This week it was reported that, after almost a decade of speculation and waiting, a live-action adaptation of the iconic anime series Cowboy Bebop will happen. A ten-episode series was announced as a co-production between streaming service giants Netflix and Tomorrow Studios, the latter of whom are currently working on television series of Snowpiercer and Let the Right One In (they are also planning a live-action series of the anime One Piece).
A live-action television adaptation had been reported as in the works last year, although such news had surrounded Cowboy Bebop since the late 2000s when Keanu Reeves was perpetually rumored to be the number one choice to play protagonist Spike Spiegel. The show-runners for the Netflix co-production include Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol co-writers Andre Nemec and Josh Appelbaum as well as Venom and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle co-writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg. The first episode will be written by Thor: Ragnarok's Christopher Yost. The anime's director, Shinichiro Watanabe, will serve as official consultant to the show, although it still feels suspicious that one of Japan's greatest pop culture exports will be in the hands of a majority white male creative team.
And that's where the cynicism builds. Cowboy Bebop is a perfect piece of entertainment, a sci-fi action-adventure with inspirations taken from film noir, spaghetti Westerns, war dramas, cyberpunk, and jazz. It's a show that manages to be hilarious one moment then heart-breaking the next, and its ending remains one of the best in anime. Inevitably, a live-action adaptation will get things wrong, and that is something fans will have to accept. The adaptation process is tricky and 2018 is a very different world from the 1998 of the anime's premiere.
We can accept change, but there's one thing we won't stand for: Do not whitewash this show.
We know the excuses that would be used if an all-white Cowboy Bebop show was announced and we don’t buy them for a second. This is a show that was heavily inspired by Americana and the Western. To Western eyes, the characters are not specifically coded as Asian (although it has been well documented that one of the main inspirations for Spike was Japanese actor Yasaku Matsuda). Yes, this is a show about humanity spreading across the galaxy and that was never limited to one race. But these defenses come with obvious blind spots. Cowboy Bebop is American-inspired, but America does not instantly equal white. Nothing about Spike and the Bebop crew is defined by whiteness, so why the eagerness to assert them as such? Besides, wouldn’t it be weird if the Earth’s entire population scattered throughout the stars and the show only cared about white people? We’ve seen that story before, and there’s no excuse for expanding your imagination to the outer realms of the universe and having the default mode for heroism still be white. But this is an issue that goes far beyond Cowboy Bebop.
In 2017, two American films based on anime premiered to terrible reviews and a slew of scandals over whitewashing. Ghost in the Shell took one of the great icons of anime, Major Motoko Kusanagi, and had her be played by Scarlett Johansson. After the cast and crew rushed to defend the choice, their justifications only felt creepier and tougher to defend when the story had the Major be a Japanese teenage girl whose brain was transplanted into the body of a white woman.
Netflix has already made live-action anime adaptations too. Last year, the released Death Note, wherein Light Yagami became Light Turner, played by Nat Wolff. That made this adaptation’s erasure of its inherent Asian roots was a two-point issue: First, it stripped a story about a Japanese god of death of anything remotely Japanese; and second, it completely dropped the ball on the new interesting race issue it introduced. By having detective L be played by Lakeith Stanfield – easily the best thing in the movie – the film could have been a striking exploration of white privilege and mistrust in the police in the context of America. Instead, it did nothing of interest. It was just a bad movie, and one of the reasons it was bad was because it went out of its way to focus the story on whiteness but had no desire to dig deeper than an easy bit of casting. It’s questionable as to whether Ghost in the Shell or Death Note would have succeeded had they not whitewashed their stories – both movies have massive failings that go beyond casting – but their eagerness to pretend these stories can be made “universal” as a weak excuse to strengthen the supposed default of whiteness did not help.
Hollywood’s whiteness problem isn’t just ethically questionable: It’s creatively bankrupt and actively bad for business. How unimaginative do you have to be to take the most amazing stories of speculative fiction, where anything is possible, and have trouble imagining their heroes as anything but white? At a time in pop culture where the Chinese box office is seen as the all-defining force of profit for Hollywood, when Crazy Rich Asians made close to eight times its budget worldwide, when Lara Jean Covey is our new romantic heroine and Star Wars is more diverse than ever, and when every teenage girl in America listens to K-Pop, how can the status quo reign supreme? If, for no other reason than cold hard profit, the industry decides to be more inclusive in its storytelling, then we all benefit. Hollywood can’t keep optioning amazing anime with built-in fanbases and major cultural clout, only to smudge away any reminder that they came from Asia in the first place.
There’s no excuse for not looking beyond the same five white dudes to be the lead in every story. Wouldn’t Cowboy Bebop be the perfect story to give underappreciated Asian talent their time to shine? Think of how amazing it would be to see John Cho, one of our most sinfully underrated leading men, stretch his stuff in the part of Spike, balancing goofy comedy with brutal pathos. How about Constance Wu as Faye Valentine, a fast-talking heroine with a screwball twist who builds up emotional walls to keep out the pain? Keanu Reeves, the long-time favorite to be Spike, would be ideal as Vicious in full John Wick mode, or maybe the legendary Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen? The options are limitless when one truly puts their mind to it.
We could argue all day about whether a Cowboy Bebop remake is truly necessary, but regardless of its merit, it’s happening and the best we can hope for from it is that the showrunners look beyond Hollywood’s limiting expectations and truly push themselves to have the story look and feel as interesting as the source material deserves. Casting matters, and it would be utterly disheartening to see one of the greats follow in those terrible footsteps of defaulting white because that’s what everyone else does.