violent but sexy, sci-fi jazz concoction. Indeed, they got everybody and their stuff, went 3-2-1 and just jammed.
Even then, one could understand the apprehension all around when it was announced that Netflix was going to adapt “Cowboy Bebop” into a 10-episode series. The record of adapting anime to live-action is, to be honest, abysmal. Yes, the four “Ruroni Kenshin” with Takeru Satoh as the titular swordsman may even be better than the source material, but for every such victory you get the likes of 2015’s “Attack on Titan” (ugh) and 2011’s “Ranma 1/2” (yes, they dared). And the less said about 2009’s “Dragonball Evolution,” the better.
But this time, Netflix was partnering with Tomorrow Studios and—most importantly—Watanabe and Kanno were involved (in fact, Kanno and her band the Seatbelts appear in almost every episode).
But one does not turn a 27-piece series into a 10-episode series. Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” is not a cell-by-cell copy of the original. In fact, outside the still fantastic opening sequence set to the Seatbelt’s “Tank!” (one of the best ever), the series is kind of a “Cowboy Bebop” for those who have never seen “Cowboy Bebop.” There are nods here and there to the original, but it is very much its own thing, developed by showrunner Christopher Yost (“The Mandalorian”). It feels like a mashup of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and Joss Whedon’s “Firefly.”
Set to Kanno’s atmospheric music, it’s different, and new to hardcore “Cowboy Bebop” anime fans, so your interstellar mileage will vary.
The best thing the show has going is really the cast. Cho is the actor who is closest to his anime equivalent, grimly determined, good in a fight, and still possessed a sense of humor. He’s also attired perfectly in Spike Spiegel’s suit. His partner, Jet Black, is played with great physicality by Mustafa Shakir (“Marvel’s Luke Cage”), a betrayed ISSP detective who’s been branded dirty. The two operate from the Bebop, yet there are secrets left untold here—all of them Spike’s. Shakur’s fights are spectacular. “Oh, they made it really fun,” Shakir told reporters. “From the very beginning, we had like stunt training like boot camp, where we worked together for like six hours a day working on all kinds of things tumbling sword fighting, shooting goes, I mean, you name it. And so, by the time it was time to shoot those things we had already like formed a really tight bond. So, it was just like a walk in the park and a lot of fun.”
The biggest deviation—and a welcome one—is the breakout turn by Daniela Pineda (“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”) as Faye Valentine. The anime Valentine was an impossible femme fatale. Pineda’s Valentine was also an amnesiac who had lost her memories after being stuck in a cryogenic chamber for too long, but seems like a younger, funnier character, with some of the best lines. She also has much more sensible clothing that the anime Valentine’s. “I’m so happy that you love Faye much as I do,” she says. “My favorite part about her was her impatience. Really, really funny. And she’s almost like sort of stuck in a way an annoying, bratty teenager, especially between Jet and Spike. It’s like, oh my god, you guys are so like, and but also playing someone who’s a survivor and still very in the moment and like trying to figure things out for the first time I said earlier, but she’s like, if you left a raccoon in your kitchen, and you went away for 15 minutes, and then you came back like she’s always getting into things. She was like the best antihero. Ever.”
Alex Hassell provides the appropriate madness as the katana-wielding Vicious who works for the Syndicate (no Red Dragon, just the Syndicate), and Elena Satine is vulnerable and mysterious as someone in Spike and Vicious’ past.
In many ways, “Cowboy Bebop” is an Americanized introduction to the Japanese “Cowboy Bebop,” and that’s not a bad thing—and yet it could easily stand on its own. Many of the iconic elements are present—Spike’s Swordfish ship, Faye’s Red Tail pod and Ein the Corgi. Yet it also expands the back stories of the characters.
Yes, you could easily enjoy “Cowboy Bebop” on Netflix without ever having seen or have to see the original, but the makers made sure it was close enough to keep the essence of the intellectual property—save for a few surprises, of course. Pineda describes their project as “the greatest ‘Bebop’ lover’s fan fiction.” Shakir says “this show was made by the fans, by fans of the show.”
“I wouldn’t interpret it as pressure but there was a reverence, you know, and a respect and we had to balance that against wanting to feel creative and free and playful,” Cho concludes. “And so that was it was definitely pushing and pulling on those two qualities. But pressure in the sense that we wanted to, to make something that the fans would enjoy. But it didn’t feel burdensome, it felt like an honor.”
“Cowboy Bebop” is now streaming on Netflix.