Live-action Cowboy Bebop is the gateway to 90s anime classics

Surely nothing can top the original, so just take live-action Cowboy Bebop for what it is: a tribute to a legend.

by Justin Choo

At the risk of sounding boomer-ish to the younger readers (if there are any of you out there, hello younglings), Cowboy Bebop is one of the defining manga/anime of a generation. Why Netflix is choosing to revive many of these ‘old fogey’ franchises shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, since the younglings of the day are now the antediluvian fossils who are supposed to be able to afford the current prices of Rolex Submariners and Gibson Les Paul reissues.

Back in the day, Cowboy Bebop represented all that was, and still is, cool about Japanese culture – a curious hodgepodge of western genres that are a pace off in time (in a good way), and paired with a tasteful and memorable amalgamation of music genres in a manner that was ahead of its time. It was kind of like Tarantino before Tarantino became a household name, and Kill Bill was in essence, live-action anime if you haven’t already noticed. Married with a curious sense of Japanese stoicism, Cowboy Bebop was a compelling work of storytelling. Along with the likes of Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell, the 90s was a defining epoch for anime as a global phenomenon.

To be honest, the fact that Cowboy Bebop was perfect for its time is kind of a double-edged sword. It would feel out of place if presented – as is – as a product of today, which is another potential problem Netflix has to address.

No doubt, all instances of Netflix’s take has certainly invited scrutiny – ranging from questions about the casting to costume choices among other things – just part of the usual checklist of stuff punters gripe about these days. Admittedly, the anime set the bar high with iconic characters that are near-impossible to perfectly capture in real life, which is why it’s not a bad thing for the live-action equivalent to not appear to try and live up to those expectations.

But it does help that John Cho is a solid choice to play Spike Speigel. He doesn’t have the chiselled looks of Yusaku Matsuda, of whom the titular character is based, but arguably the photocopy is closer to the photo than the person ever was, in a manner of speaking. And hey, John does nail that smile; shame about the cigarette, though.

If a piece of work is about as perfect as it is, what would the merit of a tribute be? Much like tribute bands that devote their entire being to become the heroes they ape, their efforts stem from a desire to keep the flame burning. Nobody doing their best Freddie Mercury impression ever thinks that they are better than Freddie, and that’s the whole point. All they want to do is to get you to sing along as they used to when they were younglings in their bedroom.

And much like how Cowboy Bebop and Evangelion were the gateway drug to a lifetime of manga and anime bingeing, perhaps the best way to think of Netflix’s live-action version as a timely reminder of what’s worth visiting. Or revisiting.

Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop starts streaming on 19 November 2021.