Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. When Netflix announced it was adapting the beloved anime, Cowboy Bebop, into a live action production, I was apprehensive as to what the final production would look like/be. I loved the original anime series, and it was one of the series that sparked my interest and love of anime. As well, it opened up my eyes to the possibilities that a medium could have regardless of the perceptions or expectations of audience. Accordingly, I did not exactly have high hopes for a live action as I assumed it would be very limited in scope and what it could actually achieve with real people, but I still wanted to try to have as open a mind as possible since I like the primary cast and several of the writers and producers involved, or at least their past work. So, does the live action adaptation hold up against the original, or does it deserve the negative criticism it’s received from pockets of the internet? Or is the reality somewhere in between? As always SPOILERS below…
The first question anyone with any previous knowledge of the series and situation is which is better: the live action or the original anime? I do not think this is fully a fair comparison, but I will give an answer and justification. The anime is superior for a multitude of reasons. First off, it is a complete, original story. The live action adaptation is very much the first season of a show. There are still open threads for each character and ongoing story arcs. Characters, even main cast, are still barely being introduced, and no character is anywhere near to completing their personal story, so it is impossible for the first five chapters of an unfinished book to compare to a completely finished narrative. Second, there are just some things that anime, as a medium, can accomplish that other mediums simply cannot. Feels like this should go without saying, but yeah, obviously. Human bodies are restricted by things like anatomy, physics, etc. while cartoons and animation is only deterred by how much money someone is willing to spend on making something. There are several other reasons why the anime is better, but it really boils down to the fact that it came first, and there is a vast premium placed on being the first one. Had the anime been a complete bomb, then the live action could have redeemed it, but since it was quite a success, the live action was ever only going to pale in comparison. With that being said, as a massive fan of the anime series owning the Blu-Ray release, vinyl and CD compilation of the soundtrack, and several figures of the characters, the live action show isn’t that bad.
Yeah, I know, seems rather odd to say that show isn’t bad after spending several hundred words discussing how the anime is better. But, like I previously said, the live action adaptation was always going to be compared to the original and found wanting, but I think the people involved in making the adaptation were aware of that. Based on interviews, tweets, podcasts, etc., it really does seem like the writers, actors, producers, etc. knew that the original anime is a beloved classic and that they were just not going to be able to compete, so they chose not to. The live action adaptation is very much Cowboy Bebop. The music, the cast, the story, the aesthetics, the supporting crew of characters: it all very much adds up to being Cowboy Bebop. However, there are several key deviations from the original that make this production its own thing. It ends up being almost like an Alternate Universe story of the original. Now, that will delight some and annoy others, and neither side is really right or wrong. The live action holds the spirit of the original while attempting to be its own thing, and it works…mostly.
To reiterate the live action adaptation does an excellent job of adjusting elements to fit its own story while keeping the spirit of the original except for two key character decisions: the characterizations and development of Vicious and Julia. In the anime, Julia was basically a mix of a femme fatale and damsel in distress whose main role in the story was to act as a motivation for Spike and eventual final loss that pushed Spiegel to finally act against Vicious and the Syndicate. While she was interesting, Julia was, admittedly, not much of a character, but that was kind of her purpose in the anime. In the live action, she is given far more personality, motivation, and development, but to the detriment of the show, in my opinion. In this version, Julia actively works against Vicious, betrays Spike, and ultimately takes leadership of the Syndicate. This is a far more dynamic position and role with definite story potential, but it also eliminates many of the key elements that led to, arguably, the best ending of a series ever. Without Julia’s presence, Spike Siegel no longer really has any legitimate ties to his past life or real reason to want to take on or defeat the Syndicate. He can, and should by any logical story progression, simply walk away, but that would make for boring, though extremely logical, story telling, so obviously the next season, if it happens will revolve, in part, around Julia’s choice and how Spike will react.
As well, Julia’s rise directly leads to Vicious’ fall, both literally and metaphorically. In the anime, Vicious was a sociopath. He was an inevitable storm of violence and blood whose sole purpose was to ascend to the throne of the Syndicate and lay waste to all that stood in his way. He was the perfect foil to Spike’s character. However, in the live action adaptation, Vicious is a petulant child with major daddy issues who blows up at the slightest provocation without cause or logic and is easily outsmarted and outfought by several characters throughout the first ten episodes of this series. I am not familiar with the actor or his work, so I cannot speak to his skill, but the Vicious in the live action adaptation never feels like a real threat like the anime version did. In the live action, civilians and peons lower on the rung feared Vicious, but his equals or superiors saw him as an obnoxious obstacle. Meanwhile, in the anime, every character, even the Elders of the Syndicate, were in fear of the man. There was a shift in atmosphere on screen whenever Vicious appeared that is just not replicated at all in the live action. Hell, even the big action scene near the end when Vicious launches a coup against the Elders felt underwhelming and lacking because nothing we had seen before justified Vicious being clever enough to trick his fellow traitors nor skilled enough to actually successfully take on the guards present by himself. Add to that how he ends up in chains by Julia’s hands and Vicious doesn’t really seem nor feel like the ultimate villain of this series that rival’s Spike Spiegel’s skills. Which is what the live action adaptation is intending.
So, is the live action adaptation an abomination? No, not by a longshot. Hell, it’s not even the worst live action adaptation of an anime on Netflix. Is it as good as the original anime? Also, no, but it genuinely seems to know that already and instead is trying to do its own thing. Whether that is a worthwhile endeavor is up to you, but I am invested enough to keep my fingers crossed for another season announcement.
Plus, any reason to potentially get more shirtless John Cho is always a yes for me.