“And the work which has become a genre unto itself shall be called: Cowboy Bebop”
This phrase is proudly emblazoned across the seminal series like manifesto, a mission statement that this stylish mix of music, form and story is entirely its own beast. Sure enough, while the series – and creator Shinichiro Watanabe – is indebted to western media, its aesthetic is unique, nurtured during Japan’s ‘Lost Decade’ and realised in the nation’s technological dexterity at the turn of the millennium.
To say that live-action anime adaptations have been rocky is an understatement. Though Japanese live-action remakes tend to be stronger and truer to their source (see Fullmetal Alchemist) they’re still lacking something fundamental. Hollywood, however, is little better than the broadcasters who would cut up, redraw and censor anime in the nineties to better suit western sensibilities.
Cast your mind back to 2009 and the theatrical release of Dragonball Evolution. If you haven’t already erased it form your memory, that is. Surely its writer Ben Ramsey’s eventual apology to fans was enough for movie moguls to lay to rest the notion of adapting anime?
Apparently not. The casting controversy surrounding the US remake of Ghost in the Shell (GITS) was the only lasting impact from the 2017 flick, which barely made so much as a dent in the box office. It was impressive looking, true, but it lacked any real substance, and the treatment of Kusanagi was downright offensive (for a deeper dive, here’s our review).
Away from the major studios, the same issues still persist. Last year’s Death Note debuted on Netflix to a barrage of bad reviews. Not only did director Adam Wingard’s adaptation ruin the series’ mythology, but it left its characters unlikable and almost absent of anything that made the source material so special. One group of ardent fans even took it upon themselves to make a more faithful retelling.
Robert Rodriguez is the latest to take on a beloved anime property in Alita: Battle Angel. Following the release of the first trailer, some have claimed this will be the movie to shake up the status quo and prove Hollywood can make a decent adaptation. Of course, this same rhetoric tends to precipitate every attempt.
The series of box office bombs has put a slew of planned live-action anime on ice, from Akira and Naruto to Cowboy Bebop, which have long lingered in development hell. It seemed, for now, that these beloved properties were safe. But last year saw the announcement of a live-action Bebop TV series, and so the issue was whipped up again.
There are a number of key reasons why adapting Bebop is a bad idea, but to get the obvious out of the way, the property is inherently Japanese. Its desperate climate of bandits and bounty hunters is a cultural expression of economic stagnation between the nineties and early 2000s.
Although TV and film producers have been “getting anime wrong” for years, that hasn’t stopped creators from plundering Japan for inspiration. Many of the most influential science fiction properties cherry-pick Asian culture, though usually with white folks in the lead roles. Just look at Star Wars… or Blade Runner… or Firefly. But adapting Japanese narratives is an entirely different prospect altogether. The whitewashing of GITS was a placeholder for the deeper problem – the erasure of Japanese identity.
Bebop’s genesis may partly lie in Americana, but to say it’s catered towards westerners is short-sighted. Japanese identity can be seen throughout the series, in its characters, themes and technology. Adapting this story towards English-speaking moviegoers will inevitably do away with this ideology, much of which existed as subtext.
The second reason Hollywood and its ilk should steer well clear is the exuberance of anime itself. The story, characters and settings in Bebop were conceived as anime, and always intended to be realised in this particular art form. Animation offers unique means of telling stories which other mediums lack. The entire aesthetic of Bebop is stylised, slick and exaggerated.
In a bid to make his movie more like the source material, Rodriguez gave Rosa Salazar’s Alita huge CGI eyes, which has sparked no small amount of hullabaloo. Accurately portraying the characters, settings and situations in Bebop would require a huge amount of this kind of digital augmentation, to the point where one wonders if there’s much point in pursuing live-action. After all, Bebop is supposed to look grungy, a true used universe.
Perhaps it’s not apparent to producers that one of the reasons people adore anime is that it is anime. Yes, that might sound like a misnomer, but stick with me here. While Bebop’s character designs are more subdued than, say, Dragon Ball, its style is still unmistakable. People respond to and admire the anime aesthetic in the way film professors will fuss over the lighting in a Hitchcock thriller or wax lyrical about Terrence Malik’s use of colour. Bebop is inseparable from its look, so to deprive it of this style is to rob the series of one of its most fundamental components.
Cowboy Bebop is jazz in motion. It has all the flourishes and complexity of Watanabe’s best loved musical style. I’ve long argued that animation is the only real visual accompaniment to classical music, short of a live performance, and the same is true of jazz. By its own limitations, live-action doesn’t have the fluidity, flexibility or flair.
The last reason is by far the simplest and most superficial. Cowboy Bebop is so much a creation of its time. I mean that with the utmost love and respect. It was a reflection of Japan’s technological expertise, as well as being born out of a major recession from which the country’s wider economy is still recovering.
The popularity of Bebop in the west marked a real turning point for how anime was perceived globally, kicking down the doors that the success of Akira had opened years before. Much of what was shown on screen was speculative, but as with Ghost in the Shell, so much of the story is turning into fact that it no longer feels like daydreaming.
Although a planned live-action movie has long been in the works, the changing attitudes, both among viewers and industry execs, has seen a shift in the entertainment industry. With television now on par with the silver screen, it was inevitable that American producers would cast their gaze towards popular anime properties in search of the next big thing. Bebop will be the first to arrive in this current climate some have dubbed the “golden era of television”.
The adaption is being spearheaded by Los Angeles-based production company Tomorrow Studios who are joining forces with Sunrise, the studio that made Bebop back in the nineties, and a number of veteran TV producers. Although TV is the lesser of two evils as far as adapting Cowboy Bebop is concerned, make no mistake, the production is still Hollywood through and through. After all, Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok scribe Christopher Yost has been tapped to write the remake.
Speaking to Deadline, producer Marty Adelstein said: “The animated version has long resonated with audiences worldwide, and with the continued, ever growing, popularity of anime, we believe a live action version will have an incredible impact today given the reverence placed on the anime.”
Simply put, Cowboy Bebop can’t be adapted in a way that doesn’t compromise its significance. As much as this would earn the ire of fans, the worse crime would be to create a subpar movie or TV show that stains the series’ legacy.
So Hollywood, we emplore you, please leave Cowboy Bebop alone.