“Differences Die At The Door”: A post-mortem of Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop

By: Madeline Blondeau August 10, 20220 Comments
Netflix Faye sitting in a deck chair reading Playboy

Content Warning: discussion of partner abuse, queerphobia, transphobia

Spoilers for Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop

Less than three weeks after its debut, the live-action Cowboy Bebop was snuffed out in the face of widespread critical indifference and social media backlash. From its mid-aughts inception as a Keanu Reeves-led pipe dream to its 2017 announcement as the Netflix series, the live-action Bebop was one of the more anticipated anime adaptations of the last decade. Yet within a few months, 2021’s Bebop felt like more of a distant memory than the 1998 original. While its inspiration continues to enjoy constant discussion and reference, discussion of the adaptation feels sparse. 

Now, let’s not mince words: Netflix’s Bebop is bad. Few adaptations miss the point of their source material as brazenly as Christopher Yost’s series. There are many avenues to critique it from, ranging from casting decisions to direction to the script itself, and much ink has already been spilled on all of these. But it’s prudent to get even more granular. If we trace each individual influence behind both Bebops, the fundamental failings of the Netflix show become even more apparent.  

The roots of Sunrise’s Bebop original are well-known and widely documented. A 2017 IGN interview with Shinichirō Watanabe lays out many of these influences, and nods to the team’s favorite films are constant. A lookalike to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle appears in the sequel film Knocking on Heaven’s Door, and the fan favorite fifth episode, “Ballad of Fallen Angels,” emulates scenes from two John Woo films—The Killer and A Better Tomorrow 2—during the iconic clash between Spike and Vicious. These works, and many of Bebop’s other influences, belong to an artsy male canon—stylish stories about desperate men in dire circumstances—and weigh heavy on the visual presentation. 

two men pointing guns at each other's heads
The Killer

These visual homages are backed by Yoko Kanno’s eclectic score, which seals the deal by effortlessly blending 1940s jazz (“Rush”), roots blues (“Digging My Potato”), and ‘70s funk soul (“Mushroom Samba”). These disparate elements synthesize into a cohesive whole: constantly nodding to its own wide-ranging influences while also feeling original. 

What grounds all of it, however, is one of Bebop’s biggest original influences: Lupin the Third. Watanabe is an ardent fan of the series. “The director whom I have taken the most personal inspiration from would have to be Masaaki Osumi, who worked on the original Lupin the Third TV series,” Watanabe stated in a 2017 Otaquest interview. “When the series debuted, it had a very adult tone and feel, which wasn’t bringing in the desired ratings, so he was removed from the project.” 

Lupin’s DNA is baked into every aspect of Cowboy Bebop’s cast. Spike is a flighty and dapper lad largely motivated by money (Lupin), Jet is his caring but long-suffering, deadpan bearded companion (Jigen), and Faye is a scheming and high-energy femme fatale with a propensity for double-crossing and skimpy clothes (Fujiko). Together, they form the familiar and comforting dynamic of a well-oiled machine which had found decades of success on Japanese television by that point. 

promo image of the main four in Lupin III part 1
Lupin the Third: Part I

That dynamic gets shaken up by the addition of Ed: a non-binary ball of energy that defies classification. In Watanabe’s own words to IGN, he “wanted to create a character that surpassed humanity.” In this series so preoccupied with the past, Ed lives up to their nickname in terms of the team’s conception of the future: “radical.” 

Another radical element of the show is the way series composition lead Nobumoto Keiko writes and characterizes men. Spike and Jet are emotional characters with complicated and conflicting motivations. They’re not grizzled, hardened tough guys that spout profanity and revel in violence, but wounded and vulnerable people. They’re a far cry from the two master thieves that inspired them. While Jigen might be an occasional domestic, those traits are often scattershot or a passing punchline. 

Jet, meanwhile, spends much of the show alone with his bonsai trees. While he’s watering or pruning them, we get peeks into his past through moments of vulnerability. He’s safe to feel in this space, and as an audience, we’re invited into those feelings with him. It’s an unexpected choice for a burly, bearded man with a robotic arm in a sci-fi show, and one of the many decisions that makes Bebop so subversive.

Spike and Jet looking at something in disbelief

Cowboy Bebop achieves its tone—the one that still resonates when watching twenty-five years later—with these subversions of genre norms and expectations. It’s grounded by that familiar cast dynamic, and supported by Nobumoto’s humanistic character building that makes her world feel real and lived-in. With a traceable lineage to support its far-future ideologies and philosophical underpinnings, and a strong script to anchor it all, Bebop succeeds at producing an experience balanced between homage and innovation on a razor’s edge.  

While the series fizzled out during its initial run in Japan—a symptom of its inability to move a toy line—it found new life in America in 2001. It was the first flagship anime for Adult Swim, and its cool, jazzy iconography went hand-in-hand with the fledgling block’s mature image. At that point, unedited anime on American television was a rarity, and even the things that had aired uncensored (Gundam Wing, Outlaw Star, Tenchi Muyo) were shounen titles aimed at teens.  These were a far cry from Bebop,a show aimed squarely at adults from its inception.  

“Our target audience was not kids, but ourselves and our peers,” Nobumoto told ANN in 2018. “The truth is that kids want to watch what adults are watching. And so, that was perhaps one of the reasons why it attracted a broad audience.” 

the four main characters of cowboy bebop leaning against a mugshot wall

Over the next few years, the once-flop would become sacred text in Western anime circles. Throughout the decade, Bebop’s reputation grew through constant rotation on Adult Swim and popular DVDs from Bandai, as well as international airings on MTV and Sci-Fi Channel. By 2009, the show had earned such a global following that the aforementioned Reeves vehicle entered pre-production.  

From its earliest conception, there was a sense that Cowboy Bebop was unadaptable. Numerous scripts and directors couldn’t produce something worth pushing deeper into production, and the project fell into development hell. But why? It’s tempting to hone in on the more obvious problems, like the potential budget of a Hollywood adaptation and the difficulty of translating animation to live-action. However, the real answer is likely more conceptual. 

The prospect of adapting Bebop is arguably most complicated by the exact thing that makes the anime work so well. The original is a petri dish of different influences, growing and coalescing in tandem to produce a unique culture. That culture is incapable of being emulated or adapted, because to recreate it would be to do a disservice to the creative zeal of the original. Turning such a referential work into a reference point itself already reduces the cohesion of the show, because it’s doing away with key parts of what make the whole enterprise work tonally and stylistically. To adapt Bebop is to set a production up for failure.

As if to prove this, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop (hereafter referred to as “Netflix Bebop”) isn’t ruined by any aspects of its lavish production. The cast is largely fine—outside of Alex Hassell’s strangely intense take on series antagonist Vicious—and the practical set work goes hand-in-hand with the expert costume design. As far as expensive shows made for streaming platforms go, it’s a tight and stylish production.  

live action recreation of the Bebop opening

But the splashy aesthetics are in service of a superficial interpretation. Netflix Bebop does away with most of the original’s influences, and what remains are hollow echoes that remain only in soulless shot recreations and replicated needle drops. Worse yet, the works that informed Bebop have been supplanted by a new canon, which the creators draw from throughout the Netflix series to produce a series that’s repugnant in a uniquely American way. 

In fairness to the production, showrunner Andrew Nemec (noted for his work on the Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films) told Polygon last year that the show’s team revisited some of Watanabe’s inspirations. Yet these influences, however little of them remain in the show’s aesthetics, get lost in the script’s overwhelming nastiness and canned humor.  

More vitally, they also get lost in references to other American films. 

In the show’s ten episodes, a dorm wall’s worth of frat boy favorites are nodded to with the same love and effort Watanabe put into paying homage to Woo and Scorsese. “Blue Crow Waltz” recreates the filial mobster dynamic of The Boondock Saints, Jules and Vincent’s iconic gun point from Pulp Fiction is replicated in “Galileo Hustle,” and even The Big Lebowski gets a nod in a strange bowling scene at the outset of “Sad Clown A Go Go.”  

Live-action Faye, Jet, Spike, and Ein

These movies—classics among men of a certain age—help to tease out the larger issue of Netflix Bebop’s vapid media literacy. Where the original anime found inspiration in a broad range of classic international films, this series finds it in well-worn American cinema aimed at Gen X white men. Each of these three movies is a standard bearer of male monoculture in a different respect. It is the men in these films, and the ways they engage with their world, that Netflix Bebop draws heavily upon for its male leads. 

The masculinity embodied by these films and the masculinity of the original Bebop, however, are fundamentally incompatible. By attempting to retrofit quippy, cynical American gruffness into Bebop, the creative team produced an uncomfortable script that fails the characters it attempts to adapt. The vulnerability and empathy that define Spike and Jet in the anime get lost in a slurry of profanity-laden banter, as they blast their way through the show with very little thought to their actions. In the first episode, “Cowboy Gospel”, we see both men crack jokes as they condescend to a group of political terrorists before gunning them down with a smile. From the outset, these feel totally at odds with the characters that they’re based upon.

This is symptomatic not only of the influences that inform John Cho and Mustafa Shakir’s takes on the characters, but of the production team’s prior credits. Yost’s extensive history in Marvel and DC writing gives the characters in his four episodes (1-3, 10) punchy comic book quip dialogue, for example; while director Michael Katleman’s five-episode stint brings the static talking heads and gritty color grading from his longtime work on crime procedurals. Katleman’s influence also weighs particularly heavy as the producer. His oeuvre consists largely of police and military-based series with unconventional twists, such as time travel in Life on Mars and viral apocalypses in The Last Ship.  

Bebop Jet on one knee with flaming wreckage in the background

It’s easy to see how Cowboy Bebop might be pitched as a “gritty and unconventional crime drama in space” by this creative team, which makes the writer’s room they assembled make a little more sense. Alums of such shows as Law & Order: SVU, Sons of Anarchy, Medium, and Cold Case fill out the ranks. Most of the team is fairly experienced, with some writers going back as far as the ‘80s, and many of them are responsible for hit network procedurals from the ‘90s through the aughts. Between them are an impressive collective resume, and one built mostly around formulaic storytelling in gritty, criminal settings.  

When one starts to understand that a group of American procedural television writers from the ‘90s wrote a large chunk of this show, a lot of Netflix Bebop’s ills begin to make sense. Its racial jokes (“Dog Star Swing”), villainization of radical leftism (“Cowboy Gospel,” “Callisto Soul”), and rampant violence against women (prevalent throughout) are all byproducts of a writer’s room that thrived on US television during the Clinton administration. 

Worse yet, complicated female leads and queer-coded characters are made more implicitly villainous or less impactful. Gren, for example, is a far cry from the nuanced and tragic figure they cut in the original. Here, they’re a queer-coded stereotype—catty, sassy, sort of evil. While this is arguably mitigated somewhat by the fact that the character is portrayed by non-binary performer Mason Alexander Park, the writing doesn’t do this character the justice they deserve. The show’s inclusion of queerness is not reckoned with in an honest or interesting way.

Live action Faye tensed, holding a knife

… Except for the one time it is. Yes, Netflix Bebop has one bright spot, and it’s in the sixth episode: “Binary Two-Stop.” In this episode, Faye meets a grizzled mechanic who gives her the supportive, nurturing, and affirming love she’s never received in the franchise thus far. In fact, as much as this may go “against the grain,” I actually do prefer Netflix’s take on Faye to the original in hindsight. She’s a fantastic character in both, yet here, she has room to explore avenues of definition outside of men. Much of her trauma is built around her conniving and flighty mother, who constantly betrays and abandons her. Faye grapples with this pain, and Bebop centers it instead of using it for cheap narrative padding, male character development, or titillation. Remember—the original Bebop was inspired by an era of Lupin that was atrocious to its female characters.

And while it’s easy to criticize the Netflix Bebop for its own misogyny—mostly found in a rough side-narrative where Julia endures relentless domestic abuse from Vicious—I’d argue that it’s a victim of its own cancellation. The ending of Season One teases a flipping of the script on Vicious at the hands of Julia, suggesting an I Spit On Your Grave-style comeuppance. While, yes, this is a gross deviation from the intent of the source material, there’s no denying that an abuse survivor getting to take away all of her abuser’s autonomy is satisfying. A more capable, calculating, in-control Julia is something that this show promises and, unfortunately, will never deliver. Julia will never have her victory and, in hindsight, will mostly be remembered as yet another battered woman in a medium full of them. 

Which, admittedly, is in the spirit of the reboot: dejected and bleak. The world of Netflix Bebop is a cynical and cruel place, in which idealism is scowled at and mocked by the smug centrist protagonists. It’s a stark, unsympathetic contrast to the Spike and Jet of the original, who grieve the deaths of people they met mere moments prior (“Waltz For Venus”), and meditate on the major characters they kill.  

Netflix Faye holding a hand in front of Spike's face

That empathetic core is absent in Netflix series, replaced by a hostile outlook on the world, chockful of jarring moments such as Jet fantasizing about using poison to murder someone. Violence is a fun game to these characters, and life is cheap. Only Spike and Jet and Faye need to live. If it isn’t someone who can feed them plot relevant information or sexually entertain them for a while, they don’t serve a function within this show. Netflix Bebop, like so much post-MCU American filmmaking, exists only to drive its own plot forward—never stopping to appreciate the world it takes place in or the people that live there—and deliver poorly choreographed fight sequences with too many quick cuts.  

Which brings us back to the core idea: influences. What do the influences of each Bebop say about the respective productions? What’s the combined effect of each show’s unique inspirations? And are they even remotely similar? 

The original Cowboy Bebop was a production based in Nobumoto Keiko’s signature eye for marginalization and Watanabe Shinichirō’s appreciation for the underdog. Around fully-formed and well-defined characters, the duo led a team that drafted out a wide-reaching series which synthesized disparate genres into something special. Created as a way to push back against the younger-skewing trends of the industry, Bebop was a show for adults, by adults. Rich with philosophical themes and abundant in stylish homages, the show stood out almost immediately, and its rich list of references belied an artistic team bursting with creative curiosity. Writers who cut their teeth on the show, such as Sato Dai and Yokote Michiko, have gone on to enjoy massive success after its production.  

Netflix Julia holding a gun

Conversely, Netflix Bebop is based around a loose interpretation of the aging show. Its creative leads approximate beloved characters, but never seem to understand what makes any of them tick on a psychological level. Coupled with the writer’s room, which brings gritty and hard-edged storytelling and macho theatrics, this produces a Bebop that’s unrecognizable and largely repellant. There are fits and starts of good ideas—Faye’s queerness and the tease of Julia’s revenge—but they’re abortive attempts that aren’t enough to counter-balance the net-negative of the show. Through and through, this is a by-the-numbers studio production made by the sorts who trade in those. 

This is unsurprising. The way properties like Cowboy Bebop get adapted in this day and age are in these controlled and “safe” environments. Netflix sees a collective of hit network TV vets as a winning combination to recapture the magic. But that’s just it: Cowboy Bebop’s magic can’t be recaptured by anyone. 

It’s not enough to simply copy a work like Cowboy Bebop when adapting it. What makes an enduring work of art is an original synthesis of both inspiration and originality from a diverse and cultured team. That spark lies at the heart of what makes the whole package work. Without that, you’re left with a shapeless, formless lump of studio writing that says nothing and accomplishes nothing, and manages to undo the progressive spirit of much of the original. It is, in and of itself, an exercise in rote repetition just attempting to adapt the revolutionary series. Because in a way, the very act of adaptation defies the spirit of the original.  

In fact—perhaps the best way to pay tribute to Cowboy Bebop was simply to never adapt it at all.

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