Cowboy Bebop — the anime and the John Cho Netflix reboot — explained

Halfway through the fifth episode of Cowboy Bebop, the seminal late ’90s anime series about a roguish bounty hunter fighting crime and traveling through space, the show explains itself. A title card briefly appears on screen, and we see what looks like a pitch for the very show we’re in the middle of watching.

“This is not a kind of Space Opera,” the card reads, referring to the by-then-well-trodden genre of epic spaceship flyovers and majestic, exotic fantasy worlds in the far reaches of the galaxy. “It is a sort of Space Jazz which is filled with street sense and life.” The card acknowledges past media portrayals of space exploration such as Star Wars and Apollo 13 (along with esoterica and cheeky metaphors) but stresses this story is different: “We show you a completely new visual world,” it promises.

In 1998, with Japanese animation enjoying a golden age and sci-fi moving toward a resurgence, Cowboy Bebop wasn’t completely new, either aesthetically or narratively, but it was close enough to capture the hearts of legions of fans and become widely acknowledged as one of the most important anime series ever created. If you’re an anime fan, even if you’ve never watched the show, you definitely know its main character, well-dressed bounty hunter Spike Spiegel; its famous opening-theme music; and its tagline — “See you, space cowboy.” And, crucially, whether you’re an anime fan or not, you likely know its influence.

On November 19, Netflix debuts a new, live-action reboot of Cowboy Bebop starring John Cho that looks a lot like some cultural touchstones: Firefly, Kill Bill, Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of these well-loved properties may well have been influenced by the original anime series, both visually and in plotting. But while many stories have followed in Bebop’s wake, few have done it better. Cowboy Bebop was one of the first anime series to not only prove there was an adult audience for mature anime stories, but also to break through to mainstream adult audiences in the US.

That loyal fanbase means there’s a lot riding on Netflix’s new adaptation: pressure to maintain the spirit of the original show while paving the way for more live-action anime adaptations to come.

How well does it compare to the original, and why does it all matter? Read on to find out. Okay, 3–2–1, let’s jam!

Cowboy Bebop was originally supposed to be something much different

Cowboy Bebop was the brainchild of director Shinichirō Watanabe, who created the original series in the ’90s on behalf of the Japanese toy and entertainment company Bandai. At the time, despite serious genre-elevating films like Akira (1988) and the works of Studio Ghibli, anime was still very much a medium for children’s storytelling, and Bandai wanted Watanabe to create a show that would popularize spaceship toys.

The show Watanabe came up with was hardly the fun children’s spaceship series Bandai expected. Sure, the animation was engaging and often beautiful, and the characters — a gang of bounty hunters with spurious pasts, led by Spike and his partner Jet Black, pitted against a criminal mastermind called Vicious — had plenty of universal appeal. But the story was violent, veering from comedic to existential, and each character had depth that was rare for anime of the period. Though the show was episodic, the main storyline was dark, with themes of sexuality and death and a resolution that left little room for a second season. The toy division pulled out, and the project languished in production limbo for a few years until Bandai’s animation vertical, Bandai Entertainment, took it over. It gave free reign to Watanabe and the show’s animation studio, Sunrise.

The result was a show unlike most anime of the time. Mainstream anime series of the era tended toward sprightly adaptations of shounen manga starring preteen boys — sports and adventure fantasies such as Gundam Wing and Dragon Ball Z, all aimed squarely at children and teen viewers. The most popular series were long-running and episodic. Bebop, by contrast, was a self-contained single season focused on adult characters, with sophisticated themes and a strong emphasis on aesthetic alongside plot.

Music was front and center. Episodes were called “sessions” (after recording sessions), with each one’s title and musical cues referencing a different jazz or rock icon — everyone from Herbie Hancock to Aerosmith. Musician Yoko Kanno created the show’s soundscape by pairing jazz and rock music with familiar visual action tropes; the improvisational style of ’50s-era bebop serves as a sonic analogue for our heroes’ rough-and-tumble lifestyle. Bebop even doubles as the name of Spike’s spaceship.

Though Bebop’s highly stylized, jazzy fight scenes might seem routine to viewers, thanks to the countless works that have imitated them since, they were new and innovative at the time. The self-aware, genre-melding tone was also refreshing: The series was a hybrid of influences from film noir to spaghetti Westerns to grindhouse movies, and continually dropped in explicit references to other pop culture, from geek favorites like Star Trek and Flash Gordon to Beverly Hills, 90210. Character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto modeled the characters’ styles after ’70s action icons such as Japanese actor Yūsaku Matsuda and Pam Grier.

With its bounty hunters dubbed “cowboys,” the show presented a modern-day example of the “space western,” a sci-fi subgenre combining the aesthetics and tropes of spaceship adventures and Wild West frontiers. But it also drew heavy inspiration from popular anime franchise Lupin III, which features a similar ensemble of rogues and misfits wreaking havoc in a seedy underworld setting. Essentially, by combining one subgenre with many other genres, putting a self-referential spin on it, and adding in deep character building and storytelling, Bebop became something new.

Cowboy Bebop seemed unlikely to find an audience at first. Again, most televised anime of the late ’90s, in both Japan and the US, was designed for children to consume. Originally, a highly censored and incoherent version of the series aired on anime network TV Tokyo in 1998, with only 12 of 26 episodes making it to broadcast. A few months later, a late-night cable channel finally began airing the series in full, where it caught the attention of not only adult Japanese fans but also US anime distributors. With its target audience acquired, Cowboy Bebop became primed to reach US anime fans at a crucial moment for the medium.

Bebop helped usher in a new era of animation

In the early 2000s, anime exploded in popularity, all thanks to the internet. For the first time in history, instead of having to wait months and years for Japanese manga and anime to be licensed and sold overseas, where it was often heavily edited and badly dubbed, international fans independently distributed, translated, and subbed works on their own. However, as controversial as anime bootlegging was and still is (as pirated content is never uncomplicated for the creators), the rise of fansubbing was a watershed moment for the spread of Japanese pop culture around the globe, and it played a major role in getting US distributors to take anime seriously. Among them was Cartoon Network, which had begun championing anime in the US in the late ’90s with its daily Toonami programming block. At the turn of the new century, however, the network wanted to launch something new.

September 2001 may not have been the best month in history to launch a daring new animated-content vertical aimed entirely at adults, but that’s just what Cartoon Network did with its iconic “Adult Swim” block of programming. Alongside edgy comedies such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Cowboy Bebop was the first Japanese series chosen for the lineup. An edited, TV-14 version of the series premiered on September 2, 2001 — and then immediately had to be censored following the 9/11 attacks, thanks to episodes that included scenes of hijacking, civilian deaths, and even a skyscraper collapsing due to a bomb.

Still, Cartoon Network had chosen Bebop to appeal to adult fans of animation and anime, and the gambit worked. Not only did Adult Swim become a cultural cornerstone — hardly a guarantee for a programming block aimed at a historically mocked demographic — but Cowboy Bebop became one of its signature shows. It eventually aired in full and, despite being only one season, has run near-continuously since 2001. The original series is currently available for streaming on the Adult Swim website.

Both Adult Swim and Cowboy Bebop played huge roles in mainstreaming anime in the US. Cowboy Bebop’s many pop and genre references cemented it within geek culture, and as anime conventions really began to take off in the early 2000s, the show was dominant, with characters from Bebop becoming cosplay mainstays. In 2002, when Joss Whedon’s Firefly — a live-action series about spaceship-flying bounty hunters called cowboys — began airing on Sci-Fi, it drew immediate comparisons to Bebop and helped spread the earlier show’s influence even further.

The Firefly versus Bebop debate — were the two shows actually in conversation, or were the similarities just a coincidence? — inadvertently placed Bebop within a larger ongoing debate about the tendency of US media to crib from anime and other East Asian media. At best, this cultural osmosis has led to a few wins — consider Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, based on the superb Chinese action trilogy Infernal Affairs, or Quentin Tarantino’s pattern of pastiche/homage to Asian cinema and anime. But more frequently, it seems to result in live-action adaptations of Asian stories that appear to have little respect for the original and often seem unrecognizable to fans.

Enter Netflix — which has a lot riding on changing the state of live-action anime adaptations.

Netflix’s live-action anime adaptations don’t have the best track record. Bebop might help change that — or double down on earlier mistakes.

Since the series was announced, the producers of Netflix’s live-action Bebop have been promising fans that it would be a faithful and loving homage to the original. It’s likely, however, that such vows wouldn’t convince long-time anime lovers; they’ve heard that before, only to be met with notoriously awful adaptations in the past. There was the unspeakably bad Dragonball: Evolution (2009), or the 2017 film Ghost in the Shell, which has heavily criticized for changing the race of its Japanese main character in order to cast Scarlett Johansson. Even relatively faithful adaptations, like the 2018 Bleach reboot, have been mostly forgettable and bland.

And then there are the adaptations Netflix has overseen, which have met with mixed success. At the extreme “no” end of the scale, we have Netflix’s Death Note (2017), another controversial flop. The film both whitewashed one main character and wasted LaKeith Stanfield as the other, all while jettisoning the plot of the source material and perhaps torpedoing the career of respected director Adam Wingard.

Netflix’s failure with Death Note was so harped-on among fans that it overshadows some of the more recent successful live-action anime adaptation efforts. Among them are two 2021 films that bookend a spectacular adaptation of the landmark samurai anime Rurouni Kenshin, and which Netflix distributed earlier this year to raves from critics and fans. Much like Cowboy Bebop, Kenshin, which debuted in 1996, was a major influence over the genre, and the adaptations retain the look of the original historical fantasy while pairing it with slick, mesmerizing fight sequences: think John Wick meeting Shogun-era Japan.

There’s a bit of a similar sensibility in the new Bebop, which faithfully follows the plot of the original while deepening its world-building and characterizations and delivering fun, raucous action sequences. Fans have been simultaneously worried the live-action version would be too much like the original Bebop — based on the title credits, which are almost identical to the original — and not enough like the original Bebop. Daniella Pineda, who stars as amnesiac bounty hunter Faye Valentine, garnered praise and criticism after dismissing fans who were unhappy her costume wasn’t as sexy as that of the original (quelle surprise). One fan described the trailer for the original as “a fan film by somebody who watched a best of moments clip on YouTube and then had somebody explain the rest of the plot to them.”

That’s a heady brew of expectations to work with. The new series clearly demonstrates that Netflix learned several major lessons from its Death Note failure, beginning with not whitewashing the main character and not straying too far from the vision of the original series. The acting is top-notch and the set design and visual palate of the new series are just as sumptuous as the original series, with a colorful aesthetic and, yes, plenty of jazz. There are countless details recreated from the original anime, as well as several shot-for-shot scenes.

Still, critics have largely panned the new series, arguing that what changes it did make were much for the worse, drastically weakening the show’s sophisticated center by losing itself in its self-aware glitz — simultaneously a paint-by-numbers copy of the original and not faithful enough.

Getting this formula right is a huge deal for Netflix — not just because of its investment in Cowboy Bebop but because of what comes next: One Piece. The franchise includes perhaps the bestselling manga ever, with sales in league with much older comic book greats like Batman. Its long-running anime spinoff is wildly popular and may finally be winding down after nearly two decades on the air in Japan. Meanwhile, Netflix has been increasingly investing in its Asian marketing, targeting viewers in regions like Japan, India, and South Korea as its Asian audience balloons.

All of this makes Netflix’s upcoming live-action One Piece adaptation one of its most potentially lucrative series yet — if it can convince anime fans that it won’t do a hack job. In this light, the relative success or failure of Bebop is crucial. It’s probably no coincidence that the platform recently announced the casting for One Piece, right as buzz for Bebop is peaking.

What’s less certain is whether audiences will flock to the new Bebop or whether the mix of fan adaptations for the show will prove too much to overcome. But whatever happens, the fact that Netflix is rolling out the red carpet for Spike Spiegel and his friends proves that the original series is alive and well. See you, space cowboy.

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