Netflix's Cowboy Bebop is showing anime adaptations how it's really done

Cowboy Bebop main trio and Ein
(Image credit: Netflix)

Adapting anime into other forms of media is always a risky proposition. Anime itself is so stylized, often so laser-focused on their core themes that an adaption to other formats can often water down the intent of the source material. That's a concern I've had for a while in regards to the upcoming Cowboy Bebop live-action remake.

It's not a concern borne from nothing, as Cowboy Bebop isn't your run-of-the-mill anime. To many people, myself included, Cowboy Bebop is the anime. It's what you tell your friends to watch if they're thinking of getting into anime for the first time. It's the show that people who don't like anime still love. 

To this day, Cowboy Bebop is so good that it's genuinely difficult to imagine its themes translating well to another format.

But now that I've seen those recently released screenshots of the upcoming live-action remake, my mind is slowly beginning to change. Coming to Netflix on November 19, 2021, the live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop is starting to look good. Really good, actually. But why is that so surprising, and why should you be excited for this Netflix version?

The legacy of Cowboy Bebop

To understand the size of the boots the live-action Cowboy Bebop remake is trying to fill, let's quickly look at the legacy the 1998 anime left behind. In terms of its reception, it's up there with all-time classics like Neon Genesis Evangelion and more recent hits like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

Cowboy Bebop went on to inspire filmmakers and authors alike in the decades since its debut, thanks in no small part to the anime being widely circulated in the west at the time, appearing on channels like Cartoon Network. It's even available to watch on All 4 in its entirety, if you're in the UK.

A sci-fi thriller with elements of film noir, Cowboy Bebop oozed with style, and featured at least one memorable scene in every one of its 26 episodes. The show played host to an expert blend of relatable characters, clever writing, gorgeous animation and a legendary soundtrack courtesy of Yoko Kanno. The feature-length movie, Knockin' On Heaven's Door, is an equally stunning thing to sit through, too.

Cowboy Bebop had all four pillars in place to become iconic, and director Shinichiro Watanabe would carry these pillars into future projects like the hip-hop infused Samurai Champloo a few years later.

The main trio of Cowboy Bebop sat on a couch

(Image credit: Netflix)

What's so special about the live-action remake?

Truth be told, I obviously don't know if the live-action Cowboy Bebop remake is going to be any good. However, I do believe it's on the right track. As mentioned, the recently released screenshots of Netflix's remake are incredibly promising, and maintain much of the atmosphere conveyed in the original series.

The lighting is moody and dark, while still being colorful enough to keep track of what's happening, and also highlighting key props within the scene. Iconic locations have been recreated, such as the church where Spike battles the series' antagonist Vicious.

But best of all, our main trio look utterly stunning, and I genuinely think the casting is perfect. Now that I've seen John Cho all dressed up as Spike Spiegel, I can't imagine him being played by anyone else (except maybe Keanu Reeves, but more on that later). Mustafa Shakir and Daniella Pineda look similarly excellent as Jet Black and Faye Valentine respectively. Oh, Ein is here, too, looking like an incredibly good boy.

The trio's costumes have also been lovingly updated. They're still recognizable at a glance, of course. Spike still looks handsomely scruffy, Jet still has his prosthetic arm. It's perhaps Faye who's received the biggest overhaul, and even then it's just to make her outfit a tad less revealing. She's still got that iconic yellow top and red jacket.

It's pleasing to know that production of Netflix's Cowboy Bebop is in good hands, too. It's being written by Christopher Yost, who was previously lead writer on 2010's The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes cartoon, a well-received show that maintains a cult following to this day. Yost was also on the writing team for both Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok, so hopefully Cowboy Bebop's script is in safe hands.

Perhaps best of all, Shinichiro Watanabe is returning as a creative consultant, which means the Netflix remake will be receiving advice from one of the people responsible for creating the original series. Yoko Kanno is back as well, and she'll be providing the soundtrack for the show, but I certainly hope that the incredibly catchy Tank! is kept as the show's opening theme.

Faye Valentine pointing a gun into the distance

(Image credit: Netflix)

From dark beginnings

You might know that this isn't the first time an attempt was made to revive Cowboy Bebop in a live-action capacity. Just over a decade ago, a live-action Cowboy Bebop movie began production with Keanu Reeves in the starring role as Spike Spiegel.

The project was in development hell for a long while, with scant details on it revealed since, though Reeves insisted the script "was great and amazing, but it would cost like half a billion dollars to make it."

This early attempt at a Cowboy Bebop revival seemed like it was incredibly ambitious, then, and Reeves to his credit was likely very ambitious about the project. Still, it's easy to understand why the budget would have ballooned in the way Reeves described. Cowboy Bebop is a sci-fi epic, taking place in locales like ultra-busy slums, cityscapes and the far reaches of outer space.

Besides, fans weren't too pleased with the concept of a live-action anime at the time. And we can't say that apprehension was entirely misplaced. In the decade since, fans have been treated (and I use that word loosely) to a Scarlet Johansson-led Ghost in the Shell movie, which was a critical flop. But it wasn't nearly as bad as Netflix's own Death Note remake, which largely betrayed the core themes of the original.

Spike Spiegel wearing his iconic headphones

(Image credit: Netflix)

What the remake needs to get right

So what is Netflix's Cowboy Bebop doing differently, and how is it going to avoid the traps that the aforementioned live-action anime projects fell into? Well for a start, the cast hasn't been totally whitewashed, as was the case with characters in both the Ghost in the Shell and Death Note remakes.

The screenshots, while likely cherrypicked by the production team, so far look like they absolutely nail the aesthetic of the original Cowboy Bebop anime. But to be fair, aesthetic is just one piece of the puzzle.

We still need to know what these characters' personalities will be like in the Netflix version, and there's a lot of nuance to get right. Spike is a badass, but he's also a kind-hearted soul with a dark past. Faye tries to come across as the femme fatale stereotype, but constantly betrays herself with her impatience, vanity and clumsiness.

We also don't know how Ed is going to come across in the remake. Will her charming silliness translate well to live-action? Or will she come across as gratingly obnoxious?

There's a lot of great comedy in the original anime, then, and the Netflix remake needs to nail this side of the show, too. Cowboy Bebop has tons of darker moments, but it was never afraid to balance them with more lighthearted escapades.

It's going to be a difficult balancing act for the Cowboy Bebop live-action remake. But since filming has long since wrapped up, and the release date of November 19 fast approaching, we'll just have to wait, see and pray that Cowboy Bebop's return is one worth celebrating. And as someone who puts the show among my all-time favorites, I certainly hope it can break the cycle of live-action adaptations completely sucking.

Rhys Wood
Hardware Editor

Rhys is TRG's Hardware Editor, and has been part of the TechRadar team for more than two years. Particularly passionate about high-quality third-party controllers and headsets, as well as the latest and greatest in fight sticks and VR, Rhys strives to provide easy-to-read, informative coverage on gaming hardware of all kinds. As for the games themselves, Rhys is especially keen on fighting and racing games, as well as soulslikes and RPGs.