For decades, Hollywood has struggled to adapt anime, a type of Japanese animation. The genre has a distinct visual style--lush backgrounds, sleek camera movement, exaggerated facial expressions--that looks uncanny with live actors. And the storytelling, which tends to dramatize a character's gradual change, doesn't always fit into the usual conflict-driven Hollywood plot structures. Anime has a huge American fan base, and it has inspired the signature aesthetics of filmmakers such as the Wachowskis. But American attempts to capture its essence in remakes of classics such as Ghost in the Shell and Dragonball Evolution have mostly yielded critical and box-office failures.
So Netflix's decision to adapt Cowboy Bebop, one of the most celebrated anime series of all time, was always risky. Set in 2071, the story follows a crew of bounty hunters trawling across space aboard its ship, the Bebop. When the show debuted stateside in the early 2000s, Bebop became a cult success--but an unusual one. For starters, Bebop felt thoroughly mature. Unlike much anime, the show did not center on magical girls or heroic boys; the central characters were adults with adult problems. By the time the audience met them, they had already lived the most significant parts of their life and were just trying to scrounge together enough money to keep drifting through the galaxy.
The original Bebop also featured very little plot. Though the cowboys' pursuit of bounty took them on often-goofy excursions, the weight of the show came from how those adventures were really distractions from their otherwise monotonous lives. The series repeatedly depicted the crew lounging around the ship, taking baths, reading magazines, or pruning bonsai plants. Many of the characters they met were never seen again. Locations weren't revisited. There was a playfulness to the series's look but a wistfulness to its themes. The director, Shinichiro Watanabe, prioritized mood over narrative--recruiting the composer Yoko Kanno to score the show with a rollicking jazz soundtrack--and veered from a blaxploitation homage in one episode to a riff on Alien in another. Every trip with the Bebop brought a sense of unknowability, anchored by a collection of vividly drawn personalities.
The creative team behind Netflix's new interpretation clearly respects the original series and its ingredients. Watanabe serves as a consultant, and Kanno is the show's composer. The directors use plenty of camera trickery--long, single takes and skewed angles--to match the predecessor's liveliness. The dialogue quotes Blade Runner, nodding to Watanabe's influences. And the trio of protagonists aboard the Bebop have an electric chemistry: The actor John Cho embodies Spike's swagger, Mustafa Shakir captures Jet's stoicism, and Daniella Pineda suffuses Faye with endearing candor.
Yet if Netflix's version of Cowboy Bebop understands the original's unique style, it can't quite grasp its substance--the same mistake made by other ill-fated American anime adaptations. Watanabe kept the majority of the original episodes self-contained and only lightly sketched the ensemble's histories, producing a show that teased its viewers' imaginations. The new Bebop's showrunner, Andre Nemec, takes a more traditional Hollywood approach: Spike's conflict with his nemesis, Vicious (played by Alex Hassell), drives the season's overarching plot. Jet, Faye, and even Ein, the crew's adopted corgi, get elaborate backstories. These flourishes demonstrate the writers' appreciation of the original Bebop but some of them can feel like fan fiction.
The season ultimately comes across as a tidy good-versus-bad package that eliminates the mystery and melancholy at the heart of the original. Take the first episode of each version: Both feature a seemingly pregnant woman on an asteroid named after the Mexican city Tijuana. In the anime, the story is bookended by Spike and Jet ruminating aboard the Bebop over food and where to wander to next. Netflix's take begins with a shootout at a casino and ends with Vicious's hyper-violent introduction.
Thus the live-action Bebop flattens its protagonists--ironically--into cartoon heroes battling villains. Watanabe's characters were largely homages to the action stars and femme fatales of his favorite American movies, but they were also aimless, morally gray wanderers. Spike, Jet, and Faye were antiheroes who had liberated themselves from the typical expectations of adult life--and found themselves living lonely, relatively static lives.
Perhaps those who have never watched the anime will find the new iteration satisfying on its own. Among the many Hollywood live-action adaptations of anime series, this one comes closest to capturing its inspiration's ethos. But that honor only emphasizes what Hollywood still doesn't seem to get about Japanese animation. The best anime isn't merely defined by its aesthetic, which Netflix has learned to mimic just fine. Instead, the emotional, often meditative, storytelling of an unusually expressive form makes these shows memorable. The new Bebop looks singular but feels generic. It recites the melody of its predecessor but can't find the same rhythm.