I’m wary of live-action adaptions of animated stuff. Sometimes, it ends up pretty well, like Speed Racer (which is a kinetic flurry of fun that, even though it is live-action, does feel in many ways as if it is still a cartoon). Sometimes you get the disaster that was The Last Airbender. It’s a tricky process because oftentimes what works in animation is meant to work in animation (can you think of a live-action Gravity Falls working half as well as the cartoon?). The other thing is that animation is already a fully-realized piece of temporally-concurrent visual storytelling. Really, the main difference in consuming an animated work versus one in live-action is that one’s animated and the other’s, uh, live. Plus, with the advent of CGI the line between the two is getting more and more blurred (Is Avatar technically a cartoon?).
It’s almost as if there’s a bias against animated work as being considered real art!
But anyway. One such adaption that’s been looming closer is Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop. The original Cowboy Bebop is an anime I discovered way later than you’d expect, especially given how much I like Firefly. It’s a genre-bending show that’s though set in what’s certainly a science fiction milieu, merrily draws from Westerns, classic Americana stories, and Hong Kong cinema with its premises, storytelling, and characterization. The show carries itself with aplomb, twisting genre with a deft confidence that quickly puts you under its spell. This is a tv show about space bounty hunters and epic grudges that also has an episode that’s got more in common with Smokey and The Bandit than anything else. The show works because it folds it all into the scope of its wide, wide world and there you have it, a classic anime.
Seeing it in live-action, with John Cho as lead Spike Spiegel, is certainly an interesting prospect. I mean, of course I want more Cowboy Bebop stories; it’s a great show and a lot of fun so, yes, let’s watch more. Netflix released the opening credits for their adaption and it’s a wonderful recreation of the original with a few flourishes added in (Spike falling between walls of words is an excellent visual touch). A lot of it looks right, the characters look the part, the glimpses of the spaceships look ripped straight from the anime. Which is great, but it also looks ripped straight from the anime. Besides the novelty of seeing a flesh-and-blood Spike, Jet, and Faye (and Ein!), what else is it bringing to the table? Do we need this, or is it just going to end up being a pale imitation of the anime?
I think that the best thing the Bebop adaptation can do is to not try to be an adaptation of the anime. Least not in so far as a live-action tv show taking all its cues from an animated story — we already have that, it’s the original. Instead, Bebop needs to go back to what influenced the original anime. It’s the idea of going back to the primary source rather than the anime that already drew on its influence. The anime works so well because it’s not aping an adaption of Bonnie and Clyde, it’s taking its notes from Bonnie and Clyde proper. For a live-action version to succeed (and even reach a place where it can stand on its own, it’s gotta do the same. I don’t want to see a live-action version of the anime’s Bonnie and Clyde, I want to see how the live-action Cowboy Bebop works Bonnie and Clyde into their story.
Basically, instead of trying to adapt the anime, remake it. We’ve already seen a fairly realistic-looking rendition of the idea — it’s the anime. So reinterpret its DNA and show us something different, like how so many people have done different versions of a Shakespeare play. I can always rewatch the anime, I want the live-action adaptation to be able to stand on its own as well as a complement to the original anime.
But man, I am looking forward to more Cowboy Bebop all the same. Because man, it’s really such a cool show (c’mon Netflix, get it right!).