In bold L.E.D. lettering, the word “PORN” broadcasts itself behind a rooftop fight scene early on in Netflix’s new live-action Cowboy Bebop—each letter a different color and shape, like a cutout from a teen fashion magazine, or a hostage note. The sign leans, glaring and obvious, against some architectural feature, but Spike, Cowboy Bebop’s sci-fi bounty hunter protagonist, never acknowledges it. Actually, it seems, it’s there for no one to acknowledge—imperceptible both to the building’s visitors below or spaceships flying above. “PORN” is there for the camera, and the camera haunts it.
It’s trite to say Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop breaks the fourth wall. Definitionally, as a live-action adaptation, it has to—a certain self-consciousness is necessary to translate a cult-classic anime into the third dimension. If it didn’t nod to the frothing buildup of 23 years of fandom, the show would appear detached. So, nod it does. It re-creates the famous jazz-backed intro. Actors do their best to voice lines copy-and-pasted from the anime, but with added verve. At one point, Faye Valentine specifically says the phrase “I’m not gonna carry that weight,” a throwback to the melancholic ending scene of the original series: “You’re gonna carry that weight.”
As a translation project, though, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop fails. In fact, it probably fails at being a lot of its easiest descriptors: an adaptation, a reimagining, a rendition. What Cowboy Bebop is, down to its hammy cyberpunk signage and the nails of its cheap-looking sets, is a performance. For whom, it’s entirely unclear. But at a time in prestige media when audience is certain, the “PORN” sign will always be beheld.
Cowboy Bebop is held up as anime’s north star, an entirely unobjectionable “favorite” for dabblers and heads alike. It’s got the characters of a noir film, Jackie Chan action sequences, music out of a New York jazz club, and the superstructure of a space opera. And because it’s episodic and not very plot-driven, Cowboy Bebop evades the classic anime pitfall of gating affecting moments behind dozens of filler episodes. Everyone likes it, because it’s good and because it’s for everyone.
Announced in 2017, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop was always going to be disappointing to fans of the original anime. There’s no way around it; the bar was stratospheric, lifted higher by the infinity of the animation medium. Live-action anime adaptations, generously put, have long failed to engineer the heart of their source anime. (See: Fullmetal Alchemist, Ghost in the Shell, Death Note). A large and persuasive contingent of otaku would argue it’s simply not possible to adapt the artform, particularly sci-fi anime, to live-action without it feeling paraphrased.
Early teasers and trailers indicated Cowboy Bebop would be reverent, at least, with broadly brushed portraits of its stickiest scenes. And blessedly, showrunner André Nemec, known for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, cast the right people: John Cho as Spike Spiegel, Daniella Pineda as Faye Valentine, and Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black. (The show’s standout performances come from Elena Satine and Alex Hassell, respectively playing Julia and Vicious—characters even the most ardent Cowboy Bebop fans will concede are underutilized.) Describing the anime as a “roadmap” during an interview at the RE:WIRED conference last week, Nemec elaborated that Cowboy Bebop “presents an optimistic view of the future in that it should be multicultural and gender-fluid.”
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
Nemec says he didn’t watch much other anime to prepare for Cowboy Bebop, even live-action anime adaptations. It was The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Bonnie and Clyde, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, because, he says, those were what inspired Cowboy Bebop to begin with. When he interfaced with original director Shiniciro Watanabe and Sunrise Studio, he was furnished with source materials—character drawings, props, books upon books of concepts—and told, “Now go make your show.” It was like getting invited into “somebody’s rich sandbox and being told to go make the castle you want to make,” he says.
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is a castle of sand, with some edges firm and impressive, and others globular or in pieces on the ground. The 10 episodes’ better-shaped features are, counterintuitively, not the ones established by its mold; Nemec grafted on new plot points and character arcs, particularly for Julia and Vicious, that give the show good, sustained tension (decidedly not episodic). Cowboy Bebop does end with a satisfying emotional climax. And thank God, because the velocity powering that climax carries the viewer through some extraordinarily corny writing and muddled subplots.
Anime is a lot of things, but most consistently, it’s a smooth capsule for extremes. The range of Cowboy Bebop’s world—a Tijuana-inspired asteroid, an outer-space casino—and characters—equally moody and comedic—is hackneyed in 3D. Meanwhile, Spike’s moments of vulnerability, which the show is so fixated on, can feel quite unearned. Cho plays Spike with pep and rigidity while his lines are laden by fear and trauma. Written with the gravitas of a superhero movie, Spike’s more troubled moments contain no depth. And without that depth, Spike’s buddy-cop dynamic with his main foil, Jet, does neither character any favors.
In Cowboy Bebop, the costumes look like costumes. The sets look like sets. Its opening scene, set in an old-school casino, has the charisma of an ’80s sex hotel. Cowboy Bebop is performing the anime like a theater class might perform Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Picture the overzealous teacher-director encouraging his cast to really ponder the underlying themes, to add a twist to the classic. In the text, Spike Spiegel is defined by his disinterested swagger; Faye Valentine by her howling-wolf malevolence. But why not modulate Spike—amplify the treble, quiet the midrange? Why not shrink Faye’s resentment, remove her teeth? The purists will always have gripes; so why not dig out Cowboy Bebop’s pulp and seeds, smash them up, mix in some Tang, and stuff it all back into the peel? Looks like an orange, and smells like one too.
“I didn't really see this as an anime adaptation,” Cho told WIRED. At least, he added, at first. “I was trying to put that out of my head and go into the details of this world and make it more the real world. Really, the goal for me was to literally humanize him.” The problem, though, is that the world cannot be real and Spike cannot be human. The show’s sundry solar system and enigmatic bounty hunter are like fragments of broken glass, revealing in beautiful bits and pieces glimpses of an endlessly deep, endlessly dark sky. The original Cowboy Bebop is about that jaggedness of being. Netflix’s performance suffers both from being too literal and too unhinged.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
It’s difficult to ignore the superstructure that incepted Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop—the obsession with remakes, with trilogies, with adaptations. Everything good deserves to be something other than what it is, the thinking goes. The cynicism that met this isn’t just skepticism of the translation process. It’s the deep sadness of fans who feel it is unfair, even disrespectful, to see their most treasured art collaged into some corporation’s scrapbook.
It is all, in the end, entertainment. Yes, Cowboy Bebop is entertaining. Technically, it checks the boxes it needs to. The problem with it may be simpler, more evasive of review. For the fans looking down from above and the newcomers just entering the establishment, the “PORN” sign doesn’t land. Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop exists only for the camera.
More Great WIRED Stories📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!Blood, lies, and a drug trials lab gone badRandonauting promised adventure. It led to dumpstersThe best subscription boxes for giftingGrowing crops under solar panels? There's a bright ideaHow to fix Facebook, according to Facebook employees👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database🎧 Things not sounding right? Check out our favorite wireless headphones, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers