‘Cowboy Bebop’ review: jazzed-up anime adaptation misses a beat

The classic Japanese series gets a live-action update it definitely didn't need

It’s been a rough 12 months for live-action imaginings of beloved hand-drawn properties. Netflix’s adaptation of Sweet Tooth took Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel and stretched it into an adaptation that said little and went nowhere. Worse still was the weary realisation of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s seminal 2002 end-of-days drama, Y: The Last Man – which was cancelled barely a month after its debut. The message to comic book fans? Be careful what you wish for.

Somewhere in a lavishly decorated flat in Northampton, one suspects Alan Moore and his snake god Glycon might be nodding sagely. Moore, who so disliked Hollywood adaptations of his comics he would refuse to have his name appear anywhere near the big screen productions that were birthed from his brain, doesn’t dislike films – he just believes that different stories belong to different mediums. Watchmen – structurally and spiritually – was meant to be a comic, he argued. Many who saw the hyper faithful but tediously earnest Zack Snyder porting of 2009 will surely agree.

Humans, as any military historian will tell you, rarely learn, and so here comes the Netflix live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop, arguably the most beloved anime series of all time. The Japanese original tells the tale of a travelling crew of bounty hunters, who zip across outer space onboard the titular Bebop in the year 2071. It is a work as idiosyncratic as they come. Yes, it’s solidly sci-fi, but the western and noir influence is palpable – and there’s also a proper jazzy soundtrack, composed by Yoko Kanno (who returns for the remake). It is, at its essence, a mediation on loneliness and existential ennui – with corgis.

Cowboy Bebop
John Cho faces off with an enemy in ‘Cowboy Bebop’. CREDIT: Netflix


Director André Nemec comes to the project with a limited CV (the New Yorker is best-known as a producer-writer, never actually having directed anything before). His Cowboy Bebop cast, however, is stuffed with experienced talent. There’s charismatic John Cho as main protagonist Spike Spiegel; Mustafa Shakir (Bushmaster in Marvel’s Luke Cage) playing ex-cop Jet Black; and, best of all, we’ve got The Originals‘ Daniella Pineda as con artist Faye Valentine. Few characters are as iconic as Spike, Jet and Faye, which makes it even more important to get the right people in the right roles. Or you risk spoiling every Comic Con cosplay competition for the rest of time.

And yet herein lies a nod to the fundamental problem with this hollow rendering of original director Shinichirō Watanabe’s vast, expansive, genre-bending vision. With classic scenes reshot frame by frame, this fleshy adaption of Cowboy Bebop so often feels like dress-up. The relentless narrative that episodic television requires is another problem. In Netflix’s update, the space and inertia so core to the anime are jettisoned for a pacy tempo that really doesn’t fit with the story. It turns Cowboy Bebop into just another show.

Just another show. Just another sausage stuck in the grooves of the pop culture conveyor belt. Just another sacrifice to the relentless churn of the streaming machine. When will they ever learn?

‘Cowboy Bebop’ streams on Netflix from November 19


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