Chiaki, Mercedez, and Kate Sánchez perform a critical autopsy on Netflix’s unfortunate effort to resurrect a classic.
Date Recorded: December 11th, 2021
Hosts: Chiaki and Mercedez
Guests: Kate Sánchez
0:01:09 In case you haven’t heard of Cowboy Bebop
0:01:52 The live action
0:02:53 One-word reactions
0:03:52 Personal histories with Bebop
0:08:37 Fan appeal vs new audience
0:11:44 Netflix Bebop vs Firefly vs other live actions
0:17:32 The cancellation and Tiger King
0:21:25 Faye’s characterization
0:26:55 Sanitized politics
0:28:01 A whitewashed black Jet Black
0:35:58 Faye’s race, sexuality, and 2nd wave feminism
0:42:33 Female body types in media
0:46:35 Moshi Moshi: Orientalism in cyberpunk
0:51:31 Faux diversity
0:55:22 Discount Witcher Vicious
0:58:27 Final thoughts
CHIAKI: How much do you think it would cost AniFem to commission Kanno Yoko to make a podcast intro for us?
MERCEDEZ: I think, a lot of money. [Chuckles] You know what? I’m gonna guess like a million! That feels big. Yeah, that’s our goal. Support us on Patreon.
CHIAKI: Hi, you’re listening to Chatty AF, the Anime Feminist podcast. I’m Chiaki, one of the editors for AniFem. You can find me at @Chiaki747 or @AnimatedEmpress on Twitter. One’s private; one’s public. I think I’m funny on both. With me today are AniFem staffer Mercedez Clewis and ButWhyTho’s Kate Sánchez. How are you two doing?
KATE: I’m very excited to talk Bebop! [Chuckles]
MERCEDEZ: I am also similarly really excited about this. [uncertainly] I think? [confidently] I think, yes!
CHIAKI: Well, just to quickly get into what this show is about, Cowboy Bebop is a science fiction space western based on the 1998 anime series Cowboy Bebop of the same name, directed by Watanabe Shinichiro. And I would like to take a moment to also acknowledge that just yesterday [from] when we are recording this, Nobumoto Keiko, the screenwriter for this series and who also wrote Wolf’s Rain, Tokyo Godfathers, and some of Macross Plus, just passed away. So, coming off from a little sad news.
But we’re not here to talk about the anime. We’re here to talk about the live-action show, which is by Christopher Yost, the writer for The Mandalorian, Thor: Ragnarok, and The Dark World, as well as other…
KATE: One of those shines through. [Chuckles]
MERCEDEZ: I was gonna say, don’t people like the Manda—
KATE: But they don’t like Thor: The Dark World!
MERCEDEZ: Oh no. Oh no! [Chuckles]
MERCEDEZ: Oh no.
CHIAKI: And it stars a pretty good cast of people, actually. I mean, I really like John Cho. I’ve known him since Better Luck Tomorrow and also Harold & Kumar as well as the Star Trek reboot. Mustafa Shakir, who was Bushmaster from the Luke Cage show. And Daniella… [uncertainly] Piñeda? I’m guessing it’s…
KATE: Pineda? Yeah.
CHIAKI: Yeah. Of The Originals and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. It’s ten episodes.
KATE: [crosstalk] I love her.
CHIAKI: Yeah. It’s ten episodes, all on Netflix. And what are people’s thoughts on it? Just one-word thoughts real quick.
KATE: [nonchalantly] It’s fine!
KATE: With that intonation. [nonchalantly] It’s fine!
MERCEDEZ: It sure likes Black people, huh?
MERCEDEZ: That’s really all I can say. Just like, mm! Mm.
CHIAKI: You know, I was watching it and my impression was, “It sure is a cyberpunk.”
MERCEDEZ: Yeah. This feels like what Cyberpunk 2077 actually is.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, I’m coming in swinging.
KATE: I don’t know how you can take a diverse cast and somehow make it less diverse than the anime.
KATE: I don’t get it. I don’t.
CHIAKI: [Sighs] Well, before we get too far into the weeds here, let’s go with a little bit of our personal histories. Well, I watched Cowboy Bebop back when it first premiered back in, what, ‘98, ’99, Cartoon Network. I watched it dubbed rather than subbed because that was the way to watch anime back in the days. Really liked the music—
KATE: Still the way to watch anime for some people.
KATE: For me, a lot of the times because I don’t have time.
MERCEDEZ: Same. Same.
CHIAKI: Yeah, that’s fair. Also, I’m just Japanese, so I just usually… without subs, even. But yeah, this show was pretty fundamental for me because it’s what really got me into wanting to play jazz in school and carried me through high school just playing the sax.
MERCEDEZ: Chiaki, you didn’t tell me you were that cool.
CHIAKI: No, I mean, I was a band nerd.
KATE: That’s so cool, actually.
CHIAKI: I was a band nerd. That’s the least cool thing you can be in a school.
KATE: But sax, though! Sax is the coolest.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, I played bass clarinet. What kind of pull do you think I had?
MERCEDEZ: Like, bass clarinet? Sax is cool.
CHIAKI: Okay, okay. So how about y’all?
MERCEDEZ: I’ve never seen this series. Interestingly—let’s go with that word—this was interestingly my first way of engaging with Cowboy Bebop.
KATE: I love that, actually. That’s… I guess I’ll talk about that later, but I honestly do like this being people’s first intro because I think it has gotten people interested in going back to the original. For me, much like Chiaki, I watched this when it was on Adult Swim. It was my first introduction into adult anime—quote-unquote “adult” anime, like more mature.
It’s something that is so influential in my life because it’s one of the anime that I have been able to really bridge gaps with people who don’t like anime—or who don’t know that they like anime yet, is probably the better way to say that—because it is very much rooted in American westerns and American science fiction and American music. And so, it’s been a way for me to communicate with people, and it’s the gateway I often lead people to because it’s very easy; easy in a way that there’s a lot of ways to connect to it.
But for my own personal thing, I rewatch Cowboy Bebop probably once a year—the original anime. And I watch it in dub only because it’s one of those where… I’m a person [who], if it’s the first thing I hear, I have to stick with it. But I have had a growing relationship with the series in that when I first watched it I was like, “Okay, cool. Space western. Dope.” Then I saw Serenity and was like, “Yo, Serenity is just reskinned Cowboy Bebop. What are y’all doing?” And then I went back and I watched it, and so it’s evolved with me.
And now, where I am in my life, for me Cowboy Bebop has become a really beautiful story in understanding your trauma, understanding what confronting that looks like and also understanding what being consumed by it looks like. And I wrote a piece for ButWhyTho about this where I’ve been able to understand the last credit line, which is “You’re going to carry that weight” on that title card. And yes, anime dudes on the internet, I know it’s a reference to the Beatles. But I also know that it’s also the encapsulation of the whole show.
I have rambled on for a long time. But all that is to say Cowboy Bebop means something very important to me. I also love live-action anime a lot. I love live-action adaptations. I watch a lot of them, especially because I had a podcast just based on that. And when I do film festivals, a lot of the time I’m seeking out the manga and anime live-actions.
And this one for me felt like it was the one that could be done right because I feel like Watanabe’s work just really lends to it, because there’s not a lot of gap-bridging. It seems like the closest, at least for Carole and Tuesday and Cowboy Bebop, so I was actually really excited for the live-action. Boy, was I wrong.
CHIAKI: Well, maybe I’ll keep you on here for a quick couple more seconds. How hard do you think Netflix was trying to appeal to the Bebop fanbase in making this?
KATE: You know, I’ve asked myself that a lot, because there are some really beautiful moments, like the ending of episode 1. It’s gorgeous. It is nearly shot-for-shot in the best way. And there are moments where you can tell that, “Oh, somebody who is new to this may not understand this but I get it” and I get to be the Leonardo DiCaprio GIF.
But then, it feels almost surface level. That is where I think it stopped. I think they were like, “We’re gonna throw in as much as we can that will visually get fans involved,” while missing that a lot of Bebop fans who rewatch the series all the time, or who are just in love with it, are connected to it not necessarily just because of visuals.
So I think they tried, but I think they did not understand that attachment to any anime or any piece of media isn’t just surface level. So I think that’s where they stopped. Does that make sense?
CHIAKI: Yeah, I can kind of understand that, because I felt the first three episodes of the live-action show was really kind of phoning it in. It’s like, “Hey, this is the Bebop live-action. You should check it out because… it’s the Bebop live-action!”
KATE: Yes! [Chuckles]
CHIAKI: And I felt like after that, once Faye comes into the scene and they start getting into more of the overarching story of the series, as it—
MERCEDEZ: It picks up. It picks up.
CHIAKI: Yeah, I feel like it picks up better.
KATE: It picks up better, but then also, they did my girl Faye not well, in my opinion.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah. And I’ll say, being the outsider, episode 1 was interesting to me because you get Spike, you get Jet, you get—and I’m so sorry I’m calling Vicious this—Discount Geralt of Rivia gone wild.
KATE: It hurts me! It hurts me but you’re not wrong, Mercedez.
MERCEDEZ: I’m not wrong, though.
KATE: [crosstalk] And that’s why it hurts.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, you get these characters, and I think if you were someone coming into this… because I should say I didn’t— Here’s the thing I know about Cowboy Bebop: “So long, space cowboy”? What is the expression? “See you, space cowboy”? I know jazz, and that’s really it. Oh, Faye Valentine.
But coming in, that first episode did a lot of really good table-setting. But also, I agree: episode 4, where you get a little bit more of the world, I found it intensely interesting that we find out that dogs are a luxury item. That was a weird little neat tidbit that was kind of missing from the front, where you’re just like, “Oh, yeah, now it picks up.”
But there’s a lot that I wish they would have done up front to get me, someone who’s not invested, invested, because it did feel like it was like for the fans and not for people just casually flipping through Netflix or, you know, people like me who had a very intense Firefly phase in college.
KATE: [Laughs] Hey, I did too until I watched Cowboy Bebop after it. But then Serenity came out, and I was like, “Yo, I’m still here. I’m still here.” [Chuckles]
MERCEDEZ: I mean, “take my heart, take my land.”
MERCEDEZ: And ironically, though, both series kind of suffer with some very similar problems.
KATE: And I think that that’s probably where we find ourselves in this weird space because for me, to be honest, when this was announced—and I kind of already said—there is a lot in Watanabe’s work that actually really translates well and could be adapted by a U.S. company and by a U.S. producer, but they have to understand what makes it work.
So I actually think Firefly is the first Cowboy Bebop live-action, when you actually take it at its face. But that worked for fans because it understood the intricacies of not just showing something on the surface, but showing how characters relate to each other, showing how characters relate to a system that they’re stuck in, and showing why the guys in the gray part of the world, the… I don’t want to say antiheroes, but that middle section: they’re not good; they’re not bad—why they are who they are.
And I think that that, for me, is what the Netflix live-action kind of lacks, because a lot of it is just “We’re gonna vibe.” We’re vibing with Cowboy Bebop. That’s what it looks like. I feel like a lot of it was produced to just be “Just vibes, yo,” and “Take this screenshot. Take this piece.” And I think that what is frustrating about it for me is that the caliber of the actors, the visual looks of the actors… They have those pieces, and actually their chemistry works very well together, but I think that there were big misses on actually getting at what fans want, what makes it special.
What makes Bebop special isn’t just the jazz; it’s how the jazz and the music works to push the narrative. What makes Bebop special isn’t just the really cool red ship; it’s how that ship is implemented in scenes, who is flying it. And I feel like in the writing room, there was a lot of “This is a really cool-looking anime that people like. Let’s make this a real cool-looking show.”
MERCEDEZ: Yeah. And it’s interesting because Netflix does have a number of live-action adaptations that are good. My personal trash is the Kakegurui live-action, which is so good. It knows the assignment. Kakegurui saw, it came, and it did what it needed to do, and then it was like, “You know what would be good, is if we got a bunch of live-action actors to do this.” And it’s great. It’s excellent. It’s campy at some points. It’s really dramatic. It’s just at the point of being too much.
KATE: And I would even say… and probably people might not like this, but I actually think the Bleach live-action is really good. And I know that that wasn’t necessarily a Netflix production; that was more of a Netflix acquiring rights. But when we look at live-actions that have had American studio involvement (WB has actually produced quite a number of them), they can work.
And I think the Bleach live-action is a really good example. You’re doing something that is bringing in some panels that are one-for-one but also understands the spirit of what you’re doing. So, the Hollows may not look exact to what the Hollows are in the manga or the anime, but they still have that grandstanding nature. Ichigo and Rukia may not look exactly like they are in the anime, but their dynamic and their montage moments are… they hit that chemistry.
And so I think when you’re adapting something and you’re like, “Okay, I know why people like this” or “I understand the heart of what this is doing,” that goes a lot further than “I put somebody in the exact same costume.” And I think that’s also why Kakegurui works. The live-action Kakegurui, even the films, they’re so good!
MERCEDEZ: [crosstalk] It’s so good. It’s so good. It’s so good. It’s so good. I mean, Kakegurui… and this is not Kakegurui podcast, so I will hold myself back. Kakegurui is good because it understands over-the-top, and so does the live-action. The live-action understands how to be really dramatic in a very playful but still really enjoyable way. Like my girl shouting “Get your gambling freak on!” That feels good. And here, they look like the characters; they look like really high-budget cosplayers, which is great. But then the script just doesn’t reflect what I would consider fun.
And I do find it ironic comparing it against Firefly, which I know a lot of people feel very divisive about. I find it ironic comparing it with that because these are both two shows that got canceled after their first season. And while Netflix chose to air Bebop in the right order and Fox did not air Firefly in the right order, I find it interesting that two shows that have a very fraught relationship with cyberpunk and Asian—specifically far-East Asian—cultures both kind of got canceled, but for two very different reasons. This just feels like Netflix just really didn’t… I think I can just end the sentence there, huh. Just really didn’t.
KATE: I also think, too, [about] the cancellation piece, I was always under the assumption that it was going to be a miniseries. The early press releases that I got from Netflix said “miniseries.”
MERCEDEZ: Okay, that’s interesting.
CHIAKI: For me, I was wondering how that cancellation came about. I’m guessing it was just the amount of negative press the show was getting was just turning this show into anathema for Netflix to want to be associated with it. It was maybe a pump-and-dump kind of thing.
MERCEDEZ: And it’s just so interesting when you think of… Netflix grosses tens of billions, and this show was number one, but that’s just not enough. It just still didn’t save it.
KATE: Yeah, because I think it’s one of those things—and I wouldn’t be surprised if Netflix has people that do that, like… You have to factor in hate-watching. You have to factor that in. And so, when you’re judging a show’s longevity, how much can you get somebody back to do the hate-watching? And also they’re out of material! They’re out! They’re out of material.
MERCEDEZ: And that’s what’s interesting though, because I think of Tiger King. This is such a weird show to bring in.
KATE: Kinda unhinged to another level.
MERCEDEZ: Right. And I should say, I am in the city where Tiger King’s Tiger King Joe Exotic is in jail at. [Chuckles]
KATE: Oh, God!
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, he’s in Dallas. And so, it’s interesting because people hate-watched that. And that has all these spinoff interviews and stuff and documentaries, and these poor people keep getting retraumatized. But it’s got a second season. It’s got a whole documentary.
KATE: I will say, though, how much of that was “I’m going to start by hate-watching this, and then I’m going to like it at the end”? Because I watched it. I was like… I don’t know if you can cuss on here, sorry. I was like, “I have to watch this thing. Everybody’s watching it.” First episode, I was like, “This is dumb. I can’t do this. Why am I watching this?” And then by the last episode I was like, “Oh, God. I’m in it. I’m here now. I guess I am eating up this narrative.”
And I watched season 2. Season 2 was just awful. That should never have been made, but I watched all of it because I was like, “Okay, well, I bought in on season 1, so I’ll watch season 2.” And I wonder if… It didn’t sound like anybody bought into it.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah. Yeah.
CHIAKI: I mean, it does feel like, as far as Cowboy Bebop goes, the ending to the show was setting it up for, like, “Hey, there’s going to be more,” because the ending is more closer to episode 5 rather than 26, where 26 is definitive, like “Everyone is dead; everything is kind of wrapped up” kind of ending, while episode 5 was still like, “Spike almost bit the dust, but he made it through.”
So I was guessing more from what I was also looking… the writers wanted to, while still being Cowboy Bebop, make their own show that’s not Cowboy Bebop, and I assume that season 2 would take it to a place where it’s something totally different—you know, come up with something a little bit more original as far as the narrative goes. And I was kind of interested in seeing more about it. But at the same time, as far as where the show left off with all the characters and how they’re interacting—aside from, like, Julia—I was just kind of like, I’m not really too invested at this point.
MERCEDEZ: I was gonna say, can I get a spinoff about #Girlboss Julia?
CHIAKI: [Chuckles] Yes.
MERCEDEZ: Julia said—what is the phrase?—like “Gatekeep, girlboss, something”? And I’m going off of only the context of Netflix’s adaptation. That’s all I know about her: she rises up. Feels a little reductive, though.
KATE: I think that this is one of the things that bothers me—and even about the potential for a second season with how it ends. I hated the ending, the last episode for Cowboy Bebop, because it felt like it robbed me of the emotional impact of the actual series.
Because the important thing of assuming that Spike is dead is because it’s supposed to teach you about barreling towards your own destruction and not turning away from it. Whereas every other character has confronted their trauma, confronted their pain, processed that, and been like, “Okay, I’m going to carry this weight now and move on,” Spike carries the weight in the wrong way. Spike just cannot stop obsessing over this. Spike cannot stop being driven by his trauma, and it’s his end. He’s consumed by it.
And for me, especially with Julia and Vicious, that’s what makes that a powerful storyline. That’s what makes Bebop something larger than just a space western. And so, the way that everything happens in the show, it feels like it gutted out that emotional core. And it’s in the ending of the season.
And for me, the big thing was when Faye specifically says, “I’m not going to carry that weight.” Why would you do that? Because it’s not about— I saw somebody tweet about, like “Oh, I loved it because it meant that Faye is bigger than what…” I was like, no! In the show… And this is why I hate when people who don’t understand Faye as a character just comment on her, say that she’s only there to be sexualized.
Faye for me was actually a really powerful character in that I learned that it was okay to utilize a sexuality that people weaponize against you. And that was something that was extremely powerful. So when they showed her costuming, it actually bothered me because I was like, okay, you covered her up quite a bit. And I didn’t like that at first.
And then when I watched it, it was very toned down. She didn’t seem as much as a femme fatale. She didn’t seem as much as she understood other people’s weaknesses to use it against them. And when she said that line, I was like, no! Faye’s entire character arc is about learning how to live with the fact that she has lost everything. It’s about learning how to live with the fact that she will never get back to where she was. She’s a person out of time.
MERCEDEZ: Right. So I found this out only after—and I think it was seeing you talk about it, Kate, and just other people online—that I guess Faye had been cryogenically asleep, right?
MERCEDEZ: And she wakes up decades later and ends up in huge, massive medical debt, to which I was like, “Oh no, I see America’s still at it.” And in the live-action, she’s just full of little quips and she cusses, and she’s bisexual at the very least. Which is fine. Which is fine. She’s also never seen a dog. But it felt, even for me, really reductive because I was like, her big trait is she swears and that makes her an edgy woman. And even I can tell that maybe this was not how she was in the source. And it feels… She was my least favorite character.
KATE: Essentially Netflix did exactly what I was scared that they were going to do, which was essentially say, “To be progressive, we must remove sex from this character.” And that was something that really bothered me because I think when we look at… And I think it happens a lot with anime, too, where people are like, “Oh, this character has a revealing outfit or big breasts,” and that automatically makes them something that isn’t okay. And sometimes that’s the case. Like, the female ninja in Naruto should not all look that way!
KATE: So, I get it. But also there are characters who are drawn and written with intention. Faye’s arc was written by a woman in the original series, and that was important. Faye was not somebody who was made for male consumption. Faye existed as somebody who critiqued that: who was literally cryogenically frozen, awakened in severe medical debt, and taken full advantage of by a man who she trusted.
And it isn’t about her saying, “Well, I’m not going to carry this weight they’re putting on me.” It’s about: “No, I’m actually going to have to process everything that has happened to me and learn how to keep moving and move on from it, instead of being completely consumed by it.”
And yeah, Faye just means a lot to me, deeply. She’s how I learned that sex wasn’t bad and being sexy wasn’t bad and you could still be strong and be those things. That’s what she was for me. And when I see her in this, it’s kind of like, “Well, she gotta girlboss it up. We’re gonna move by these perspectives.” And I’m like, “That’s not as feminist as you think it is, Netflix.”
CHIAKI: I was also wondering, as far as how her background was changed (and also Jet, too), but I feel like the show really whitewashes and sanitizes the backgrounds considerably—
KATE: You’re right.
CHIAKI: —from being about medical debt to just “Oh, it’s just identity theft” in the live-action. It’s like it has no social commentary.
KATE: Yeah! It removes the politicalness of Cowboy Bebop from it.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, because when I tell y’all that I found out how political this was, I was blown away because I was like, “That’s not the show I watched.”
KATE: Yo! Jet—
MERCEDEZ: That’s not the show I watched! [Chuckles]
KATE: I am still so mad about Jet because Jet’s entire reason for leaving the police force is because he realizes that bounty hunters are more moral than the cops.
MERCEDEZ: Oh, that’s— Ooh, that’s…
KATE: That’s why he leaves, because it’s not just about his partner being crooked; it’s about the entire institution being bad. That’s why he leaves! Here, it’s like, “Oh, no, one bad egg.”
CHIAKI: One bad egg, and also he’s entirely driven by the fact that he’s a dad.
MERCEDEZ: And I have to say, I guess Jet strikes me particularly interesting because I did not realize he was not Black in the anime, and I find it a really interesting decision that Netflix has given him this plotline that’s greatly whitewashed but actually does a lot of harm because he’s now a Black man. Like the whole dirty cop… that whole… ooh, I was just like, “Oof! Oh, God.”
And I just have to ask. I have to ask both of you. The woman… I don’t know her name, and I think it’s in episode 3 that they meet…
CHIAKI: She appears twice.
MERCEDEZ: Is she in the original? This horny, thirsty white woman who made me—
MERCEDEZ: Oh, God! That also, I was like “Surely this was not in the original. Surely Netflix added this in for fun,” because when she said, “You are Black and you are male,” I was like…
KATE: It was bad. It was bad.
MERCEDEZ: I was like, I gotta finish this for the podcast!
KATE: So, I will say it is one of those things… Jet’s voice actor is Black.
MERCEDEZ: Oh, that’s interesting!
KATE: I forgot his name. He’s iconic! Outlaw Star! Cowboy Bebop! I literally sat at a panel with him at my first anime convention!
MERCEDEZ: Are we talking about Beau Billingslea?
KATE: Yes! Yes. Beau Billingslea.
CHIAKI: There we go.
KATE: I believe so. I believe that’s correct.
MERCEDEZ: [shocked] Wait, the Fourth Hokage?
KATE: You’re gonna hear some clicking because I’m gonna make sure…
KATE: Yes. Beau Billingslea. That is who it is. That is him. And so, because of how dynamic his performance is and also just because of his love of the character, a lot of fans have… They don’t see Jet as somebody who isn’t Black. So, casting a Black man in the role of Jet for Cowboy Bebop I think was a natural choice.
But I would love to hear what you think about Jet’s storyline in the anime, because I actually think there is a lot of what [they] could have done right if they had kept this storyline with a Black man because of how he does interact with the police force that he came out of. Because a lot of the original storyline is him believing he’s doing good in a system that should be doing good and ultimately understanding that “No matter how much I want this to be a moral compass for the world, it’s never going to be that. It’s never going to take care of me; it’s never going to take care of people. I have to work outside of it.”
And that, for me, holds more power if we had had that in the live-action with a Black man as Jet, officially and not just as a voice.
MERCEDEZ: They really defanged a lot of…
KATE: They did.
MERCEDEZ: That’s really what I’m realizing, is that they’ve really defanged a lot of the story, because the more I hear about it… And I mean, you know, I can’t avoid it; I’m Black. That’s where a lot of my issue, actually, with the live-action was. Episode 3 was just… It was a test in patience, because there was a— I did not know there was Blackface, and I’m still not sure if that’s in the original series. A lot of people replied to me on Twitter when I was like, “Ooh, I didn’t know that this was gonna happen.” And it seems like there’s a lot. I got kind of confused.
But the live-action seems to have taken all of the political aspect out, which just leaves some moments feeling deeply uncomfortable. And it’s really a shame because I really wish Netflix had cared, because there’s space for good live-action. Netflix just did not care. It’s a shame.
KATE: Well, it’s one of those things, too. When you look at people talking about things that don’t age well in Cowboy Bebop, they talk about Faye having big boobs. And I’m like, “That… That’s not what you think it is.”
And I think a lot of it, too, is… So, the issue with Cowboy Bebop in the original is a lot of people see it as stereotyping for Black characters, but from… And obviously, I am not Black; I’m just brown. And I think that there are also issues with Latin representation in the original, but not terrible. But it’s because a lot of the characters, specifically when you think back to “Mushroom Samba” in the original, it is very much living in [the] exploitation era.
Cowboy Bebop exists as a space western that embraces exploitation cinema, so it’s looking at a lot of blaxploitation to draw the root for some of its characters. So that’s what the original does.
MERCEDEZ: Because that’s what episode 3 of the live-action made me think. And I just have to say, when… I think his name was Hakim, which, when they told me that this white boy’s name was Hakim, I was like, “Really, Netflix? I’m paying $14.99 a month?” But they do that.
And when he does the cloaking thing, he looks like a Black man from the 1970s. He’s clearly drawing— I compared him to Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII, but he kind of looks like that Shaft, that blaxploitation-era look. And so, clearly they’re drawing on this iconography. Which, I didn’t have a problem with that. It was just that I was like, “I don’t understand, then, why this character wasn’t just a Black dude.”
KATE: No, 100%. 100%. And I think that that’s where those misses happen: I don’t think that Netflix understood what Watanabe understood when he was creating Bebop, which is… Okay, I’m not gonna lie. I feel like Netflix adapted this like, “Oh, this is a Japanese anime; therefore, we’re going to go through this lens,” instead of understanding this like, “Oh, this is a Japanese anime that actually took a lot of American popular culture and brought them together into something that is special.”
Because that’s what Cowboy Bebop is. The fact that you can’t nail a Cowboy Bebop live-action is actually really distressing for live-actions in the U.S., because it’s really easy. It’s like Alita-level easy because of how much is there to pull from.
MERCEDEZ: It felt like that thing that— And this is me just calling out every single anime fan that’s ever thought this. It’s that thing where a lot of people watch anime and they’re like, “It’s not political.” So there’s this assumption that you can just transfer it between medium, to medium, to medium. And all anime is political. By proxy of Cool Japan, all anime is political because it’s operating under a very specific government program. So it’s all political.
But to say that Cowboy Bebop is not political when Watanabe very clearly… I mean, I don’t know anything about Carole and Tuesday. I do know that one of the leads is clearly brown, and if I’m correct she’s Black.
KATE: Yeah, she’s Black and Carole and Tuesday has a giant immigration subplot.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah. And I mean, if you want to break free of one creator’s works, you can look at Promare. You can look at… Naruto is political. It’s all political, and political’s not bad.
But it feels like what Netflix was trying to do by defanging it is placing it in this timelessness that Firefly has created and I would argue that Quentin Tarantino’s works have also created, of: “It’s not political; it’s just fun.” But it is political.
And I would have loved to know that Faye dealt with medical debt versus… And I will say, I can only speak as a Black person; I can’t speak as someone who’s brown. But I find it interesting Faye being changed from… Singaporean, I believe?
KATE: Yeah, to Latina.
MERCEDEZ: And I found that really interesting, and I don’t think Netflix knew how to handle that because I think then they put some really not-great stereotypes on her. And like I said, I can’t speak to that—
KATE: Part of me actually wonders if they desexualized her because they casted a Latina, because one of our issues is Latinas only ever being showcased as hypersexual beings. But also, that actually would have worked super well with Faye, because she understands the sexualization that people put on her to then use to overcome them! So it was right there. You served it up to yourself and then you just ran away from it!
MERCEDEZ: It’s all right because she cusses a lot, and that’s what the anime viewers want.
KATE: [crosstalk] That’s a real strong woman. That’s representation.
CHIAKI: Knows how to use a knife.
KATE: Oh my god! Okay, real quick, though.
KATE: Yo! I can’t… Sorry. You have probably noticed that code-switching Kate’s podcast voice has now switched just into Kate talking how Kate talks. She doesn’t! She don’t know how to use it! Okay. The fact that we see… I’m probably putting the audio levels through the roof.
But this is what bothers me. This is what bothers me with American and honestly all Western action: they do not trust women to do fight choreography. If you watch any fight that is choreographed for Faye, it is moving at about half speed of John Cho’s, half speed of any other male actor. That is happening. And it is most noticeable in that very first fight that she has with Spike. It is so bad. Go and watch it, and then watch when the men get to fight.
Because for her, it’s either homegirl didn’t learn the choreography and she had to do it slow, or you didn’t trust her to fight on par with the men in the scene and you slowed down the choreography for her. Either way, you were literally taking one of the… She is probably the toughest out of all of them when it comes to hand-to-hand, and you’re taking it away!
MERCEDEZ: It’s all right because she gets to say, “Welcome to the ouch, mothertruckers.” That makes her tough, right?
KATE: Anyway, I’m sorry for losing my absolute right there, but it bothered me.
CHIAKI: [crosstalk] It’s okay.
MERCEDEZ: It’s true. Where’s the lie, though? It’s true. Because they slow her down. It’s like they’re staging the fight but that was the final cut and they just didn’t tell anyone. [Chuckles] It’s not good.
CHIAKI: “All right, we’re ready for the full shot, right?” “Nah, we’re good. We’re good.”
MERCEDEZ: Yeah. Yeah.
CHIAKI: Man, yeah. Faye’s characterization is nutbags.
KATE: It hurts me. And it hurts me deeply. And it hurts me in a way that when we strip characters down that have any sort of sexualization, what we’re doing is we’re not making it progressive or feminist; we’re saying that anybody who also has those traits, who also embraces their sexuality, who also wields their sexuality, they are wrong. They can’t fit into this representation of feminism and strength. And it bothers me deeply.
And what also bothers me is it also buys into this stereotype that everything about anime is something that is sexual, like “Oh, no! I don’t watch hentai!” Which, anime has its issues, but also there’s nothing wrong with watching any sort of erotica or reading any sort of erotica, and there’s nothing wrong, unless a character is written in a misogynistic way, to be less costumed, or to be… You know?
MERCEDEZ: Oh, yeah.
KATE: And it hurts me because when I see… And it’s not even just with Japanese works. The same thing happens when we look at… If you look at any sort of international media, especially versus the U.S., in order to be seen as a strong woman, you have to cuss, you have to be more masculine in some traits, you can’t show too much skin, you can’t really like sex.
MERCEDEZ: You have to forsake sexuality.
KATE: Exactly. And it’s this overcorrection that shows a misunderstanding of what we’re talking about when we’re saying, “Hey, just don’t give me scantily clad women.” We’re not saying, “Don’t give us scantily clad women.” We’re saying, “Hey, make her a full character.”
It’s the same reason why I love seeing shirtless men. You can have a shirtless man; just make sure he’s a full character. And most of the time they are. And when I see these types of adapting or adjustments done, it’s a misunderstanding of the assignment. The assignment isn’t “remove the sex.” The assignment is “balance it with a dynamic character arc.”
MERCEDEZ: It’s a very second-wave feminism, very white-centric feminist thing to think a strong woman cannot also want to fuck. [Chuckles] Sorry. But putting it bluntly, it is, because it’s this notion of “That is something that is constructed that you should do.” But there’s actually a lot of reclamation in sex and sexuality, and actually it’s very puritanical to derive [sic]—and I should say, more than women—to derive marginalized genders of sex and sexuality.
And I mean, we can look in the real world right now and see what’s happening in American politics with abortion to see that deriving people of sexual rights is not good. But it is really a shame in a show that’s oddly horny and very steeped in sex, but the women… they don’t get to have it.
KATE: Well, and I think that that’s what bothered me with Faye even more, is because she’s surrounded by sex and she doesn’t get to wield that power.
And also, Mercedez—and I don’t want to speak for you at all, but I would like your perspective—I know for me, when I see conversations about women who are too hippy, who are drawn with too much hip or are drawn with too much breast, like, “Oh, well, that’s automatically wrong. We need more…” And I’m like, “Wait. Hold up!” [Laughs] because these are the things that my people have! What are you doing by even pushing this Eurocentric view of what beauty is and what strength is?
MERCEDEZ: And that’s exactly what it is, right? Because, being raised with Black femininity, my body looks a certain way. Yes, I have a large bust. I have hips. And within that, I am a fat person. Like myself, but I’m curvy as well.
And there is a history of that still trying to be—and I’m going to use the word—tamed, because it is. I think about Lizzo last year when she was at a basketball game and her skirt had a cutout that revealed thong, and people lost their minds. I mean, you’d have thought that something real bad had happened. And people lost their mind because a woman with bigger body parts that are curvier showed those body parts. Like, you couldn’t see them beneath her clothes? You couldn’t see from the outline of her clothes that…?
And it does. It feels like this reductional Eurocentric thing of “What we want are women who have controlled bodies. That’s a good woman.” And for anyone of a marginalized gender, that’s a lot of experience if you’re black or brown: “You need to have a good, controlled body and that good, controlled body cannot want sex. It cannot want. All it should want is to be within the gender it was assigned and to be within the identities that were assigned.” And, like, no, thank you.
KATE: Not to derail this into something else (I will definitely come back to how I view it), but I think a lot about… There was this piece written by this renowned white feminist in gaming Twitter. She was writing about how Far Cry 6, which is a video game that is based in a fictional Latin Caribbean island… They were replicating Cuba. [Chuckles] They were saying how progressive it was because the female character, who is a brown woman, had a small bust and had muscles and had XYZ and looked like a normal woman.
KATE: And I was like, excuse me?
MERCEDEZ: Oh, no!
KATE: Normal to who? Because I’m all with you on muscle ladies. Yes, let’s go. But also, you are literally saying the body type of the people that are represented in that game, in real life, is somehow not okay. And it is one of these things where they focused in on the gender and left out the racial and ethnic components that come with it.
And when I look at something like Bebop, especially with having Pineda cast as Faye, you could have done a lot of social commentary with her as Faye. You could have embraced it and you could have tackled it. And they chose to actively run away with it. As y’all have said, they’ve defanged it. They’ve taken away these larger issues and they’ve also taken away the darkness in some of these characters.
And a lot, I think they’ve also done that with Spike. Spike in the series progressively… It’s not just love; it’s obsession. That is what Spike has. He is a man obsessed, and I think that they kind of whitewash a lot of that into just being [speaking preciously] “Mm, deep love. We must save…”
CHIAKI: He’s just a mouthy asshole; lovable asshole. That’s all people are in the show.
MERCEDEZ: He’s quite interesting in and of itself—more so John Cho than Spike from my perspective, because that’s who I know. He’s interesting because this version of… I’m just gonna assume that the original, by proxy being made in Japan, understands cyberpunk very differently.
KATE: Yes. [Laughs]
MERCEDEZ: This is a show that decorates— When Vicious said “moshi moshi”… And I was like, “We have not heard anyone speak Japanese in this show until now.” And then he says, “Onegai shimasu” at some point, and I was livid. I can’t speak to this, because I am not Japanese or Chinese or, in John Cho’s case, Korean, but I was like, “I am offended.”
CHIAKI: Mercedez, I just want you to know, I immediately got onto the AniFem Slack channel. After Vicious said “moshi moshi,” I paused the show and then I went to Slack and said, “We need to do a podcast.”
MERCEDEZ: Okay, yes.
MERCEDEZ: I missed the context for that, but when I saw that message, I was like, “Oh, I bet this was what made Chiaki…”
MERCEDEZ: Because Vicious just picks up his phone and you’re expecting him to say, “Hello,” and that homeboy, Discount Geralt, hits it with that “moshi moshi,” and you’re like “What?”
KATE: [crosstalk] And Vicious here is a white! A white! [Chuckles]
MERCEDEZ: And we can talk about… I don’t know if we have time. There’s issues around Vicious being kind of cast into the “white albinos are evil” trope, which is not good. I don’t know what he looks like in the anime. But homeboy hits—
KATE: Hot gray-haired anime villain.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah. Homeboy hits that “moshi” and that “onegai shimasu” with all of the courage of a white college boy who just took three weeks of Japanese.
KATE: That is actually very generous. I would have said, “Watched Naruto for the first time.”
CHIAKI: [through laughter] Watched Naruto for the first…!
MERCEDEZ: It’s just rough. And I was like, there’s no point… But then what I started noticing was… oh, this world is steeped in Japanese culture!
CHIAKI: Oh, yeah.
MERCEDEZ: It is dipped, dunked, soaked in it.
KATE: I would argue, more so than the anime.
MERCEDEZ: Which is interesting.
CHIAKI: So, I feel like the anime has nods to the Asian fetishization of cyberpunk, because the whole aesthetic is—in Japan, anyway—the Kowloon Walled City, kind of Hong Kong vibe.
MERCEDEZ: Is that what it is?
MERCEDEZ: [crosstalk] Thank you for explaining it, finally.
CHIAKI: That’s why Japanese folks really like it: because it’s really alien, it’s very oppressive because there’s tall buildings, signs everywhere, it’s chaotic…
MERCEDEZ: I’ve been trying to figure out Japan’s thing with Kowloon, and thank God, now I understand.
CHIAKI: Yeah, it’s held this sort of mystique. It’s Japan’s version of “What if L.A. turned Japanese?” It’s like, “What if Japan became China?” I think it’s got that kind of—
MERCEDEZ: That’s very fraught, Japan! That’s very fraught. [Laughs]
KATE: Yeah, and I was gonna s— Oh, sorry, go ahead.
CHIAKI: Yeah. But it takes that, and in recreating Flixbop here, I feel it does a disservice to continue to play to those tropes of “Yeah, it’s cyberpunk, so of course there’s going to be Japanese signs and Chinese signs and Korean all over the place.” And cyberpunk’s entire root back in the ‘80s was the fear of Japan, Inc. It’s like, “Asians are going to take over the Western world, and everyone’s going to be speaking Chinese at the dinner table.”
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, and I am so sorry to keep swinging it back to Firefly, but I just think that that’s the closest parallel. It’s interesting because I remember when I was first introduced to Firefly, my white former friend who introduced it to me was like, “Oh, it’s really neat because this is a world where China became the dominant country in space travel and spacefaring.” And I remember at the end, I was like, they only cuss in Chinese. No one just sits down and has a conversation. And there’s nary a Chinese person to be found.
And it’s interesting here with Flixbox… Flixboff— God, that is a hard word to say. With Netflix Bebop, it’s interesting because once again Asian people—and really specifically, Japanese culture and Korean culture—it’s just really nice decoration. We don’t encounter, other than John Cho, anyone who’s from Eastern Asia that has a significant “doesn’t make you reflexively cringe” role.
KATE: Which is where I reiterate they somehow made this less diverse than the ‘90s anime. [Chuckles]
MERCEDEZ: It has a ticking-the-boxes, like, “We gotta have a black dude and someone…”
KATE: It was checkboxes. That’s exactly what this was. It was checkboxes, which is what a lot of American white liberal… Honestly, I know this is the way right-wing people talk about it, but white liberal Hollywood is very much focused on diversity checkboxes. They’re not focused on actual representation or how do we actually bake it in. They’re about colorblind casting and making sure we have an X and a Y and a Z, and not about “How do we actually craft a story that is representative of cultures, that is taking into account what happens when I put a Black character in this or a Latina character in this?” And that’s where it misses.
And I think that that’s one of the things that it whitewashes—in the racial sense, whitewashes—the world of Cowboy Bebop, because there is a beauty that I find in futuristic space representations that we get in Alita and Cowboy Bebop, where you have (and even in Carole and Tuesday) a melding of cultures to an extent where you see African inspiration and Asian inspiration and Latin inspiration and these different pieces coming together in one world in different pieces, that we don’t get in this live-action series.
MERCEDEZ: It makes— Oh, you go ahead, Chiaki.
CHIAKI: I think there’s also this sort of insidiousness about this throughout, because the villains of Bebop is Vicious and the Syndicate, right? And the Syndicate is this Asian-themed gang with the very Chinese-looking heads of the organization. And then at the very end, it’s revealed it’s Vicious’s white guy father who’s the head of all of this. So, it plays into: “Asian mentality is going to take over, but you know what? At the end of the day, it’s going to be the white guy at the top anyway.”
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, it’s this weird message of comfort that I think a specific group of white people really take a lot of comfort with, which is like, “Hey, it’s all right. The brown and Black people aren’t gonna come for you. In the end, you’re still gonna have a slice of the pie.”
And for a show that seems to really push back against that in the source material—and maybe this will be my 2022 series that I really hyperfocus on—for a show that seems to push back on that, it’s really a shame that that’s the message Netflix just left you with. And even in the end, when Julia takes over, she’s still a white woman. Am I supposed to feel more comfortable?
KATE: [ironic] That’s the pinnacle of diversity, Mercedez!
MERCEDEZ: Oh, I’m so sorry.
MERCEDEZ: I’m so sorry.
KATE: Sorry, I got a lot of feelings. [Chuckles]
MERCEDEZ: I forgot. And you know what? She doesn’t have blue eyes, so it really is. It really is.
KATE: She’s not a brunette either. She’s the most for us.
MERCEDEZ: It’s true! I should feel more comfortable that my white overlord…
KATE: Really understands my marginalization.
MERCEDEZ: She does.
KATE: She, too, is marginalized. [Chuckles]
MERCEDEZ: What is it? Is it “Gatekeep, girlboss, marginalize”?
KATE: Yeah… So I will add to… I think that this is one of the things that even outside the utter whiteness and appropriative behavior of this and representation in the live-action, what bugs me about Vicious and the Syndicate in the live-action is that it’s like mustache-twirly evil. It’s not like “the ever-present thing you have to escape from” evil.
Because in the anime, when John Cho—not John Cho (why’d I call him John Cho?)—when Spike (well, that’s why)… In the anime, when Spike is hurtling towards his demise, it’s towards a specter in his head for the most part. We see Vicious in moments. We see Vicious in small pieces. We don’t see Vicious as much as we see Vicious in the live-action. We don’t see the Syndicate as much as we see the Syndicate in the live-action. We see them kind of as this boogeyman, almost, that’s kind of hiding behind things and is always there but also never there.
And what we don’t see is what builds Vicious up into this Big Bad and makes the ending episode of Cowboy Bebop so impactful and so tense, because we finally get to see it. We get to see the collision between Spike and Vicious, and because we have seen Vicious through mostly Spike’s interpretation of him, it hits harder. But in this, it’s just like, “Ha-ha-ha! I’m gonna be Evil Man.” It’s not great.
MERCEDEZ: Dr. Eggman in the new Sonic movies is more intimidating.
CHIAKI: Oh, God.
KATE: And he’s also whiny! If anybody who’s listening follows me on Twitter, you know that I love me a hot anime villain. I got a problem. I can fix him, I can hug him to understanding, or I can have a very nice night before he kills me. It’s fine either way.
MERCEDEZ: Oh my god.
KATE: Sukuna, call me.
But you get a lot of that intrigue because there’s a lot of depth and mystery, and that’s what makes Vicious really evil—and really hot—in the anime. And all of that is just taken away to where he just seems like a brat throwing a temper tantrum most of the time in the live-action.
MERCEDEZ: Yeah, he’s not… He’s just not.
KATE: You’re like, why is Spike obsessed with this man? Why? He’s nothing.
CHIAKI: [soberly] They were rivals in high school.
CHIAKI: The goth kid and jock boy, you know?
MERCEDEZ: Oh my gosh.
KATE: You’re not wrong!
CHIAKI: Anyway, since we are coming to the hour, let us wrap things up quickly, just to summarize our conversation. Ultimately, do you feel that Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is something worth even checking out if you’re moderately interested, or should it be treated as something completely else?
KATE: I would say if you’re interested and you’ve never seen Bebop, you’ve never done anything… I am of the mind that the beautiful thing about Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is that— And this is mostly for white fans, because to be honest, Mercedez, to your point, there’s a lot you can’t get past if you’re not white in this series.
And I don’t mean that as a slant to the white fans who like this. But I do want to preface this with who has found power and representation in this show. Just gonna put it out there. I’ve seen a lot of people explain how they love Faye here because she is explicitly bi. I have seen people talk about how they love how they’ve seen the connections between the two characters and stuff like that. But it is very important to note that if you come from a very specific background, that’s probably what you will find.
But the beautiful thing about this series is that I do think that it has led more people to the existing Bebop. And I don’t want to take anything away from people who do love the live-action because I do know that they exist; I have seen them. So I don’t want to say “Throw it out,” because I think that it can be somebody’s gateway to the larger world of anime and, honestly, the larger world of Watanabe, whose work is really some of the best out there, especially when it comes to mixing music and visual storytelling.
So, yeah, I don’t throw it out, but I think there has to be a lot of asterisks to the “You might like this,” because I think you might like this if you have no knowledge of the original Bebop. I also think you will probably only have that reaction if you are not Black or brown, specifically—or Asian. I think if you’re white— [Chuckles] Sorry, that was a long way to say I think white fans will like it. I feel bad now. I don’t want to malign it that way, but there are just a lot of issues in this series when it comes to race and ethnicity!
MERCEDEZ: Well, and I was gonna say, I don’t think it’s a bad series. I don’t think it’s a bad series. I still hold a lot of… I’m a really big believer in “two things can exist at once.” This is a show that grossly mistreats a lot of really harmful, still prevalent tropes and kind of makes me anxious about “Well, in the future when I’m gone, 10,000 years from now, are Black people still gonna be dealing with stereotypes like this? Is this the future we’re looking at?”
But I also think you can enjoy things that are problematic. There’s a lot of stuff I like. The one I always think about that I always throw out that I think people would be very shocked about me… So I was a really big fan of the Rising of the Shield Hero. I read most of the novels through college, really liked them, really liked the world and the story. I do fully understand it has got a lot of problems. It’s got a lot of misogyny. But I think you can still engage with things and still critique them. I think that’s what all three of us do.
I think, give the Netflix one a try. For me it is the gateway to Cowboy Bebop. It is what’s going to make me get into the anime. Maybe I’ll make a tweet thread about it. It’s helped me contextualize a lot of things I saw you tweeting about, Kate. I didn’t understand at first the upset about Faye’s outfit until sitting here listening to you. I’m like, oh, well, yeah, I get it now, knowing all this context of other things.
I think, watch the Netflix series, but I think, also, like Kate said, you can’t go into it without understanding that there are caveats. If you’re Black and brown, this is not a show that really necessarily envisions a future where any of the three of us are treated fairly or are treated as more than set dressing.
KATE: And I will say I think that that’s also where a lot of [people]—especially from the people that I’ve seen talking about it who are existing fans—do get frustrated because Bebop and, honestly, Watanabe’s work in general is very diverse and you can tell that there’s a place for you in it when you’re not white, honestly.
And I think that that was one of the things that drew me to it in the same way that I prefer watching Star Trek. I love Star Wars. I am a big Star Wars person. I have lightsabers in my house. But there is a future in Star Trek where it is extremely diverse and that is what the future is, and in Star Wars it’s still a bunch of white brunette women doing things. You can still love the thing, like you said, but I do like to caveat it because I feel bad when somebody who looks like me goes into something expecting to see themselves and it’s like, “Oh, crap, where am I?”
And not saying that the original was the best with it, but there is more diversity even in the background of the original Cowboy Bebop than we see here. And I think that that’s a shame. But I do agree with Mercedez: it is still worth a watch.
CHIAKI: I mean, I think I also agree with Mercedez and you, too, Kate. As far as my thoughts on this, I am great at just turning my brain off and watching the most mindless drivel out there and the horniest anime out there. I’m just like, bring it on. And if I’m zoning out and just watching this, it was consumable. I had a few laughs, admittedly, and I would say I came out thinking, “All right. Yeah. That was entertainment.”
I did also, for this postmortem, for this show, rewatch several key episodes of the anime, and when I was watching it—because it’s been a few years for me since I watched the anime—I was like, “Wait. This show is so much better as an anime.” [Chuckles] So, so much better! Everything is just… It works so much better. I forgot that this is what good entertainment is like. So, I hope that if you do watch the Netflix Bebop, you just don’t stop there, that you take the initiative to go: “Okay, maybe it’s time to watch the anime and see why people like that one much more.”
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