Media Review: Cowboy Bebop

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The live-action Cowboy Bebop remake recently (2021) came out on Netflix (and then subsequently canceled), so I figured I would take the time to reflect on all of the time I’ve spent watching the series. One thing that I tend to do with series I enjoy are multiple watches, so if I only watch something once it either means that I haven’t had time to mentally process it the first time (Neon Genesis Evangelion comes to mind), or that it wasn’t good enough to elicit a rewatch.

I’m not doing a full literary analysis on the entire series (I did my share of those in high school) but I do want to break down and talk about some of the things that I found interesting enough to make this series one of my top 3 favorite anime of all time.

This is your first and final warning that this review will be spoiler heavy.

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF)

In order of priority, watch if you…

  • Have never watched the series: Original Series (subbed)
  • Need more after completing the series: Movie (subbed)
  • Insist on dubs for some reason: Original Series (dubbed)
  • Don’t mind your burger with the ingredients shuffled, mustard instead of ketchup, and about half of it missing: Netflix Remake

Series Overview

The original series debuted in 1998 and was directed by Shinichirō Watanabe. A feature length movie followed in 2001, also directed by Watanabe. In 2021, Netflix debuted and then subsequently canceled a live action version, developed by Christopher Yost.

Personal Chronology

I first watched the dubbed original episodes in 2016 while I was in college. I had always heard it recommended as one of the great masterpieces but had never really considered diving into it. Of course, there was plenty of time in college to spend watching shows, so that’s what I did. Soon after completing the main series I also watched the movie. Some time later, I thought, well, the dubbed series seems to be highly recommended by the internet, let’s try that in 2020. Finally, the first (and only) season of the Netflix live action was released in November 2021, and I actually managed to watch it within a few days of it releasing (unlike some other Netflix shows). I have not read the manga but may eventually do so (and I will modify this review in the future with that if I do).

Subbed + Movie

I’m going to talk about both the original animated series and the follow up movie. They are both stylistically similar visually, but are thematically different enough to talk about separately.

Visuals#

I found the visuals to be quite good given the fact that it was animated in 1998. However, watching nearly 20 years later proved to make it look quite outdated. Can’t be helped, I suppose.

I found the environments fascinating though. I really wanted to live in this universe that was presented, where everyone owns a personal spacecraft, and where interplanetary travel is quite literally as common as getting on a plane. While it’s set in 2071, it’s clearly more in the realm of the currently impossible, rather than something that might exist 80 years from when the show was created. Habitable environments on each planet, magic warp gates which speed up travel between planets to a few hours, and space stations all over the galaxy.

The use of different cultures as backdrops for specific planets was an interesting touch. Earth, completely destroyed and flooded. Mars, the birthplace of many of the characters (including Mr. Spike Spiegel) and seemingly the new “Earth” in the sense that everything happens there. Some planets had a snowy dingy theme while some had big vibrant cities. Some took the name of Earth locations (Tijuana from the series) and some just used the name for theming the area and characters (Morocco St. from the movie).

I did appreciate the use of space in the settings both in a literal and figurative sense. Literally, space allows the use of an extra dimension in fights that wouldn’t normally be possible except with a fighter jet. Interestingly, the personal spacecraft occasionally enter the atmosphere on different planets and act just like fighter jets, subject to the physics of an actual atmosphere. However, in the vacuum of space, you can travel any sort of which way and be totally in reason to do so. In a figurative sense, it allows for distinct separation of concepts and ideas. While each planet has many cities and locations, we only focus on a few. Space acts as the medium in between each location, and in only a few episodes are relevant to the story. I would’ve liked to have seen more things in space, as a lot of things seemed to take place in the cities.

Speaking of cities, a small nitpick is that gravity doesn’t seem to be affected any differently on, say, Mars over Earth. I suppose if you were born on Mars you’d be used to Martian gravity, but then wouldn’t you maybe be shaped differently due to biological constraints? I don’t know, we haven’t successfully sent anyone to Mars yet, so it’s hard to say. But hey, they have mag boots that can stick to surfaces (I guess Colin Furze style) so maybe they solved the gravity problem. And, one of the episodes features medicine to fund for treatment for blindness, but also a pill to solve the helium rich atmosphere.

Story#

I found the story to be quite good overall. It’s a rather interesting premise: a ragtag group of bounty hunters have some adventures through the solar system and one dies at the end. But, I felt like it was too vague in some places. Background stories were a little light, although it was covered for all 4 main characters (even 5, if you include Ein). That IS better than you can say for most other shows, however even if the intended result is that the characters have a mysterious past, it ends up feeling like I’m missing out on something. You end up not caring so much though, because the rest of the story draws you in.

However, one of my main criticisms is that there are many filler episodes that really didn’t do much to develop the characters. I understand that it is at it’s core a Japanese TV show that runs for 26 episodes with a mid-season finale. However, these filler episodes do almost nothing to advance the main plot. You could maybe justify it by saying that they serve as comedic breaths of relief from the otherwise darker main plot, but I don’t buy it. One of them is literally just Ed finding psychotropic mushrooms and making the entire crew trip balls for the entire episode. Another is Spike crashing and repairing the Swordfish, which doesn’t do much except to serve as the standard jab at Americans but also the token sportsball episode.

A common phrase repeated by reviewers is the theme of “being unable to escape the past”. It’s a rather depressing theme, but rings quite true. Spike, forever haunted by ghosts of the syndicate and his past lover. Jet, left to be alone by his work partner(s), multiple times. Faye, unable to close on lost memories and lost places. Ed, abandoned by her father, again.

At this point, I have seen 4 different Shinichirō Watanabe works and DOUBLE SPOILER ALERT: in half of the ones I’ve seen, one or more main characters die at the end. While 4 is a very small sample size, it’s enough for me to expect something sudden and final at the end. If they don’t die, the characters go their separate ways, and never interact again, which you can consider as a death of the story as we know it.

Characters#

The characters are as loosely connected as the episodes are. They have camaraderie but don’t have any sort of bond with each other. This bond, of course, is saved until the finale, when Spike leaves and Faye comes back and Jet is left alone? Or with Faye? This much is also unclear. It turns out they had camaraderie but didn’t want to admit it, but in a sense, also fits with the theme of the series.

Spike - I found him to have an mildly confusing backstory, as the show waited until end of mid-season and end of the entire season to flesh out his character. He’s an ex-syndicate member who did…what? And is looking for a lady for…reasons? He’s a neat character and has got good moves, but a few things I would have liked expansion on.

Jet - Pretty plain and simple. Ex-cop turned bounty hunter. The only thing that everyone goes back to. Surprisingly secondary to Spike. Maybe even tertiary, as Faye had a far more interesting backstory and involvement.

Faye - Surprisingly complex. For a lady who lost all her memories, she is constantly driven to discover her past, only to find nothing left. The subplot of her getting defrosted could have used some work. That part wasn’t quite explained and although I didn’t really need an entire episode on her starting her new life, it is more backstory than Jet or Spike combined.

Vicious - Extremely underdeveloped. What exactly is his role in the story other than to serve as an antagonist to Spike? And his relation to most other people, including the Syndicate for that matter? Some more expansion on Spike and his relationship in the syndicate would have been nice, outside of a 2 second clip of them fighting back to back.

Julia - Completely unexplained. Who is she? How did her and Spike meet? Why is the Syndicate involved? Why does Vicious want her to kill him? She shows up at the end and dies. An impactful moment but felt like a complete waste - obviously that was somewhat the point, but would have been more impactful if we knew more things about her.

Ed - Honestly, a side character that serves very little purpose. No character development, and disappears as quickly as she appeared.

Ein - Dog. The only smart one.

Movie#

I watched the movie not too long after and it was nice to see characters alive and working together. However, it was clearly made later (the 16:9 aspect ratio and modern city setting are quite obvious). There was a lot less of the space aspect than I would have liked, and mostly took place in city settings. Which, was a little disappointing given the possibilities a full movie could have brought. Heck, the Bebop was docked for 99% of it. The personal ships were only taken out as if they were cars or fighter jets, and this point is further driven home by the use of unflightworthy museum pieces to deliver the vaccine to save the day. But, it was at least a complete story from start to end and provide enough backstory for the antagonists to be not confusing.

Music#

We can’t talk about Cowboy Bebop without talking about the music. I mean music is literally part of the NAME of the show. The music is oh so very good, and the fact that an entire band (The Seatbelts) was created just to make music for the show tickles me quite a bit. I also quite enjoy their live (1) versions (2). The musicians are quite talented in their own right (1) on their own (2), so it’s no wonder that the music is so well done. Tank! at this point is as iconic as the show itself.

Audience#

I’m not as familiar with the different genres of anime but this is definitely aimed squarely at the Japanese audience. There are cultural nuances that I still don’t understand, and of course the voice acting and writing are all intended for Japanese television.

Recommendation#

Watch it. People don’t call it a masterpiece for nothing. With it’s reputation, it’s no exaggeration that it was revolutionary for its time and still holds up today.

Dubbed

I never watched the dubbed series when it first aired on TV. I believe it aired on both Adult Swim and Toonami, but I never saw it in either place. I also believe a large portion of the Western audience saw it on both of these networks with the English dub, which is why several lines that aren’t in the direct translation are repeated by many fans. I was extremely confused when I watched the original series and saw none of these lines that were parroted, but it became clear once I watched the dubbed series.

This topic is also quite hot in the anime world, and fans often misquote Watanabe as saying the show has the best dubs (under the section “Gossip Evolution”).

Don’t get me wrong, for an early 2000s show, the dubbing is quite good. I believe the Netflix version uses a later dub, and when I watched it, I didn’t find it completely offensive. However, it has usual dub weaknesses of being overly expressive in an attempt to lip sync, rather than direct translations. I always wonder why studios don’t just use the translations and directly voice those instead? Might be a licensing or rights issue, but it’s jarring to expect certain words or phrases and never get them.

Audience#

Intended for Western audiences, it provides an English version of the story as it was intended. Several key differences, but mostly the same.

Recommendation#

Sure. If you insist on watching anime dubbed, watch the dub. It’s decent for a dub, and you basically get 99.9% of the same story. A couple words changed here or there doesn’t affect things THAT much.

Manga

Surprise section! If you’re seeing this I haven’t read it. If I do, I’ll update this with my review.

Audience#

Apparently there are two series, and both are Shōjo.

Recommendation#

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Live Action

Watching this is mostly what prompted writing this review. A lot to talk about here, so strap in. I will also be comparing the remake with the original.

Visuals / Sets#

I quite enjoyed the visuals of the remake. It was like taking the original as you thought you remembered it and making it as HD as you remembered it to look, just like video game remasters. Going back to watch the original episodes, you can’t help but think, these backgrounds was a lot less detailed than I remember it being. Some creative liberties taken, but none I minded too much. The important bits like the different rooms in the Bebop and the personal ships are what were the most iconic and important. Bits like Annie’s bar (small shop in the original versus a nightclub in the remake) changed quite dramatically. That being said, Annie’s bar is likely a mashup between Annie’s shop and the nightclub that Gren performs at in the original. I did like the touch of using masks for the Syndicate leaders, rather than actual old dudes. That was quite appropriate, as well as the room they’re in. I would’ve liked to see more of them at the space casino, especially given that there are multiple plots in the original involving a casino but only the first episode in the remake. There was a lot less space than I would’ve liked in the remake, which is only slightly understandable given the time it was produced.

Visceral VFX was a little lacking. Punch and loud, but obviously fake. Not sure how this would’ve translated from anime either way, as in cartoons you can draw how much blood comes out however you want. But it was jarring enough to stand out. Felt cheap at times.

You can tell sets were heavily utilized as most interior shots have 3 walls, a top, and a bottom. While I don’t know if that’s just a side effect of the constraints of filming during a pandemic, the lack of budget for a green screen, or the lack of scenes that DON’T require an enclosed set, it stood out quite a bit considering I didn’t notice it at all in the original series. I have to mention space again here as in space, you can travel in infinite directions and have all the room in the world to maneuver. Not in the remake though.

The camera shots were questionable. Several Dutch angles, several unnecessary flips and rotations. This isn’t a music video, you’re making TV to watch. Several shot for shot remakes stand out, but they REALLY stand out as thematically they don’t fit in with the rest of it. Either remake it all, or recreate most of it shot for shot.

Actors / Acting#

I felt that all of the actors were appropriately cast for the role they were given. Which is not necessarily equivalent to the role they are supposed to be playing. But, for the style and tone of the writing, they all fit extremely well.

Spike (John Cho) and Jet (Mustafa Shakir) were excellent picks, with only Jet’s lines being a little stiff at times. Faye (Daniella Pineda) brought energy that wasn’t in the original but was enjoyable bordering on slightly annoying (but I attribute that to the writing). Vicious (Alex Hassell) was a little out of left field but worked out quite well in the end as the dark broody type. Julia (Elena Satine) was the most questionable casting, but we’ll get to that in the writing. Ed (Eden Perkins) showed up for literally about 30 seconds at the very end. Ein is a Corgi.

It was slightly strange to have Vicious (Hassell, 41) be silver haired, while in contrast Spike (Cho, 49) with black hair. Although I will say, John Cho looks good for 49. In scenes with less makeup, you can see a bit of the age showing, but hard to tell otherwise.

Fight Choreography#

I felt that the fight choreography wasn’t great. I do know that John Cho managed to injure himself during the filming process and that probably didn’t help much, but you could clearly see punches not landing. At least the camera angle should have been so it looks like they are at least somewhat contacting, otherwise it just looks like an awkward pantomime of what fighting is. I suspect that stunt doubles weren’t used partially because of budget and partially because of the pandemic-era filming as that would increase the number of people needed on set. But, I’m sure there were SOME production tricks you could have used to work around it.

Story / Writing#

The story is what I had the biggest issue with in the remake. Which both is and isn’t surprising, given Netflix’s track history of remakes - however, this is the first that I’ve seen. I feel that a lot of people would not have minded a shot-for-shot recreation of the original series with live action instead. But, when you change entire plot points and characters and settings, now you’re asking for trouble. In my mind, the remake is fundamentally a different story than the original, but one that just happens to share settings and characters.

It’s especially obvious that this is an adaptation especially with the style of writing (very mainstream Western audience) and the plot points (introduction of extra characters and mashing some settings together). It removes the nuances and subtleties of a lack of detail and replaces it with in-your-face blatant statements, and ends up really dumbing it down.

On the point of plot, the remake only covers up to the mid-season finale of the original, with plot points shuffled together like a deck of cards, while some cards are hand selected from the other half of the deck, and randomly discarding some cards entirely.

Characters#

Let’s talk characters.

The Spike/Vicious/Julia storyline is extremely strange. In the original series, Julia’s backstory is entirely unexplained. Julia’s relationship with Vicious is also barely implied in passing, and only serves as a driving motivator for Spike to try to go after. In the remake, we turn the whole thing upside down. Julia is now a greenhorn singer at Annie’s. Vicious acts like an angsty teen that picks her up and drops her off to go brood in a corner. Spike is the friend in the wings to pick up the pieces. When Spike leaves, she returns to Vicious and marries (?) him. And by the end of the remake, she chains Vicious to a post in a basement somewhere and she becomes the head of the Syndicate.

Wait, what? Where was ANY of this in the original series? I get that this is an adaptation, but this is very jarring and unexpected. Not only that, but it wasn’t even really presented until near the end, so it clearly wasn’t that important to begin with. But this changes the entire motivations of Spike AND Vicious…from the lack of description in the original series. Julia kind of just exists in the original, shows up at the end, and dies. That’s honestly her entire purpose - to serve as something that Spike cannot get back.

On the other hand, the added context and backstory to Spike and Vicious working together in the Syndicate I actually liked quite a bit. That was something that ended up being the 5 second clip of them fighting back to back in the original.

Jet’s backstory was irrelevant at best and completely unnecessary at worst. In order to add SOME character to Jet, the writers decided to give him an ex-wife, a husband who was his old boss, and a kid. None of these were in the original, and it’s clearly something only Western writers could come up with. I felt that the original backstory of “ex-cop turned bounty hunter” was honestly, good enough. Why complicate things? Why add extra subplots of trying to find a toy for your kid? That really took me out of it. Shots of houses in what is obviously an actual (Earth) neighborhood with planets CGI-ed into the sky? No, thank you.

Faye had a lot more character this go around, which was both good and bad. Good, in that she was a lot more interesting to follow, but bad in that some of it felt unnecessary. There were definitely points shoehorned in from the original (mysterious VHS backstory, which, I would argue could’ve been cut and the story would’ve been fine), and weird other seemingly unnecessary story beats (why did she randomly have a lesbian experience with the mechanic? It didn’t really help the plot move at all…and when did she become a lesbian to begin with?).

Writing#

Speaking of story beats, let’s talk about the writing. Hoo boy, the writing.

Clearly intended for Western audiences, it’s loose and informal, as mainstream productions seem to be leaning towards nowadays. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but is a stark contrast to the original where the performance was mostly done by voice and not by facial or body language. However, there were a LOT of jokes added to the remake. The original basically didn’t have any, and this shift in tone sets the remake apart quite a bit. From a somewhat serious space neo-noir story to a scifi comedy with some story mixed in, it’s quite a difference.

It kind of felt like the writers read an IMDB summary of each episodes major plot points and then kinda skimmed the original episodes and tried to write new ones. But what they ended up doing was plagiarizing the original points and slapping together as many plot points together as they could, without considering how that would affect the overall story. The “different directors per episode” thing definitely didn’t help this aspect any. Subtlety is not a word in the writers' dictionary.

I keep mentioning shoehorning in plot beats from the original series, and while that statement is true, the writing also managed to include that in actual dialog. One that stood out the most was the use of one of the most iconic phrases from the original series that shows up on the end card of the finale and isn’t even voiced - “You’re gonna carry that weight”. For some reason, the writers decided to use that in the middle of episode 7 or 8 - I can’t remember the exact number, but it’s very much not the season finale, and most definitely does not apply to it’s context, which I think was Faye yelling at Jet. It diluted the entire phrase, which is something I can really say about the writing of the entire series, but is one of the clearest examples I can think of.

And finally the ending. It was weak and obviously setting up for a sequel. However, now that the series is canceled, it leaves a lot of open ended questions that should not have been left open. Questions, that definitely did not exist in the mid-season finale of the orignial series. Ones like, what’s Julia going to do now that she’s in charge? How are they going to mess up Spike’s death? Is Vicious ever going to be released from the basement? Are they still going to go on a literal mushroom trip?

Music#

I will say, the fact that the showrunner insisted on getting the Seatbelts and Yoko Kanno back to perform the music for the remake is probably one of it’s only redeeming qualities.

Audience#

This is aimed directly at Western audiences. In contrast to the dub, which used the original material, this is more of an adaptation, with hints of similarities to the original series. The writing all point to more mainstream Western tastes.

Recommendation#

A solid “it depends”/no. If you watched the original series and don’t want to see it “ruined”, skip it. If you want to see about half of the original story with some very different plot points and written for Western audiences but in live action, watch it. If you are watching this series for the first time and absolutely can’t sit through 26 episodes, watch this.

Conclusion

Watch the original series. It’s good. If I can blab about it for about 4500 words, you should watch it. Watch the movie if you really want to see the characters again for some classic action. Watch the live action if you really don’t have time for the original and don’t mind that the plot takes a complete detour at points.

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