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What Netflix’s ‘Cowboy Bebop’ Gets Right and Wrong

The space cowboys are back.

Last week, Netflix released its live-action adaptation of “Cowboy Bebop,” a jazzy series about a bunch of luckless bounty hunters on a ship called the Bebop. Widely considered one of the best anime of all time, “Cowboy Bebop” was always going to be a gamble to take on — and also a litmus test of where we are with American live-action adaptations of anime, given how schlocky past efforts have been. (Think: “Death Note,” “The Last Airbender,” “Dragonball Evolution,” “Ghost in the Shell.”)

This “Cowboy Bebop” ends up being hit and miss, rising above its live-action peers while offering up its own disappointments. Here’s a spoiler-filled breakdown of the ways that the new “Cowboy Bebop” succeeds and fails in comparison to the original.

There’s no show without the stars. Spike Spiegel, the lackadaisical big-haired former assassin-turned-bounty hunter who’s the protagonist of the series, is so central that the wrong actor would have doomed the adaptation from the jump. Thankfully John Cho is perfectly cast. He looks like Spike, in the classic blue suit and signature hair, but more important, he has the attitude down: sarcastic, witty, moody and occasionally ruthless.

As for his partners, Jet, a tough former policeman with a soft heart, and Faye, a sassy con woman without a past, Mustafa Shakir and Daniella Pineda feel like the animated characters magically come to life. The show even succeeded in casting the furry crew member, a “data dog” named Ein, as Charlie and Harry, two corgis with their own impressive acting chops.

One question “Bebop” fans had as soon as the cast announcements, images and trailers started to roll out was, “Where’s Ed?” In the series, Ed (that’s Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV to you) is the last addition to the crew. An androgynous young hacker with genius-level intelligence and a lot of odd quirks, Ed is essential to the chemistry of the Bebop, always barefoot and flailing around like a noodle come to life and otherwise bringing a whimsical comedic dimension to the series.

In the adaptation, Ed is M.I.A. aside from a brief mention in Episode 6, “Binary Two-Step,” and a quick appearance in the last scene of the season. It only lasts a few seconds and the result isn’t as refined as what we get with the rest of the main cast — after an entire season without the beloved Radical Ed, what we end up with is an actor (Eden Perkins) dressed up in what looks like poor cosplay.

As a futuristic space western, the “Cowboy Bebop” universe is expansive and beautiful. So any worthwhile live-action adaptation would need to prioritize creating an aesthetic captivating enough to dazzle viewers in the same way.

Starting with the opening theme, with its familiar silhouettes and color-blocked panels, the cinematography of the Netflix series is sublime and full of arresting visuals (the shots of Spike’s ship, Swordfish, flying overhead, Spike squaring off against a bounty on a rooftop over a city at night). The costume designer, Jane Holland, perfectly adapts the threads of the Bebop crew to real life and introduces plenty of other A-plus fashions that both recall past eras and look sleek enough to feasibly be from the future.

Crucially, the soundtrack also lives up to its predecessor. With its unforgettable opening theme, “Tank!,” and the vast array of carefully composed and curated music in each episode, from raucous jazz to pensive blues to wild rock ’n’ roll, the original “Cowboy Bebop” is an aural masterpiece as well as a visual one.

The show’s composer was Yoko Kanno, who also created the music for other popular anime like “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex,” “Space Dandy,” “Wolf’s Rain” and “Escaflowne.” Thankfully, Kanno returned to compose the music for the adaptation, which recycles some tunes from the original and updates them with new arrangements.

The new series had the right inclination by developing the characters of Vicious, Spike’s former partner and the series’s main antagonist, and Julia, Vicious’ girlfriend who in the past had an affair with Spike behind his partner’s back.

In the anime, Vicious is dramatically villainous: a deadly member of a crime syndicate, he stalks around killing people with a katana while a creepy black cormorant perches on his shoulder. He has barely any dialogue or back story and only shows up briefly throughout the series. Julia is even more of a mystery; she’s shown mostly in flashbacks, and only as Spike’s romantic interest, before she’s unceremoniously killed.

In the Netflix version, Vicious is turned into a petulant man-child with daddy issues and Julia is the vixen trapped in a loveless marriage. So they’re still unoriginal, just in a slightly more well-rounded way. But it’s the direction and acting that really sinks these characters: Alex Hassell’s Vicious is more cartoonish than threatening, and Julia, as played by Elena Satine, is more vacuous than her charismatic animated counterpart.

There’s a Catch-22 to choosing what story lines to replicate, change or lose in an adaptation: Venture too far from the plots of the original and risk angering loyal fans, or stick as close as possible to the original and end up with a weak duplication.

This “Bebop” smartly walks the line between the two routes, leaning heavily on characters and stories from the anime, even replicating specific scenes (for example, the famous church standoff between Spike and Vicious), while weaving in new material. Large parts of the first episode, “Cowboy Gospel,” along with Episodes 5 (“Darkside Tango”) and 8 (“Sad Clown A-Go-Go”), among others, are lifted exactly from the original. The most successful mash-up is Episode 7, “Galileo Hustle,” which combines Faye’s search for details about her past with a delicious new journey featuring a con woman who poses as Faye’s mother.

At 10 episodes, the adaptation cherry-picks from the 26 episodes of the anime and condenses everything, linking characters and events that weren’t connected in the original. The result is a more streamlined show where there aren’t the same mysteries and loose threads — which is great for the narrative but also cuts out some of the delightful detours in the series.

The anime’s plot is mostly episodic; the thrust of the show is about the day-to-day adventures of a group of weirdos who all have to reckon, in one way or another, with their pasts. Some of the best stories are not tied to the dramatic action but the dalliances, the self-contained exploits that often provide opportunities for the characters to goof off or slip into more existential meditations.

The show’s original ending is notorious among fans — Julia and Vicious are killed and Spike’s fate is unclear. Netflix’s “Bebop” ends with Spike very much alive and the Bebop crew split up, while Julia takes over as the new Syndicate kingpin with Vicious at her mercy.

Julia’s unearned shift to the big mobster on campus and the division of the Bebop team all point to a transparent attempt to set up a second season. But what made the anime’s ending so memorable was its ambiguity and the romantic yet melancholic tone. That didn’t lend itself to a multi-season series, however, so Netflix nixed the old ending faster than you can say “See you later, space cowboy.”

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