The live-action anime adaptation is the rightly shunned corner of film adaptations. Books are regularly made into successful and critically-acclaimed films and television series, while even video games get the occasional moderate success like Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog. Anime, though? Forget it.
And that isn’t for lack of trying. Today’s focus, Netflix, has licensed a heap of these dumpster fires, like Mob Psycho 100 and Fullmetal Alchemist. Both of those contained some truly horrible acting, directing, and writing. There are some western-produced anime films with better production values: Death Note and Alita: Battle Angel were both decently fun if you didn’t take them too seriously, but then you have atrocious examples like Dragon Ball: Evolution.
But personally, I’m an optimist. I know how terrible comic book movies were in the days before studios let passionate creators take the helm and make the films they wanted. It’s just a matter of when anime is going to receive its Spider-Man, not if.
And I don’t know if Netflix’s latest venture, a live-action Cowboy Bebop, is going to be that breakthrough, but I have a few ideas on what can be done to make it into one.
Of all the anime they could have chosen, Cowboy Bebop is probably one of the easiest to make the jump. Anime usually takes full advantage of outlandish concepts and characters, or stunning visuals that can’t be translated into the real world even with CGI. I can’t imagine faithfully portraying many of the psychic battles of Mob Psycho 100 or JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure with real people, and yet they’ve already tried for both of them.
Cowboy Bebop, though, is a realistic, grounded science-fiction series with an emphasis on simple and under-stated characters, with the exception of Ed. It introduces some strange ideas, but the story follows plain adults working through the powers presented to them. No psychic powers needed.
And from what we’ve seen, Netflix is fully aware of this. The costume and makeup is faithful to the anime, but it isn’t quite as over-the-top. The characters we have seen, Spike, Jet, and Faye, all look relatively normal. They still look like they come from a futuristic cyberpunk setting, but I don’t look at them and see cosplayers.
The first thing Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop has to do in order to succeed is capture the spirit of the original anime. That sounds a lot harder than it is, but I’ve already established that Cowboy Bebop is playing the live-action anime game on easy mode. Despite all their differences, the main cast are simply people carrying heavy burdens, and they all behave in different ways in order to cope with their problems.
As long as the Netflix series stays steady in portraying real people dealing with deeply personal struggles in a futuristic setting, it’s actually kind of hard to not succeed. John Cho has the chops to convincingly portray Spike, although I’m not familiar enough with the rest of the cast to pass judgement. I do know that the star of the show is best boy Ein.
Considering the Netflix series’ music is being composed by the original anime’s Yoko Kanno, and director Shinichiro Watanabe was consulted in its production. Everyone shifted nervously when the live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender lost the support of the original creators, so some of the old crew working with the new is reassuring.
It’s just that Cowboy Bebop has a distinct atmosphere that is absolutely vital to its success. Music is apart of that, but it isn’t everything. I’ll give Netflix credit; the set design and costumes look the part, but atmosphere is a tricky thing to nail down, and for Cowboy Bebop, it’s everything.
The other thing I’m worried about is that the series is only slated for ten hour-long episodes, compared to the original’s 26 half-hour episodes. It gives the impression they’ll ditch many of the one-off episodes in favor of the main story. The problem is that the main reason you watch Cowboy Bebop is for the one-off episodes.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the main story in its own right, but Cowboy Bebop is at its best in singular, self-contained episodes. I don’t know if the new series is willing to do something ultimately inconsequential like Mushroom Samba, and that’s one of the best episodes, even if it has no bearing on the rest of the story.
I’m a little worried we haven’t seen Ed thus far, and it leads me to believe that they’ll have a reduced role. Some of the released shots appear to be taken from actual scenes where Ed obviously wasn’t present, but there’s an entire ensemble shot where Ed is conspicuously absent.
It’s been confirmed that Ed will be present in the show, but if they’ve removed many of the sillier, low-stake episodes, will there be any room for them? If this iteration of Cowboy Bebop is to succeed, it has to aim for a balance between the serious overarching story and the smaller moments that made it into an icon in anime.
I genuinely hope that Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is going to be good. I believe that we will get a good anime adaptation eventually, it’s just a matter of who is going to do it first. Cowboy Bebop has the right source material and shows enough promise that it’s just possible they’ll claim that coveted spot.
If it can’t, well, it’ll be just another piece of trash in the great junkyard of anime adaptations. We’ll just have to wait for the western My Hero Academia movie, because apparently that’s a thing they’re making. Maybe just let James Cameron make more anime movies, he seemed pretty psyched about Alita.
If there’s any live-action adaptations you’re willing to go to bat for, let me know down in the comments below or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where I’ll be wondering how the live-action Tokyo Ghoul is actually the best adaptation of the manga we have. Until next time, thanks for reading.