See Ya Space Cowboy: A ‘Cowboy Bebop’ (2021) Review

Do you like retro-futurism? Funky jazz? Spaghetti westerns? There’s a show that has them all in spades and even more! Believe it or not, such a show has existed for over 23 years. Yes indeed, I refer, of course, to Cowboy Bebop. The cult-favorite anime series captivated audiences with its amazing characters, unique spaceship designs, amazing score, deep and melancholy story, and fast-paced action. Why do I bring this up now? Netflix recently released the first season of their own live-action adaptation to the famous series.

Attention to Detail

I’m happy to say that it has every bit the same energy as its animated predecessor. We get sharp and angled close-ups and really fluid camera movements to add exactly the right style and flare to every scene. This is all kept on tempo by an amazing score by the original series’ composer Yoko Kanno. Truly spectacular jazz riffs accompany every awesome battle and every somber chat. It’s perfect. I’ve said to several people that this show has strong Speed Racer energy, and that is exactly the energy that this show needed. It’s bombastic and over-the-top everywhere that needs it but also knows when to take itself seriously. All of the things that characterize the anime are present and accounted for, and they add everything to the experience.

COWBOY BEPOP (L to R) JAN UDDIN as ASIMOV and LYDIA PECKHAM as KATERINA of COWBOY BEPOP Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

Sets are nearly perfect recreations from the original series. This is no small feat considering how detailed all of those sets are. Old VCRs sit comfortably by hologram projectors. Classic cars feel perfectly placed beside personal flying jets. Massive circular gates propel ships through space at light speed. Space ships, in all their classic Sunrise animation glory, are rendered with precision and care. These amazing machines are brought to life alongside these incredible people that pilot them. Speaking of the people, their costumes are flawless. They are the anime characters costumes made real. Seeing John Cho and Mustafa Shakir onboard the Bebop is nothing short of perfection. They also fixed Faye’s costume so that it’s not revealing for no reason. Faye gets to be her awesome self and also have a practical suit to wear! What are the odds?!

One of my favorite gimmicks from the anime also gets to make an appearance in the new adaptation: Punch and Judy. In an intergalactic most wanted show, these two colorful characters tell all the bounty hunters who’s on the lamb and where to go. These two are absolutely hilarious, and their dynamic is fun and clever. They’re a playful way to do exposition, and it was a treat to see them included here.

The Characters

The characters on Cowboy Bebop have been almost perfectly translated to the Netflix adaptation.

Spike Spiegel is the tortured romantic that hides behind humor while also being so much more. He manages to inject humor into the most tense situations, and brings a lot of levity to some serious moments. He longs for a life with his love, but knows that he can’t go back to her without risking them both. When he’s alone on the Bebop we know that she’s the only thing on his mind. He has to lie to his friend and partner about his past in the ominous Syndicate or risk being thrown out the airlock! Seeing the friend and partnership dynamic between Spike and Jet captured here was a complete and utter joy. John Cho does a stellar job portraying anime’s coolest character ever, and I can’t wait to see him come back for a second season. He manages to combine Spike’s pointed humor and trademark disinterest seamlessly.

Jet Black is one of my favorite characters in anime. Refreshingly, he’s strong and loyal while also being endearing. I’m very happy to say that he’s every bit as hard and grizzled as he should be here while also showing a mature softness. Seeing him trying desperately to connect with his daughter Kimmie and do right by her while simultaneously roaming the galaxy in search of dangerous criminals is a great juxtaposition. I’d trust my life to this man in a second. Mustafa Shakir kills it as Jet. There were a few moments while writing this when I would look down and forget that I was watching the new show. He absolutely IS Jet Black.

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COWBOY BEBOP (L to R) JOHN CHO as SPIKE SPIEGEL, DANIELLA PINEDA as FAYE VALENTINE, and MUSTAFA SHAKIR as JET BLACK of COWBOY BEBOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

Faye Valentine has some of the most emotional moments of the first season. Seeing her bravely confront everything that comes at her with snark and skill is fantastic. I feel like this is how Faye was always meant to be shown. She can swear to her heart’s content and banter every bit as wittily as the others and its wonderful. Her journey to discover who she was, and in-turn who she really is, is incredibly powerful. Daniella Pineda is a treat. She brings so much joy and energy to the role while still managing to perfectly portray Faye’s deep longing and sadness. She also has some of the best one-liners of the season.

The biggest surprise of the season was the decision to expand on the original series’ story for the characters Vicious and Julia. They’re thrust to the center with the crew of the Bebop and given a lot of development. We learn a lot more about their relationship and how it relates to Spike. Seeing Vicious and what motivates him to be who he is and what he does was interesting. Julia’s transformation from timid to cunning and threatening was fascinating to watch. Alex Hassell and Elena Satine have a great dynamic together and it made for particularly tense viewing.

The Devil is in the Details

Cowboy Bebop (2021) isn’t a straight copy of its animated predecessor. It easily could’ve been, but the writers chose to make some clever creative changes and tweaks that keep fans of the original series invested and guessing until the end. They found a way to expand on the story in places that could use it and made some interesting changes along the way as well. As someone who was expecting a copy-paste remake until the trailer dropped, this couldn’t have made me happier.

COWBOY BEBOP (L to R) ALEX HASSELL as VICIOUS of COWBOY BEBOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

First and foremost, we get a lot more details about Vicious and Julia and how the Syndicate works. We got some of this in the original, but these people feel much more fleshed out here and are given an opportunity to do something different by the end. Vicious is developed into the incredibly violent loose cannon that we recognize, but we see what it is that is driving him to do this in the first place. There is also a healthy bit of alteration made to his character for the new series. Julia’s arc over the course of the first season was particularly interesting to watch. She plays the timid and meek femme, only to show how fatale she can be by season’s end. Much of what was implied for these characters is expanded upon and we see how and why they feel the way they do for Spike. Love makes you do crazy things, but you’ve gotta carry that weight.

The biggest change to report between both versions of the show is the absence of Radical Ed. Another member of the Bebop crew, Ed is a super genius who often presents herself as extremely strange and over the top. While not the most pivotal character in the series, it was definitely an interesting choice not to include her right away. We do get a reference to her in what is probably my favorite episode of the first season, and there is the final scene, but I would’ve loved to get to see her in action with the rest of the crew. Also, she usually gets to hang out with Ein, the adorable doggo, and I will never not be happy to see a corgi.

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COWBOY BEBOP (L to R) DANIELLA PINEDA as FAYE VALENTINE of COWBOY BEBOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

The writers chose to make some interesting creative changes to the characters and their stories. I’m not about to spoil them all here, so you’ll just have to go check it out and see for yourself.

The Final Word

9/10: A spaghetti western set in space with the best music and awesome action, but also with its heart on its sleeve

Cowboy Bebop (1998) is and probably always will be one of the best anime ever made. It was unique in every aspect and had a huge impact on sci-fi design going forward. It showed us a future that wasn’t clean and sterile. In fact it was dusty and dirty like the old west, despite the cold vacuum of space. To try to take that from its origins and translate it to live-action was nothing short of crazy. And that’s why Cowboy Bebop (2021) is a triumph, frankly. It had everything going against it, and it still managed.

The look and feel of absolutely everyone and everything is right on the money. I honestly felt like the team watched the anime 1000 times over to make sure they were getting everything as close as they possibly could. The design of Spike’s jet and the Bebop. The look of the various space towns the crew finds themselves in. Every single piece of costuming. All of it, is as close as you can get while still being three-dimensional. Yoko Kanno’s amazing jazz scores are incorporated seamlessly into everything. As someone who is already a huge jazz fan and a fan of Kanno’s this was nothing short of magical too. That funky upbeat music underscores every gunshot, every punch, and every punchline, and it simply wouldn’t be Cowboy Bebop with it. Last but not least, the characters here are every bit their animated counterparts, but with a new riff thrown into a classic melody. Like so many other aspects of the series, the characters are remixed perfectly to fit their new medium.

I cannot wait for the next outing with the Bebop and her crew. For now, I’m gonna go rewatch the original and then the remake again ad nauseum until the next season! See ya Space Cowboy…

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