Netflix's Cowboy Bebop

Possibly the most notable anime reboot of all time, I of course couldn’t help myself, and binged it yesterday, finishing the same day it came out. In short: it doesn’t do justice to the original, or come even close to doing so, but it’s also not a complete trainwreck. It’s more a 5 out of 10 rather than a 2, with the latter being a real possibility given Netflix’s spotty track record.

The original anime was a complex, nuanced layer cake of themes and ideas:

  • Sci-fi backdrop. One of the most creative of all time in which humanity has largely left Earth after a major disaster, but fully colonized the rest of the solar system. Lots of cool space ships and novel locales, all with a distinctive retro feel.

  • Comedy – it’s a serious show, but Cowboy Bebop is funny. There’s frequent comedy in every episode ranging from typical anime gags, all the way to high-brow cerebral humor around the crazy situations the characters manage to create for themselves.

  • Themes of the frontier – most obviously in references to cowboys and bounty hunters, but also general lawlessness and a feeling of isolation.

  • Inability to escape the past – Spike’s backstory may be the most consequential of the bunch, but every character has a tragic background that eventually catches up with them.

  • An inescapable feeling of existential malaise. No other show in history has such a vast contrast between the bright colors and slapstick comedy on the surface and the deep sadness that pervades everything below.

The Netflix version by way of comparison got the sci-fi part, some of the comedy, and left out of the rest. The show becomes a long series of attempts at comedy gags (most of which fall flat) in which the main characters are bounty hunters, and which just happens to be in space.

The dynamic between Spike and Jet becomes that of a squabbling married couple instead of Jet’s normal occasionally-frustrated-but-tolerant treatment of Spike. With the exception of Ein, Faye had the best interpretation (~all the jokes that landed were from her), but they missed a full half of her personality – along with being a rogue and a bit of a clown, she also has a nihilistic streak that’s been removed with surgical care for the western crowd.

Some direction decisions are just beyond me. Vicious’ character got the most brutal (vicious?) treatment – going from a cold, ruthless, deeply competent assassin, to a bumbling idiot who relies heavily on Julia (??) for any of the rare, good decisions that he ever makes. Very 2021.

Spike’s reimagined name from his syndicate days? “Fearless.” That one probably should have stayed where it belonged back in draft no. 1.

Still, space is cool, and it’s neat seeing things like the interiors of the Bebop brought to life in live action, or the Swordfish II rendered in full HD glory. And although it doesn’t live up to the original, none of it’s so bad as to make it hard to watch, so all in all not a bad show to throw on in the background.

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