COWBOY BEBOP. Anime has never been cooler in America or more cursed in Hollywood. Japan's stylized animated export, with its high drama and old-school 2D art is enjoying its widest audience, with a flood of titles available on streaming services and Megan Thee Stallion casually rapping about watching anime. Sadly, as movie studios turn their terrible gaze on them, even the classics aren't safe. Director Rupert Sanders' whitewashed adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (2017), starring Scarlett Johansson, was roundly mocked for its casting and the lessons clearly not retained after the Wachowskis' live-action Speed Racer (2008), starring Emile Hirsch and Christina Ricci. Robert Rodriguez's disastrously creepy Alita: Battle Angel (2019) falls not only deep into the uncanny valley with its CGI star's bulging, gelatinous eyes (shudder), but lurches wildly from one embarrassment to the next, capturing, among all of anime's wonders, only its frequent obsession with breasts.
Watching the Shinichiro Watanabe's 1998 anime series Cowboy Bebop (also streaming on Netflix), about bounty hunters wandering through space in busted up junkers with bad guys in hot pursuit, it's easy to see its influence on American movies and series. Firefly, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Mandalorian all bear its markings in their anti-hero humor, dreamy shot composition, dusty aesthetics and the scuffs of gold showing through their crusty, mercenary hearts. While unmistakably Japanese in its style and settings, the series is also a translated love letter to three American genres, with its ebullient jazz soundtrack, noir story and Western tropes. Netflix's newly released live-action series adaptation captures the look and feel of the original — sometimes in straight recreations of iconic shots, as in the opening credits — with winking nostalgia. It also skirts cringy casting and brims with fun and a playful lightness to balance its darker themes.
Like the proper anti-hero he is, bounty hunter Spike Spiegel (John Cho) is avoiding his issues, presumed dead by gangsters, including the spooky, platinum-maned Vicious (Alex Hassell) and his wife, Julia (Elena Satine), the dame he supposedly got himself killed over. Spike's long-suffering traveling/hunting companion Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) is also hiding a past that cost him his original arm. In pursuit of marks, the pair are alternately hindered, helped and outright attacked by the competition in the form of purple-haired Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda). As they chase often diminished if not fruitless cash rewards and shaggy dogs, Spike's old enemies draw closer. Cue the horn section.
The costuming revels in Cowboy Bebop fashion, with faithful adaptations like Spike's signature suit and pompadour, and updates, like Faye's utility-core looks, which are far more practical and interesting than the string bikinis and thigh-highs of the original. (Don't panic, fanboys of Reddit, porn still exists, after all.) Likewise, the sets and spacecraft mimic the anime with added heft and grit. But the fight choreography eschews straight realism for the fantasy of anime, with wild acrobatics, weightless cartwheels and flips, and comic prop work. Listen, it can't all be John Wick hammering a push knife into somebody's chest — sometimes we need a little goofy escapism.
That everyone on board — of the ship and the project — is clearly having fun is a nice change from the grim method acting I can't seem to flip away from fast enough this month. Is Cho a little long in the tooth for the role of 27-year-old Spike? Sure. But his age has given the boyish worry of his Harold and Kumar days new dimension and he's able to shift from weariness and disappointment to a mask of smirking bravado without losing his humanity. And there's no denying how he slips into Spike's lanky suit and gait. As his foils, Shakir gives us bickering bromance to play off his partner's recklessness, and Pineda is a spunky surprise in a role that doesn't offer as much in animated form. Some excellent character actors show up for work, including Tamara Tunie and John Noble. When you've had enough turkey, get some noodles and settle in for a binge watch. TVMA. 58M. NETFLIX.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. She's thankful for everyone who's gotten vaccinated, including her family and coworkers. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.
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