Cowboy Bebop Is Hollywood’s Best Chance at Doing Anime Right
Netflix’s plans for the TV series may finally give Japanese cartoons a shot at live-action success
Last week, Netflix announced a live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop, a Japanese anime series that has been an American favorite since it was imported back in 2000. It might not seem like huge news, since U.S. studios have been grabbing up the rights to hit anime for years now, despite the fact that these movies (such as the recent Ghost in the Shell) have almost totally been horrible. A U.S.-made Cowboy Bebop would almost certainly suck as well — except that Netflix, perhaps inadvertently, might have finally figured out the key to turning anime into live-action success.
This is good, because the world has enough problems without adding a crappy adaptation of the coolest animated series of all time to it. While it’s primarily a science fiction story about four bounty hunters adventuring through the solar system — the laconic Spike Spiegel, his patient partner Jet Black, the beautiful Faye Valentine, and the carefree genius Ed — Bebop perfectly integrates American westerns, film noir, Chinese martial arts movies, and hardboiled detective stories. Then, there’s the show’s critically acclaimed soundtrack by Yoko Kanno, which is… well, please just listen to the show’s theme song “Tank!” and try not to groove:
The end result is a staggeringly entertaining, 26-episode show that hasn’t aged a bit and has remained one of the most popular anime series ever. It’s been an Adult Swim mainstay since the programming block debuted in 2001. Before Netflix’s announcement, Fox had been attempting to make a Cowboy Bebop movie, with Keanu Reeves set to star as Spike; the movie languished for years in development hell because of budgetary issues. I’m not sure whether Netflix has resolved these issues or is just reaching into its enormous vault of cash, but of the many projects the streaming company has announced, it would be foolish for it not to put a Cowboy Bebop series on the fast track.
But an American-made, live-action Cowboy Bebop’s success won’t come from its Western (or western) sensibilities, at least not entirely. The real key is in Netflix’s decision to make it a 10-episode series instead of a movie, which could make all the difference.
Here’s the thing about most anime series: They don’t make for good movies. Not in the way U.S. studios want, at least. When a studio licenses an action-packed, beloved anime series like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Naruto, Bleach, or Attack on Titan (just to name a few) it’s licensing TV shows that could be 26 — or maybe even hundreds of — episodes long. It looks for a single story, or story arc, that can be condensed and/or dissected into a single, simple plot, maximized for action and spectacle, in order to appeal to the millions of potential ticket buyers who aren’t anime fans.
But doing that kills the main appeal of most anime series, which values exploring the characters and their world more than telling a single story. It’s not that the story isn’t important, it’s that the show is in no real hurry to get to it. This is especially true of anime series based on manga (Japanese comics) like Naruto and Bleach, which run for hundreds and hundreds of episodes — and whose story arcs can take an entire year or more to tell. It’s the old “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” cliché, except this time the journey is the scenic route, which isn’t even in the same direction as the destination, and also there’s no ETA whatsoever. It can be frustratingly boring to some, but those with patience are rewarded with a much richer experience — their emotional investment in the characters and the story grows over time, making those plot developments and moments of character growth that much more satisfying.
Because anime and manga are usually masterminded by a single artist with a single vision, they are at their core a single tale.
Even though these story arcs can theoretically be condensed into a single movie, that doesn’t solve the other problem — that anime and manga are more than the sum of their parts. The story arcs that make up a series are rarely truly self-contained — not in the way, say, a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is. Because anime and manga are usually masterminded by a single artist with a single vision, they are at their core a single tale, even if that tale is a hundred TV episodes long (just FYI, the two series that adapted the Naruto manga combined to equal 720 episodes). The story arcs that make up the tale build off and progress naturally from each other, which means that taken individually they lose a lot of their narrative momentum, and thus their appeal, no matter how focused or action-packed they might be.
“Summing up” manga and anime into a movie inevitably makes them feel flat. It’s true of Netflix’s own live-action movie adaptation of the hit series Death Note, as well as 2009’s Dragonball: Evolution, which, to be fair, suffered from being god-awful on every conceivable level. Even the recent Ghost in the Shell streamlined its source material, a stand-alone movie, and suffered the same fate — although the whitewashing controversy of casting Scarlett Johansson as a character originally named “Motoko Kusanagi” didn’t help either.
This isn’t just a Hollywood problem, by the way; Japan has also made condensed versions of hit manga and anime series, both animated and live-action. At their best, they can be described as “fine.” Case in point: the very violent humans-vs.-giants series Attack of Titan, now licensed by Warner Bros. was condensed into three animated films, which made less than $50 million combined, and two live-action films, which also made less than $50 million. Meanwhile, over 76 million copies of the original manga have been purchased in Japan.
Cowboy Bebop is unique from these other series in that it only consists of 26 TV episodes — a mere blip compared to Bleach, Naruto, and Attack on Titan — but it still manages to have the same problem because it’s so episodic. Technically — very technically — the overarching story is about how Spike’s past as a member of a Chinese space crime syndicate catches up to him, but it’s mostly limited to the show’s final two episodes. The show’s richness derives entirely from the time we’ve spent with Spike and the rest of the Bebop crew, as they chase bounties, eat hallucinogenic mushrooms, meet the solar system’s smartest corgi, and more. You could make a movie out of Spike confronting his past, but it wouldn’t have close to the same emotional resonance as the show. You could tell an entirely new story — there was a 2001 animated Bebop movie that did this — but like the compilation films, it required viewers to come in with knowledge of and emotional investment in the characters to really enjoy.
This is why Netflix’s decision to adapt Cowboy Bebop into an actual series is so, so important. Giving all those potential viewers who aren’t in love with the anime 10 full episodes to get to know Spike, Jet, Faye, and Ed is exactly what Bebop — and almost any anime adaptation — needs. The fact that the show is already so accessible to Western audiences makes the U.S. adaptation’s chance of success even higher.
There are still a million ways for Netflix to screw this up, of course; Cowboy Bebop is a very special series, and replicating its many immense charms will be no easy feat. (Honestly, if they aren’t using Yoko Kanno’s original soundtrack — or new music from her — they shouldn’t even bother.) But with 10 episodes, a live-action series finally has the opportunity to give an entirely new audience a chance to see why Cowboy Bebop is one of the best-loved anime series of all time — and what people love about anime in the first place.