Tomorrow Studios and Netflix probably underestimated the weight of what it means to adapt Cowboy Bebop. The series that ran back in 1998 became one of the most beloved animes over the years. The story of Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, Faye Valentine, Ein, and, of course, can’t forget Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivursky IV. There was already an outcry the moment they changed Faye’s outfit and we haven’t had any footage yet. Anime adaptations have faced quite the uphill battle. For every Rurouni Kenshin, there’s a Dragon Ball Evolution to balance it out. Yet, the fact there’s a scale of comparison makes the task set by Netflix even more daunting.
The thing about adaptation is the challenge in how do you approach it in the first place. Sometimes it’s a straightforward story that can easily be replicated while others have such a unique visual style that it becomes even more daunting. While Attack on Titan features humans as its main protagonists, the world invested by monstrous and purposely crudely drawn monsters forces creatives to make a choice. They can either try to replicate it in a way that stays true to the original or take a few steps to make it feel more authentic within a realistic setting.
In the case of Cowboy Bebop, they take a very curious approach. In a way, it does feel like the anime is brought to life in many ways. Some of the action is purposefully over-the-top with some John Woo influences mixed in. It envokes the way the characters moved in the original. The environments are purposefully unique to make this feel like a living and breathing world. It took the original design and added to it to make it recognizable for Western audiences. There’s a lot more cyberpunk aesthetic added into the mix while still staying true to the original.
As our very own Nicole Sobon pointed out in her review, it doesn’t quite live up to the original. Yet, in a way, it never could and to some degree, it seems the showrunners are aware of that fact. They do have elements evoking that of the anime, especially with the return of musician Yoko Kanno to create the soundtrack. Every element is here that would make this feel like it invokes the series but there’s one Westernized aspect that leaves a sizeable dent of comparison as an adaptation.
Cowboy Bebop plays switcheroo with most of the original villains to fit neatly into a cohesive package. The original series was more a bounty-of-the-week style story. Spike’s past didn’t play a role at most times and was more of a sudden appearance. Netflix and André Nemec took those elements and created an ongoing narrative that takes precedent. So, we spend a lot more time with Julia and Vicious. As a result, these very specific character archetypes were flipped on their head to fit into long-format storytelling. Alex Hassel‘s version of Spike’s nemesis works more as a deconstruction rather than an adaptation.
It’s not an easy task to adapt something popular like Cowboy Bebop. It’s even more riské if you start making specific changes to fit a different narrative type. This series does lack aspects of the original that are noticeable. For example, some of the iconic bounties don’t get as much attention in service for the new Syndicate overarching plot. We frequently see characters suddenly get tied to others from the original. There’s a good chance that the fans of the original won’t like this. They changed elements to make them their own while still trying to stay true to the original. Utilizing iconic visual cues and story elements that muddles the unique aspect. It opens up the question: Why change this but keep the rest the same?
Some adaptations dip their toes more into the original’s iconic visuals to bank on the contextual nostalgia. The initial trailer for Uncharted evoked quite a few elements from across the four games to do exactly that. In a way, Cowboy Bebop is a bit more restrained in that regard. It does take iconic characters from the anime but tries to add to their story. They either get an expanded backstory or visual elements that were simply taken for granted and now are given more weight. It doesn’t always hit the mark, but it is a showcase of good faith that they aren’t purely relying on nostalgia.
In a way, they didn’t fully buckle under the weight of this series’ reputation but still were too cautious. They took a risk and made changes, not for the sake of change but rather to expand the lore. Vicious isn’t as “vicious” as we remember, but he’s far more complex as a character. He’s flawed to also give Julia an arc by taking away their initial allure as characters. Instead of a distant dream, she is an active participant in these events. Yes, it does take away from her allure in the original but gives her something substantial in this story. We’re allowed to see her evolve throughout the show and it even opens up new avenues to make it stand out from its contemporary. Moving forward, the show may have released the shackles that held it back and can grow beyond just being an adaptation even if not every single shot hit its mark in its premiere season.