Cowboy Bebop is iconic. It’s the gateway anime for many and is widely considered one of the best anime shows ever created. The eclectic mix of compelling characters, gripping visuals, and a futuristic backdrop makes for a near-perfect show. And naturally, when something is so well regarded and so well loved, it doesn’t take long for someone somewhere to think about adapting it for another medium.
Now that a Cowboy Bebop live-action series has been greenlit, and with anime’s incredibly poor track record when it comes to live-action adaptations, let’s look at some ways that this production could possibly buck the trend and, shockingly, become good.
1. Don’t do it.
At this point in pop culture, the odds are against any live-action remake of a beloved anime franchise to be anywhere near the vicinity of “good.” Let’s run down the disappointing list of recent titles. Dragonball Evolution: flop. Speed Racer: flop. Ghost in the Shell: flop. Death Note: eviscerated in reviews and more people seemed to be hate-watching it on Netflix instead of enjoying it. Even Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I consider anime-adjacent and therefore worthy of mention, flopped.
It’s easy to see why live action remakes seem attractive. There’s a built-in rabid fanbase that’s desperate for more content featuring favorite characters. Over the past few years, Disney has made bank with its live-action reimaginings of animated classics, and other media companies, blinded by dollar signs, are combing through their properties searching for the Next Big Thing. There’s much less risk in adapting an established franchise, after all.
However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that anime fans don’t want live-action remakes. All fans feel a certain degree of ownership over the thing they obsess over, but anime fans are as finicky as they are loyal. The details matter, and if the adaptation doesn’t get everything exactly right -- and “right” is in the eye of the otaku beholder -- it’s trash. No one is going to watch a crappy version of a perfect show because that perfect show already exists.
Don’t do it.
Don’t adapt Cowboy Bebop.
But the announcement has already been made, and the outrage has already echoed throughout the Internet. This show is going to happen, so we have to continue.
2. Gather a creative team who cares about the source material.
This team must know and love Cowboy Bebop inside and out. They have to eat, sleep, and breathe that world. They must invest themselves in the characters and the environment. The team can’t just think, “These visuals are cool and will easily veil our orientalism.” Live-action Ghost in the Shell, I am looking squarely in your direction. That film spent too much time recreating some of the original’s iconic scenes without ever focusing on the questions of identity and humanity of the original, all while whitewashing the main character and never realizing why this switch fundamentally changes her for the worse.
There's also the possibility of getting a creative team who can make massive changes without sacrificing the heart of the story. The much-derided Speed Racer remake is edging toward cult status precisely because the Wachowskis took the simple premise of the original ("This boy goes fast!") and added their spin. Eye-popping, candy-coated visuals replaced the original's uninspired, repetitive backgrounds. Rather than imitating the original, the remake placed its creative stamp on the franchise while keeping the inherent ridiculousness of the original.
3. Out-Firefly Firefly and cast multiracial actors, you cowards.
One defining trait of the Cowboy Bebop anime is the diversity of the crew. Faye’s specifically Asian background and Ed and Jet’s darker skin point to a future that’s much more multiracial and multi-ethnic than some other sci-fi shows about spacefaring bounty hunters might suggest. It’s 2071, and the boundaries which existed on Earth don’t exist anymore. Humanity has terraformed Mars and spread throughout the solar system. There’s no reason that any of the main characters have to be white.
Most live-action anime remakes have whitewashed Asian characters for the sake of marketing. Sony relied on Scarlett Johannson to bring in casual moviegoers, which alienated hardcore Ghost in the Shell fans. Netflix supposedly whitewashed the main character of Death Note to suit the remake's Seattle setting. (Not that Japanese-Americans exist, or anything.) Cowboy Bebop doesn’t need a big Hollywood name to do the heavy lifting. The story and characters themselves are interesting enough to bring in viewers.
4. Keep the filler episodes around.
While some of Cowboy Bebop focuses on the consequences of Spike’s tragic past rapidly careening toward him, most of the anime’s episodes are stand-alone, with the desperate crew doing absolutely anything to make some money. In a television landscape where serialized shows are taking center stage, it can be tempting to just focus on the characters’ tragic backstories. Personal tragedy could fuel the series for several seasons.
However, the bounties-of-the-week stories offer excellent character development and some sorely needed comic relief. Audiences will need to see the Bebop crew chasing after a missing pet, dealing with a lovers' quarrel, or tripping on mushrooms as much as they’ll need to see why Faye’s so deeply in debt or the identity of Spike's long-lost love.
Personally, I would love to see “Pierrot Le Fou” translated into live action, because that climactic fight in the empty amusement park is like my fever dream.
5. Keep it all in medias res.
Cowboy Bebop is the story of a group of broken people who find each other and struggle to get through their brokenness together. The audience is hardly privy to the characters’ backgrounds. The sordid details of Spike’s falling out with Vicious are never fully addressed. The show never shows why Jet has a prosthetic arm. The audience isn’t explicitly told about Ein’s origins, or why the corgi’s so damned important. There are hints at Ed's past when she visits her father but not in any amount of detail. The only person who does get a good amount of flashback time is Faye, and she’s maybe the one most desperate to leave her past behind.
A danger with adaptations is a tendency to “fix” whatever the original got wrong. Ghost in the Shell’s narrative addressed the whitewashing, but that only served to weaken the character. The Cowboy Bebop anime didn't sweat the details of the characters’ pasts. It’s enough to know that these people are, for one reason or another, on the run. Leave mysteries for fanfic to fill in, because that’s one of the things fic does best.
6. Embrace the source's inherent cartoonishness.
Despite the frustratingly poor slate of Western anime remakes, Japan itself has produced some adaptations that are incredibly faithful to the source material. Rurouni Kenshin started as a manga, got adapted into a long-running anime series, and then got adapted into a live-action trilogy of films. While the story itself is condensed to fit the limitations of a film trilogy, the adaptation is incredibly faithful to the original with regard to characters and plot.
These live-action movies are never afraid to get a little “cartoony” whenever possible. The main character is a former samurai trying to find his place in late 19th-century Japan, a period of rapid modernization. Kenshin's succinct swordfights, exciting in animated form, are absolutely electrifying when translated to live action. Kenshin is as agile and gravity-defying as he is in his cartoon form, but the over-the-top action and violence still fit the world of the original. Realism shouldn’t get in the way of a good adaptation. Spike should still be able to drunken-box his opponent while half asleep, and Ed should still be fond of body-contorting antics.
7. Don’t forget the corgi!
Obviously. Please don't forget the best character in the series.
But honestly though, please don’t do it.
Don’t do it.