Cowboy Bebop’s New Shine Can’t Replace Its Old Soul

John Cho’s magnetic charm is both well-known and undervalued in his time. Cho was a key reason for the success of many films, including Searching, Columbus, Harold & Kumar, and FlashForward. His soft eyes and firm voice allow him to not only ground an absurd idea but also make it work. This is why his duality is the best part of the Netflix adaptation Cowboy Bebop.

It was first seen in Japan as a success in 1998. The series became an anime gateway for American viewers in 2001 when it aired on Cartoon Network’s newly launched Adult Swim block. Since then, the animated series has been a rare cult-classic. The 26 episodes as well as the 2001 movie Cowboy Bebop – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door were dissected, captured, and GIFed. In the late ’90s, the Cowboy Bebop universe was expanded into printed form with various manga editions. The popularity of anime in America grew partly because of Cowboy Bebop. More viewers were attracted to the show’s presence on best-of TV lists and streaming services, creating their own ouroboros loop. As Cowboy Bebop would remind you, it wasn’t all a dream. It was a gradual rise in popularity and praise that culminated into an almost universal acclaim.

This is all to say that Andre Nemec, the showrunner of Cowboy Bebop has a long history to honor and that his success levels vary. It’s always tricky to adapt. You can either copy the source material exactly or stray too far from the original’s spirit, rhythms, and vibe and be accused for being too creative. The first ten episodes of Cowboy Bebop, arriving on Netflix on November 19, straddle that too-close/not-close-enough line. Nemec and his writing team, which includes veterans from Lost in Space and Sons of Anarchy and Thor. Ragnarok) and directors Alex Garcia Lopez (who split the initial season), go the extrapolation/expansion route. The return of Cowboy Bebopcomposer Yoko Kano has made the musical cues brassy and jazzy. They are often directly evocative to the original. CGI-heavy and colorful, the production design features neon-hued opening credits, which imitate the series’ predecessor. Also, Kanno’s “Tank!” tune is used. Artificial-looking spaceship exteriors, skylines, and other visual elements are pulled from Latin America, Japan, and Middle Eastern cultures. The original series’s fusion between Western, neo-noir and sci-fi genres are cinematically enhanced with locations such as casinos and dive bars. There’s also an episode that’s reminiscent of a 1940s detective film and lots of shoot-outs.

This adaptation might appeal to fans of Netflix’s sci-fi series Altered Carbon and Lost in Space. It shares many similarities with those shows: a dystopian outlook, broad anti-capitalist sympathies and light consideration of sci fi concepts such as AI and virtual reality. Fans of the original may wonder if the adaptation’s bizarre feel and constant high jinks are a reflection of its predecessor’s feelings of despondency, ennui, or its awareness of the fact that sometimes the coolest man in the room can also be the most lonely. This is a lot of spin from Spike’s character, which the Cowboy Bebop confuses despite Cho being the series’s greatest achievement. His shaggy ‘do and double-breasted blue suit are paired with chunky headphones. He is both brutally graceful and graceful in series fight scenes, which Allan Poppleton choreographs. Cowboy Bebop’s biggest mistake is moving Cho’s Spike to one side for other characters whose arcs and decision-making don’t make sense in the series’s internal world. This also leads to slow development.

The series takes place in the near future after Earth has fallen and wealth inequality has destroyed all planets from which humans fled. The Inter-Solar System Police, which is blatantly working to the wealthy, tracks down the violent criminals and brings them in by bounty hunters or “cowboys”. Spike Spiegel (Cho), and Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), who have been partners for the past couple of years on Jet’s ship, the Bebop. They share a troubled past. Jet, a former detective, works each day to clear his name, improve his relationship with his daughter, who lives with her ex-wife, and her new partner. Former assassin Spike falls into murky, hazy memories of a woman’s faces, a falling rose and his own body sliding off the edge of a cliff each night. It’s all very The Crow. They keep secrets from one another and their relationship becomes complicated when Faye Valentine, a fellow bounty hunter (a charming Daniella Pineda), arrives. Faye Valentine is an amnesiac who cannot remember any details about her past life until she was put in a cryogenic freezer decades ago. Her inclusion in the crew splits bounties instead of just two. She is cheeky and spontaneous.

Their business partnership and constant sparring moves Cowboy Beebop forward to a mix of self-contained episodes and one-off villains as well as mythology-focused episodes. These episodes return to the bad blood Spike had with the Syndicate, a shadowy criminal organization in which he was once a rising Star. Spike, a Syndicate hitman, was efficient and ruthless. He also served as Vicious’ brother-in-arms (Alex Hassell), who is now a capo for the outfit. They were driven apart by something, and that something was someone in noir fashion.

Original Cowboy Bebop fans will find the backstory of this person and their place in the narrative to be the most surprising changes. This is a surprising twist considering how the series originally caters to IP-aware viewers. This adaptation has many episodes or “sessions” that are filled with re-created elements. As in “Asteroid Blues,” the first episode of the series, Syndicate traitor Asimov Solean is the villain in “Cowboy Gospel,” the episode’s premiere episode. It begins with an extremely bloody jolt. The “Cowboy Funk’s” Teddy Bomber causes havoc in “Venus Pop,” while Dr. Londes, from the original episode of “Brain Scratch”, creates an alluring alternate reality called “Brain Two-Step” and attempts to assassinate Spike. Cho and Shakir’s natural chemistry and contrasted wry and serious natures elevate some stilted dialog. Pineda’s mixture of vulgarity, vulnerability and sarcasm draws out the sarcasm in Cho’s Spike and paternalism for Shakir’s Jet. These pieces are captivating enough to appeal to both newbies and fans, and it is easy for each episode of Cowboy Bebop blend into the next.

The season’s progress, however, Cowboy Bebop is a mixed bag of innovative and mundane experiments. There are bright spots, like Ana Tamara Tunie and Mason Alexander Park’s Gren. They are teamed up to run the nostalgic-stroking jazz club that’s key to the Syndicate’s backstory. The take-no-crap Ana as well as the glamorous intentionally notbinary Gren offer nuanced and expanded improvements over their animated predecessors. Vicious and the other Syndicate capos don’t make much difference, particularly when Vicious’s daddy issues and Hassells’s performance are so bare and sloppy. Spike’s ex-lover Julia (Elena Satine), is less of a damsel and more of an femme fatale. However, Satine is unable to find her core character. None of her relationships feel real and Cowboy Bebop isn’t as compelling without that essential tension.

This inconsistency means that Cowboy Bebop may gain visual thrill in the live-action version. However, the motivations for these characters to become allies or enemies does not always match the ensemble’s performances and the visual poignancy provided by the series’s cinematography. Cowboy Bebop wasn’t just an anime. But in this new format, it seems like another Netflix action series with its mid-season bloat and liminal dialogue. It becomes clear what this adaptation lacks once the excitement of recognising the Bebop couch, Spike’s cigarettes, and Ein’s exuberant tail-wagging fades. Cowboy Bebop is brought to life.