Well before television became serialized 12-hour movies, the cult Japanese anime Cowboy Bebop features stand-alone episodes with recurring continuity, mystery, and themes. A lot of TV back did back then, but things are different in the streaming age and Netflix's Cowboy Bebop will more or less follow modern trends. This means fans anticipating the live-action remake should be in for a big change from the original anime.
What Happened — In an interview with io9, Cowboy Bebop showrunner Javier Grillo-Marxuach went in-depth on what fans can expect of the remake when the live-action adaptation starts streaming on Netflix in 2021. One thing Grillo-Marxauch revealed was how his show's overall structure — one hour episodes telling a serialized story — will mean a different Cowboy Bebop than the anime, which told its story over 26 22-minute episodics.
“You’ve got a show where you have 26 episodes that are full of very colorful villains, very colorful stories, very colorful adversaries, bounties, and all of that,” Grillo-Marxuach said. “We’re not going to go one-to-one on all of those stories because we’re also trying to tell the broader story of Spike Spiegel and the Syndicate, Spike Spiegel and Julia, Spike Spiegel and Vicious, and all that. But we are looking at the show and saying, ‘Who are some of the great villains in this show, and how can we put them into this into this broader narrative?’ So that we are telling both of the big stories that Cowboy Bebop tells.”
What this means — Grillo-Marxuach basically said the TV show will remain faithful to the anime with the inclusion of a familiar central intrigue and villains. But the episodes will likely not center around a single "bounty." Given that the anime Cowboy Bebop was a show about bounty hunters, the Netflix version may de-emphasize centering each episode around a single antagonist.
Still, Grillo-Marxuach confirmed that the three-way tug-o-war between Spike Spiegel, Julia, and Vicious, will remain present. It's just how it tells that familiar story that will be different. Fans can also expect the anime's most memorable villains to appear but didn't name any specifically. (Fingers crossed for Pierrot Le Fou.)
“We don’t want the fans of the show to look at it and say that we failed them or we failed the original,” he said.
"A gathering of influences" — In the full interview, Grillo-Marxuach also touched on some of the more interesting and complex dynamics of producing an American Cowboy Bebop in live-action, from the race of protagonist Spike Spiegel to the anime's baked in American jazz and pulp influences that make an "American version" kind of redundant.
“You’ve got an entity that is very much a kind of gathering together of influences that were very important in post-war Japan: jazz, American pop culture, the whole sort-of cowboy thing, reality television,” said Grillo-Marxuach. “So, you’re looking at a show that’s already a commentary on the influence of American pop culture with Japanese culture in the future, in space. And then we’re taking that and then we’re ... trying to translate that not just in English, but also a format that is not the original format of the show.”
Originally produced and directed by Shinichirō Watanabe, Cowboy Bebop follows misfit bounty hunters — Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, Faye Valentine, hacker Ed, and their corgi dog Ein — as they barely carve out a living in frontier space. Set in the future when commercial space travel is common, the show is reminiscent of a cowboy western that explores unique themes like poverty and loneliness. The anime's artistic influences are wide and far-reaching, spanning everything from jazz music to science fiction to Hong Kong martial arts movies.
The Netflix series, announced in 2017, cast actors John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, Daniella Pineda, and Alex Hassell — and also this corgi to play Ein. Production first halted for several months to allow lead John Cho to heal from an on-set accident, but it continues to be on hold due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
On the subject of Spike Spiegel's race, which is ambiguous in the anime but implied to be Jewish, Grillo-Marxuach commented that Korean-American actor John Cho was ultimately the right choice for Spike.
“Spike Spiegel has to be Asian. Like, you can’t Scarlett Johansson this shit,” the producer said, referencing Scarlett Johansson's casting in Ghost in the Shell as white-washing Asian characters out of Asian media. “We are making a show that takes place in a future that is multicultural, that is extraordinarily integrated and where those things are the norm.” In an earlier interview, Grillo-Marxuach commented that Spike's only other requirement was to be "cool."
“[Co-writer] Chris Yost and I wrote this on a notecard and tacked it up to our whiteboard in the room. His motto for Spike Spiegel was always: Spike Spiegel is super fucking cool,” he said said. “Is he tortured? Yes. Does he have a lot of tragedy in his backstory? Yes. Is he somebody who’s not the most sort of effusive with his emotions kind of guy? Yes, you know this. But he’s super fucking cool. So, I think more than anything else, Spiegel’s super fucking cool. John brings that to it in spades.”
The Inverse Analysis — While some TV audiences are growing fatigued at serialized TV that studios can't get enough of (because it's ideal for binge-watching), Cowboy Bebop will be in an interesting place in that it must stand out from its episodic anime influence while not wearing out an audience in 2021. The show is also playing against odds as the vast majority of American adaptations of Japanese anime have never been as critically or commercially successful as the original. Netflix's previous American adaptation of an anime, the 2017 movie Death Note, has a paltry 31% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Netflix's Cowboy Bebop is set to release in 2021.