Netflix "Cowboy Bebop: Season 1" Review

It almost feels like destiny for me to be writing this review. I remember back in the day when we used to drive to Blockbuster and Hollywood video to rent movies. My family had a tradition of renting a movie every Sunday while we waited for pizza to be made. It was a fun tradition, but it was tough as an anime fan seeing as how the selections at both stores were limited mostly to edited Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball for kids. Then one day my dad got an e-mail from a new company called Netflix, which had a service where you could (get this) rent movies on the internet and have the DVD’s mailed to you! When you were finished, you simply put the disc back in the envelope and mailed it back. Oh, and also, you could take your time watching the movie because there were NO LATE FEES (though if you held onto a movie for too long you’d be paying more to “rent” the movie than you would pay to buy it, so there was an incentive for this new company to let you take all the time in the world)!

My dad signed up for the service (three movies at a time) and the first thing I did was check out their anime section, which opened up a whole new world to me as they had MANY more titles than our local brick-and-mortar rental did! After adding movies to our queue our first DVD from Netflix arrived: “Cowboy Bebop 1st Session” from Bandai! Yes, the very first title I rented from Netflix was the classic “Cowboy Bebop” anime. Even back then the series had a reputation as one of the best anime on the market, but because I was a cash strapped teen it was difficult to justify buying a series for $30 a disc when I wasn’t even sure if I liked it. In a world where downloading fansubs was difficult and anime on TV was mostly teen friendly fare on Toonami, the ability to rent anime from Netflix and have it delivered straight to your mailbox was nothing short of a revelation!

What Netflix looked like when my family first signed up for it!

You might think this is the beginning of a retrospective of how Netflix changed how American’s watched anime (and it did), but rather the beginning of a review for a new live action TV adaptation of “Cowboy Bebop” which is being funded AND distributed exclusively by Netflix! Yes, in a poetic sort of way the very first DVD I rented through Netflix has now been turned into a live action series by the very same company that introduced me to the anime! In some ways, that made me feel oddly at peace with the project being put into production after a long (and Hellish) development production cycle. Attempts had been made for years to turn “Cowboy Bebop” into a movie starring Keanu Reeves as protagonist Spike Spiegel, however nothing quite came together until Netflix decided to save the project from Development Hell and change the project from a movie into a TV series (which seems more appropriate anyway).

Keanu Reeves ultimately did not get cast as Spike, whose roll is instead being played by John Cho. The entire first season (10 episodes) dropped on Netflix on the first day and I was able to watch five of them before writing this review. Unless the show drastically changes by the end of the season (which, in all fairness, COULD happen) I feel pretty confident in the opinion I am about to put forward. That opinion is that as an adaptation of “Cowboy Bebop,” the show feels like a cheap imitation of the original product. Taken on its own merits though, Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” is a lot of fun and more original than most science fiction shows on the platform. Yes, we’re going to be discussing this show from two different perspectives, which may be frustrating to some (as well as time consuming for me), but this is the only logical way to approach this. Though readers don’t see it online, I’m known behind closed doors by the staff on our Discord server sometimes as “the guy who actually likes Netflix’s ‘Death Note’ movie,” and many a conversation has been had about that fact.

My position is that while Adam Wingard’s “Death Note” has problems, on its own it’s a perfectly serviceable movie (with loads of potential for the sequels). Sure, it fails in a MISERABLE way when you compare it to the original anime…but ignore the anime and it really was not that bad! Well, in that very same vein Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” is best viewed as its own thing rather than as an adaptation for the same reasons. The good news is that as a pale imitation, “Cowboy Bebop” is only a slightly below average adaptation whereas its own thing it’s a very decent watch all around! Does that make it a success? Well…from my perspective it does. Great care was taken to make the series as close to the anime as possible. The opening scene here is a fairly accurate recreation of the opening of “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie,” which was actually the perfect scene to highlight what I’m talking about.

The scene itself seems like it should make for an easy adaptation for live action, as a store robbery gone wrong is not new territory for live action shows. That the dialog and pacing is similar is not surprising. Yet when the action starts…well, you already can get a sense of how much of an asset animation was to “Cowboy Bebop” all these years. Spike’s multi-punch stomach attack looks a little silly in live action and the producers decided to blow up a portion of the ship with a sonic wave gun thing of some sorts that doesn’t look like the most natural special effect in the world. Then series moves into the classic intro by Yoko Kanno (who returns to score this series as well). Netflix recreates the sequences of the original intro as best as they can (while make some changes to properly highlight the actors), but for fans of the anime things are just a little bit off.

The colors are there. The music is there. Yet the movements in the intro are stilted and slow compared to the fluidity of the animated intro. The fact that the new intro even uses animated elements to recreate some of the iconic moments feels like further admission from the producers that live action can only go so far in adapting the look and feel of this show. Yes, the costumes are spot on. Yes, the vehicles and space stations look exactly as you’d probably imagined they’d look in live action format. The actors are all perfectly cast and doing excellent jobs of making them feel familiar to the original fans yet unique enough to stand on their own in this one! What is missing is the fluidity of the animation. The dynamics of uncompromised cinematography that only a camera without limitations can bring. So far, I haven’t really seen any in-air ship battles and there may be a reason for that (if they show up later in this season, my apologies for not commenting on them in this review).

Fight sequences that imitate the anime tend to feel slower and less high-energy than the animated counterpart, yet original fight sequences that are “inspired” by the anime come off as far more clever and fun to watch. It got to the point where when the show was expanding on the universe with new material, I found the series to be MUCH more engaging than when it is adapting the anime! Oh, did I forget to mention that Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” is not a one-on-one adaptation of the anime? Alright, probably should tackle that here. See, the original anime (as most of you know) is a mere 26 half-hour episodes. The Netflix series has 10 episodes for the first season that run somewhere around 45-60 minutes a piece. Not only are the stories that they are adapting longer than they were in anime form, but several storylines don’t even appear in the anime at all. This is probably where fans of the anime are going to be conflicted about the Netflix series: The expanded lore.

The iconic scene remade in live action.

I know I haven’t touched upon the story very much, but I’ve been operating under the assumption that people reading this review have seen the anime (if you haven’t, you may want to skip the next couple of paragraphs). For those who have seen the anime, the Netflix series also expands on characters and their situations to make the show more serialized in nature (as well as padding the show to get a potential three to four seasons out of it). Jet is not just a former disgruntled cop who turned to bounty hunting, but at one point he was a family man with a wife and daughter. That family fell apart due to some (as of yet unknown) personal hardships that resulted in his wife fleeing into the arms of another man. None of this is in the anime, yet I found it to be a great addition to TV series as it gives Jet more depth.

Faye’s past is also being slowly expanded upon by having her seem to remember parts of her past live before she woke up from being cryofreezed for many years. Spike and Faye also have more screen time together, and their chemistry is just as winning as in the anime (what may concern some fans is that this otherwise conceived platonic relationship has hints of becoming romantic in Netflix’s world, so fans of the original may have issues with that eventually)! The expansion that may cause the most grumblings is that of Vicious. Though he was the main antagonist in the anime, he was seen rarely and talked about even less, leaving an aura of mystery and creepiness that surrounded him. Here he is basically a main cast member, showing up in almost every episode as a member of a giant syndicate, one that he is disgruntled about and attempting to rise to power and take over it. While his interaction with the Bebop crew is still limited, some may feel his extra screen time takes away a lot of the mystery of the character.

Personally, I found his addition to be the best aspect of the Netflix series, and I found it especially fascinating to get a glimpse into his marriage to Julia, Spike’s former lover. In the anime there was a sense that Vicious came into the picture and pressured her to marry him, but in this version the two do seem to have some things in common and a marriage that more or less functions on some level. They have enough things in common that you wonder if maybe Spike wouldn’t be better off moving on from her. I didn’t get to see Ed in this series, but from what I’ve heard she makes a brief cameo in the final episode, so I probably won’t have an opinion of her until season 2. Again, I’m not sure how anime fans are going to react to these changes. Will they be seen as interesting expansions on what we’ve known before or unnecessary bloat?! Well, I have to stress once more that your opinion on how effective all of this is likely depends on whether or not you are viewing this as an adaptation of “Cowboy Bebop” or a reimagining of “Cowboy Bebop.”

Unlike the aforementioned “Death Note” movie that was CLEARLY its own thing and pulled very sparingly from the source material, “Cowboy Bebop” adapts much more of the source material this time around! That may make this series better or worse from the get-go depending on who you are. For me, I was much more engaged with the show when it was doing its own thing. When iconic scenes were being translated into this live action world the results were constantly underwhelming. These moments felt like an attempt to recreate the anime shot-for-shot but failing miserably at it because of the limitations the real world puts on everything. Nothing was ever comically bad but they were constantly underwhelming. This is why the additional material made the show better: because without anything prior to compare it to, I have no choice but to take it on its own merits. I personally have no problem with that.

While the anime was indeed one of those rare perfect shows, I do not believe that making a new interpretation of it some 20 plus years later is some blasphemous thing. “Cowboy Bebop” is not religious text or the constitution; it is a TV show. A very, very, VERY good TV show…but a TV show none-the-less! If someone else wants to take a crack at it and share their version of the story, I say there is no harm being done there. While I personally find the Netflix series to be a great success and one of the best live action anime adaptations we’ve ever received, I also know there are fans of the anime who will wonder if it is necessary. In that regard, no, the Netflix series isn’t “necessary” per se. Also, it’s not perfect. Again, as an adaptation the series does come up woefully short thanks to bloated excess, fight sequences that pale in comparison to the anime counterpart, and an energy that just isn’t there for the most part.

The story doesn’t follow the same beats and for some there is just no getting over the idea that they feel like this shouldn’t have been attempted at all. If you are newcomer to the Bebop world though, then Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” is certainly one of the more unique things you could be streaming right now. It has way more creativity and fun than the standard action show and it has a killer soundtrack that most TV shows would die to have even a fraction of! No matter which way I slice it, the show – as is – is a good one! Maybe not great (and certainly not perfect), but a good one, one which may be good enough to inspire a casual TV viewer to check out the anime which is also available on Netflix (sans the movie, which is now commanding outrageous prices on eBay as a result…thanks Sony)! The most exciting thing about this new version is that it IS different enough that I have no idea where the show will go in season two. If I felt like I was walking down a path I’d walked before, maybe I would be more sour about this. Since I feel like this is a familiar but new journey, I look forward to seeing where it goes from here on out!

Grade: B

Your Comic Book Guy - Kevin

Post a Comment