Mustafa Shakir, John Cho, and Daniella Pineda star in the live-action "Cowboy Bebop" adaptation.

Stripped and Sold for Parts — “Cowboy Bebop”

Netflix’s live-action “Cowboy Bebop” proves that camp filmmaking isn’t easy. Why the contemplative, atmosphere-drenched sci-fi anime has been turned into a campy hodge-podge of kitsch is anyone’s guess. It’s not the adaptation I’d want to see, but I’m game for the concept. The problem is this: if you’re going to carve out the soul of a source material and transplant another one in, you’d better have a firm grasp on what you’re replacing it with and why.

“Cowboy Bebop” follows Spike, Jet, and Faye, bounty hunters in a post-Earth solar system. They’re constantly scraping by while jumping from planet to planet for their next target. These targets often embroil them in local politics and vendettas. They do their best to stay clear of these with varying degrees of success. Spike and Faye both hold secrets about their former lives, while Jet abides and gives them the benefit of the doubt even when they let him down.

John Cho’s Spike, Mustafa Shakir’s Jet, and Daniella Pineda’s Faye are the best thing about this show. There are changes from the anime, but the biggest ones have less to do with how the characters act, and more to do with their stories.

This is where I want to tackle “Cowboy Bebop” from two angles. I firmly believe that an adaptation doesn’t have to be too accurate when it comes to the details. Story changes are fine, so long as they maintain the broader intentions and themes of the original.

I have issues with “Cowboy Bebop” as its own entity, and as an adaptation. I want to split those two things apart. Let’s start with:

“COWBOY BEBOP” AS ITS OWN THING…

For some reason, “Cowboy Bebop” wants to be camp. The anime it’s based on wasn’t, but adaptations should feel free to change things like this. The problem is that showrunner Andre Nemec seems to think that camp is just one thing. The tone shifts from 60s fumetti adaptations (take “Barbarella” as an English example) to 70s exploitation films, into 90s Hercules/Xena modes, and through Robert Rodriguez territory. There are a lot of situations in which that breadth of campiness would be incredible. There’s no problem with doing all of the above, but there is a problem if you don’t understand the difference between these forms of camp and what each requires from its filmmakers.

Let’s take stilted line delivery as an example to show you what I mean: Fumetti adaptations were 60s and 70s adaptations of European comics, often in Italian and French. Their awkwardness and aggressive absurdity served as a contrast to the French New Wave movement they also drew from. Less studio-bound, raw filmmaking techniques that emulated the real world sat next to ridiculous situations, dialogue, and line readings to create a dissonant viewing experience. The quality of actors speaking in languages they didn’t know or being covered by underfunded dubbing only served to accentuate this dissonance.

By contrast, exploitation films ranged from blaxploitation to Troma and at their best encapsulated a subversive, insurgent activism. Isolated line readings served to call attention to those lines with sleek delivery within a relaxed editing rhythm, creating cinematic icons where they hadn’t existed. Exploitation could build on the outsider narratives of noir to then critique the voluntary helplessness to which noir – and its viewers – often succumb. These line readings were intentionally highlighted as a way of dismissing challenges from those that this new iconography made uncomfortable. These would in large part be bastardized into the one-liners of 80s movies.

“Hercules” and “Xena” in the 90s faced stiff budgetary constraints. By calling attention to their own shortcomings, they invited the audience to join in the play of it all, to feel like a partner alongside the actors in the same campy sandbox. These series also served as a hotbed for low-budget cinematography and technical experiments that laid foundation to the New Zealand filmmaking renaissance that would follow.

Robert Rodriguez makes his camp deliberate, both existing in and commenting on the genres it uses. He dials up stylistic elements in order to see how much he can squeeze out of a budget. Every line is an opportunity for a character to show off. Regardless of how well it serves the story, Rodriguez wants his performances to offer a high melodramatic return-on-investment. Get the most out of a line, worry about how well it fits later.

They’re all camp, but each approach does something completely different, and is built on a different shot selection and editing pace. The writing and filmmaking priorities for each is completely different. If you don’t know the difference between these, then you don’t know what each needs to be successful, and this is just talking about what one element of camp needs to work.

The first episode of “Cowboy Bebop” plays with the mistimed acting cues of fumetti that “Barbarella” made such successful comedy of, with the Dutch angles and intentional tableau of Rodriguez, with the inviting meta and budget-limited middle distance creativity of “Hercules” and “Xena”, with the isolated line as cool character moment, but none of them are housed within the styles or technical elements that give each of these things a foundation.

The isolated, cool line reading of exploitation cinema does not work within the mistimed cue of a fumetto adaptation. The wide range of exacting tableau Rodriguez delivers doesn’t work when every tableau is filmed as a middle distance two-shot. Dutch angles highlight the artificial nature of a shot in order to evoke something uncomfortable in pushing us away; they work directly against a moment of meta humor that invites us to feel alongside the actors.

The live-action “Cowboy Bebop” seems to believe camp is easy just because it’s silly, but this misses the very things that help camp create coherent alternate realities of storytelling that drive home its themes. Camp filmmaking here is understood as a quirky monolith, but just these four foundations of camp come from four different eras, four different places (Europe, the U.S., New Zealand, Mexico), and they speak to four different storytelling cultures – and these four are hardly the only anchor points in the history of camp filmmaking.

This might seem like: who cares, this is delving way too far into something that’s just silly. I could just say “Cowboy Bebop” is a muddled pastiche that can’t settle on a style and be done with it. The truth is, though, that “Cowboy Bebop” has settled on a style, and that style smacks of appropriating what came before without understanding any of it. It evokes someone showing up and acting like they know how to do something without having done the work to understand how and why it functioned time after time before they even got there.

Those line readings are just one example that describe so many more. This misapplication of camp permeates every element of the show. There has to be a knowledge of what kind of camp you’re aiming for, why that works for this scene, and what else has to be there to support it.

Camp is about irony. If you don’t know which approach to use because you treat them all the same, then you don’t know how you’re being ironic. Everyone can tell what you’re being ironic about, that’s the easy part. Congratulations, you just made “Family Guy”. But if you don’t know how you’re being ironic, then your audience sure as hell doesn’t either. It’s like cutting to the punchline of a joke without telling the setup. You told the most important part, sure, but that hardly means it works.

If comparing “Cowboy Bebop” to “Undercover Brother”, the 2000 “Charlie’s Angels”, “Hercules”, “Xena”, or “G vs E” finds it outclassed every time, something’s gone really wrong. Hell, last year’s “Vagrant Queen” didn’t do a lot right, but the things “Cowboy Bebop” does wrong are almost entirely what “Vagrant Queen” did get right.

None of this is the fault of the actors, and “Cowboy Bebop” is ultimately saved to some extent on the sheer charisma and talent of its three leads. Cho, Shakir, and Pineda do great work when the filmmakers get out of their way long enough for them to do it.

I’ve wanted to review “Cowboy Bebop” on its own facets before addressing how it does as an adaptation. The decision to make this camp is one that could have worked much better. What bothers me before even thinking about this as an adaptation is that this is a bad representation of camp, the points it can make, and the stories it can tell.

That sense of someone showing up and thinking they can do better with something they don’t understand only gets worse when you consider:

“COWBOY BEBOP” AS AN ADAPTATION…

Setting those problems aside, how is this as an adaptation of the anime “Cowboy Bebop”? Its success depends on what you want out of it.

The first episode of “Cowboy Bebop” is a disaster, trying to cram in so many nods and Easter Eggs from the show that it feels like one of those pages from “Ready Player One” that lists a bunch of popular items in the hope it can convince you bulk recognition is the same thing as nostalgia. The show does improve markedly after this, but it’s an uphill climb in the hope of getting back to sea level.

Let’s get into those three leads. The casting is perfect, but these aren’t 1-to-1 portrayals, either. Each takes their character and makes it their own. This means some changes in traits and tone; that’s going to come with any adaptation.

Their stories are often substantially rewritten, and many of these changes seem needless. I’m fine with an adaptation making changes like these so long as there’s a good reason and they don’t betray core meanings – I think it can be argued that Jet’s, Faye’s, and especially Julia’s stories are changed to the point of violating core meanings.

Is there a good reason for these changes? That’s very arguable. Do we need Jet to be an absentee father, chasing after a doll for half the season? Is “Cowboy Bebop” the most apt place to be retelling “Jingle All the Way”?

No, that’s just filler. The show is rife with writing that takes complex relationships of partial trust and different views on moral quandaries and reduces them to Odd Couple sitcom dynamics. This sitcom-style rewriting has its ups and downs, and sometimes it’s even well done. Cho, Shakir, and especially Pineda bring a ton of energy to it. What they’re doing in “Cowboy Bebop” I have no idea, but these sitcom elements are the most watchable part of the show, and writing that sentence makes me feel like I need to take a shower.

In other cases, the adaptation changes major character plotlines so that it can fill in its own explanations. The original anime was content to keep a lot in the dark, just as the characters were from each other. When you explain what’s mysterious, though, you lose the mystery. Yes, that might be the single most obvious sentence I’ve ever had to write, but it seems to be the philosophy behind this adaptation. And again, that’s fine if you’ve got something to replace it.

What made the original “Cowboy Bebop” so enticing was that mystique. We didn’t know these characters as well as we wanted, and we filled in what we didn’t know with hope for them that they may not have had for themselves. That was compelling, and it brought out what was human in the viewer. It made us catch our empathy in our throats. It brought out the stark divide of watching their universe even as ours grows to look more and more like it. The criminals Spike, Jet, and Faye brought in for bounties were often the only ones fighting the corporatism, corruption, and exploitation that had ruined each of their lives, that was ruining lives every place they went.

In researching their bounties and trying to understand who they hunted, the trio would often commiserate and identify with their quarry’s motives, even if their target had long ago lost the thread or become corrupt. The show was a scream from inside a broken system, a warning of what’s to come in a world with no future.

Its adaptation carries no such complexity. This “Cowboy Bebop” gives passing reference to these contemplations and hand waves them away in favor of kooky bounty hunting antics. Its plot explanations lose the existential, mistaking what was once anxious, absurd, and alienating for comedy quirk.

Even when a story is expanded with a good reason, such as Julia’s, it runs directly against the biggest throughline “Cowboy Bebop” had. Julia deserves her own agency and story, something the original never found the time to offer. This “Cowboy Bebop” focuses heavily on her story, but in so doing doesn’t find the same message as the anime. Instead, it seems to say that empowerment can be found within the same corporatist system that “Cowboy Bebop” was created to warn against. Julia should have an awesome expanded story. It shouldn’t be one that finds the empowerment everyone else lacks in the very system that first allowed her to be abused and threatened, and that removes power from everyone else.

So much of what made the anime great was this idea that Spike, Jet, and Faye were functioning as cogs within a corrupt system just to make it by, while resenting that system for taking away their lives and making everyone’s future bleak. How do they marry this idea of helping the system to continue while constantly running up against those who’ve decided to resist? It’s a concept that has only grown more and more relevant today. For the live-action adaptation to suggest a character’s escape from that system is simply to become the one running it and abusing others is a devastating betrayal of the original’s message. It’s a misunderstanding not just of the anime’s social value, but of how that fight exists in people’s lives today. Within the context of an adaptation, it’s at best a misunderstanding of empowerment and at worst a lie about it.

This adaptation is – in every way it can be – the epitome of someone walking in and thinking they can do better with something they haven’t even done the work to understand at its most basic level.

I went in with tempered expectations because the anime is a masterpiece. You can’t compare an adaptation to a masterpiece. Yet if the adaptation turns its back on the ethos of the source itself, that’s difficult to overcome or justify. The style, the ethos, the message, all of it is gone, replaced with a camp approach that could still work as its own thing but fails to understand how and why camp is used.

And maybe it’s not the worst of these issues, but the best way I have to sum up the adaptation is this: the stillness of the original is gone. The anime “Cowboy Bebop” was centered on jazz and blues. Every viewing was a syncopation, a calm before a chaos. Each character represented a moral viewpoint that had been transgressed, yet was desperately held to. Tension was created in which would win out: The transgression or the moral? The chaos or the calm? The hunter or the bounty? The system or the motive that resists it?

The anime was jazz, in the truest sense of the word. Here, the jazz is just the soundtrack to an asset strip.

You can watch “Cowboy Bebop” on Netflix.

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