‘Cowboy Bebop’ Live-Action Vs. Anime – How The Adaptation Died Due To Creative Missteps


A saxophone blows. A whistle tunes in, and a window looks out to outer space. Three eccentric individuals sit on the couch on the Bebop, while the television plays Big Shot, with two voices declaring the next bounty prize. How 2021 adapted this iconic image of the 1998 anime, Cowboy Bebop, has created quite the controversy. Adaptations have always been a gray area for the intense arena of creativity, imitation, and of course, fandoms. A lot goes into being careful with the story, the characters, and the themes, hence any additions or alterations come under massive scrutiny. 

That being said, director Shinichirō Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop had left fans wondering how a live-action film could frame the deeply philosophical space-western. 2021 brought that imagination into force, with an ambiguous first season. The five archetypes – the picaro cowboy, Spike Spiegel, conflicting ex-cop Jet Black, femme fatale gambler Faye, hacker kid Radical Edward, and an adorable, hyper-intelligent corgi, Ein – devour the scene in grueling battles with criminals, not because they’re heroes trying to save galaxies, but bounty hunters on the lookout for cash. The broken man wearing the anti-hero tag in 5 different colors sure sounds like a lofty western plot, but therein lies the beauty of the show; it’s nothing like that.

The show shines the brightest for fans due to its comedic nonchalance during action-fueled scenes. The heavy themes of isolation, loss, dystopia, and betrayal are dealt with via masterful lore, making us excited while the characters are allowed to develop. Let’s find out the changes that the 2021 live-action brought to the original Cowboy Bebop animation.

Why The Original Cowboy Bebop Was Adapted To Live-Action?

Cowboy Bebop’s live-action journey, from afar, definitely differed from the rest of the beloved lot. As witnessed through unsuccessful adaptations such as Ghost in the Shell and Netflix’s Death Note, the origin of live-action criticism lies in the “whitewashing” of Asian characters in a Japanese setting. Being set entirely in space, Cowboy Bebop doesn’t concern itself with the spirit of nationality (the earth is literally on the verge of near-destruction). Keeping this in mind, the live-action creators had the artistic liberty to portray anything; the creative freedom was massive, allowing for a multicultural diversity like no other. Secondly, before I’m buried in rocks thrown at me, (hear me out), the English dub is equally impressive as the Japanese sub. Therefore, a Western adaptation seemed like an exciting sample to test in the risky waters of anime adaptations.

Cowboy Bebop Ending, Explained Summary Ending Explained 1998 Anime Series

An Anime With Genre Hybridity 

Cowboy Bebop is hard to classify into a genre when so clearly, the space-western becomes cyberpunk, film noir becomes fiction, yakuza becomes horror, all under a space opera, and that’s just saying without including Spike’s witty dialogues, or the comedic aspect of things. A rich medley of popular genres show flexibility in adapting this anime. Non-anime watchers get a go-ahead, if Star Wars, Quentin Tarantino, Blade Runner, and dinner banter are things they might enjoy.

The Parallels Begin

The difference between the live-action and the original lies in why non-watchers of the anime enjoyed it more than the hardcore loyalists of the anime did. The anime’s worldbuilding carries creative freedom, letting them explore the depth of 2-dimensional animation in the most stupendous way possible! Hence, we become skeptical of those brilliant Spike Spiegel fight scenes about to be engulfed in CGI. Animation captures the essence of the tiniest movements. That silent understanding between the audience and the subdued expressions were distorted in a gaudy display in live-action motion.

Why Netflix Canceled 2021, Live-Action 'Cowboy Bebop' : From Fans Perspective
Credits: Netflix

The Plot Change Argument

The anime’s 23-minute episodes briskly framed the memorable incidents of the day. It took advantage of serialized television style to blossom the storyline via minute intricacies throughout the series. Meanwhile, every live-action episode spanned over 40 minutes of in-depth character expositions. The characterization was something they relied highly upon, and in the process, missed out on the offbeat carefree vibe of the anime. While presenting a particular incident, every episode uses its time developing on the character arcs as well. Jet’s daughter, Faye’s enthusiasm, Gren’s overt presence are additions that Netflix thought it could develop in future seasons, but alas, the cancellation deemed otherwise.

The Iconic Trio

Spike defines the charismatic cowboy, not one for batting eye to sadness, ultimately falls prey to vulnerability in love. This intense arc in the anime draws out even amid the adventures and fight scenes that unravel simultaneously. That very arc has now transformed into spotlighting on a tragic backstory. This made the episodes significantly longer. That is to say, John Cho most definitely got to flex his brilliant acting chops, incorporating Spike as he knew him. The bonding of Spike and Jet in the lonesome Bebop was a big part of the anime, which seamlessly manifested in the chemistry between the two actors.

Fun fact: Cho loved Spike so much, he learned the Spike walk and the exaggerated slouched posture months before training for the series. Daniella Pineda delivered her take on the purple-headed gambler persona brazenly. Brash and shrewd, yet failing to recollect her memories, Faye came back with a change of heart. She developed empathy, displayed warmth, and earned newfound recognition in this new version. The trio was not definitive of three ruthless bounty hunters, but of a genuine friendship between three people trying to find a place in the world.

Speaking of friendship and bonding, Mustafa Shakir played the essential big brother arbitrator Jet Black. Jet’s character was significantly improved upon, or as some would say, diminished to a struggling family man. The introduction of his daughter, Kimmie, was the live-action’s many efforts to render the characters more human. To the viewer unfamiliar with the anime’s trio, Jet becomes a father figure with a purpose in life. His daughter’s happiness constantly hovers over his mind. This contradicted the creed that the anime’s Jet carried with him, proclaiming “never chase if the other leaves.”

The Iconic Trio in Cowboy Bebop
Credits: Netflix

Old Characters, New Design

While fans welcomed the nuanced warmth and friendship between the trio, some character alterations went too far. Vicious is defined by a cold stare and the invincible air he carried, shrouded in a mysterious silence. That is very loudly broken in the live-action by Alex Hassel’s theatrical display of the villain. To devote an hour-long synopsis, introducing an out-of-place Spike/Vicious bond during their Red Dragon Syndicate days in an awkward coming-of-age manner, is redundant at best, especially when it’s a villain who we only know is sadistic enough to kill and fend for his own. Vicious’ screen time ruins his image into a petty, petulant villain, instead of what he was known as: the dark mirror to Spike.

Julia was a more distant image in Spike’s mind than an active character in the anime, highlighting Spike’s more vulnerable side. She only leaves a trace of betrayal in his life. The live-action with actress Elena Satine flashing luscious blonde hair and good dress designs flips a complete 180 on her character. The conflict between Vicious and Spike now circles around a mere love triangle, with Julia connecting their dots with her “every man wants me” fragile portrayal.

The first season of the live-action managed to introduce overwhelming character descriptions that eclipsed the beauty of the original show. While all that’s being said on defamiliarizing the familiar atmosphere, the 2021 Cowboy Bebop is more of a traditional sci-fi show when considered as a standalone instead of an adaptation. We see it as a story of a disjointed life of space bounty hunters in a cat-and-mouse adventure chase.

'Cowboy Bebop' Live-Action Trio
Credits: Netflix

Credit Where Credit is Due

The beauty in Sunrise’s sketching out of the year 2071 wherein intergalactic travel is rampant remains unmatched, and rightfully so. It is ludicrous to think a frame-by-frame imitation would carry the weight of beauty as distinctly as the anime does. Nonetheless, Netflix’s efforts into faithfulness didn’t go unnoticed. The set designs were fairly well done. The station design and visual graphics oozing out of Jet’s Bebop are quite brilliant in execution. The dirty streets of a western drama, with elements of futuristic sci-fi, was a great amalgamation, making the world of Cowboy Bebop immersive enough for audiences. Ein was incorporated with the aid of two trained huskies in live-action, obviously too adorable to be critiqued.

Adding the beautiful contemporary jazz accompanying every scene, that is a highlight hard to miss. Apart from teetering on the talent of composer Yoko Kanno, the live-action showcases neutrality to the genre. The live-action kept the jazz and blues atmosphere intermixed, the western noir beautifully syncing with retro science-fiction. Yoko Kanno went a step beyond, introducing new music with the classic old ones.

Final Thoughts

The original Cowboy Bebop carries the essential “bittersweet” element of existential themes, which the 2021 version completely morphs out, decimating the sweet into too sweet, and amplifying the bitter into a loud glare. Netflix’s take on the anime was more of a creative tribute than a mere adaptation, and the effort put behind it does not go unappreciated.

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Soumini Banerjee
Soumini Banerjee
Soumini Banerjee is a second year undergraduate student at the Jadavpur University, Kolkata West Bengal, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative literature. She believes the world becomes a little better every time someone sees and appreciates a Scorsese movie. She is a great enthusiast of abstract art and anime. Painting her mind and doodling things frequently lying on her desk, are her escapades.

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