How Netflix's Cowboy Bebop Captures the Spirit and Style of the Original

“We ain’t playing Bebop, Bebop is playing us,” writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach told io9.

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A scene from Cowboy Bebop, which Netflix is turning into a live-action series.
A scene from Cowboy Bebop, which Netflix is turning into a live-action series.
Image: Sunrise Animation

Writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach wants to get one thing straight: Of course Ein is a corgi. A rumor went around last year that the Netflix show cast a husky as the data dog, which was later debunked. After all, when it comes to adapting Cowboy Bebop, there’s only one rule to follow.

“We ain’t playing Bebop, Bebop is playing us,” Grillo-Marxuach said. That rule came from co-writer Karl Taro Greenfeld, and it embodies the spirit of this adaptation.

Grillo-Marxuach, Cowboy Bebop’s co-writer who was also an executive producer on Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, talked with io9 all about Netflix’s upcoming live-action series, which is set to debut in 2021. It stars John Cho as Spike Spiegel, the leader of a group of intergalactic bounty hunters. The original Bebop is well-known for being stylish, cool, and a right amount of weird, and a show that aesthetically makes the most of its animated medium. But this live-action version (and an American-made one at that) has some fans fearing a Dragonball Evolution situation, where the style and substance of Bebop are lost in translation, not just as it transitions between mediums but also creative teams. Grillo-Marxuach insisted that’s not the case.


“You can’t look at Cowboy Bebop and say, ‘Well, it’s just a take-off point. We’re going to give them different hair and different clothing, and we’re gonna call it something different. And it’s just sort of gonna be a loose thing,’” he said. “If you’re doing Cowboy Bebop, you’re doing Cowboy Bebop. You know? It’s kind of like doing Star Wars.”

Grillo-Marxuach has already seen a cut of the first episode, and raved about everything, including the cast—which features Cho, Mustafa Shakir (playing Jet Black), Daniella Pineda (Faye Valentine), and Alex Hassell (Vicious)—and the outlandish sets and costumes that inhabit their futuristic worlds.

“Being a sci-fi nerd in the ‘90s meant you’d sit there and watch a show, and for the first act, you’re usually just getting information you already know. Flash forward to like almost 30 years later and TV is weird now, like TV is batshit crazy right now,” he said. “It is hard to tell people how weird Game of Thrones is to me, having grown up in a world where the thing most like Game of Thrones was a show called Wizards and Warriors that was on CBS in the late ‘80s. We can be weird. We can look at anime and take design cues out of anime.”

However, while it takes inspiration from the anime, this version of Cowboy Bebop is not a straight one-to-one adaptation. It will have its own narrative, partly because it will be hour-long episodes rather than 22-minute installments, which affects the pacing. As Grillo-Marxuach put it, the anime already exists and it’s fantastic. This is not a replacement for the original show, it’s just a new piece of the canon. “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 told us.


Another reason for making tweaks to Bebop’s story is that the team behind the show wanted to broaden out Spike’s story into a longer narrative in and of itself, kind of like what The Witcher did with Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri. The original Bebop features many self-contained stories around those that advance its larger arcs, but in a Netflix drama, there’s more room to expand. While we can definitely expect several iconic bounties from the original show, Grillo-Marxuach told us—teasing that he’s written for two baddies so far, including “one of the standouts” from the anime—they’ll be part of a much larger whole.

“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,” he continued. “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 broader narrative?’ So that we are telling both of the big stories that Cowboy Bebop tells.”


Other smaller changes are also being made in translation, as one would expect. For example, Faye’s revealing costume from the anime has been toned down a bit for Netflix’s costume design because, as Grillo-Marxuach put it, “we need to have a real human being wearing that.” And while the characters still smoke, the habit may be a bit less glamorized to reflect modern sensibilities. Grillo-Marxuach told us it’s about finding a balance between honoring the spirit of the original and adapting to the medium and audience.


“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,” Grillo-Marxuach continued. “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.”

This is where the adaptation has gotten into a bit of hot water. Netflix faced criticism for having a largely white and male creative team behind Cowboy Bebop, part of an ongoing problem of diversity behind the scenes. However, Grillo-Marxuach, who is Puerto Rican, pushed back on this a bit. He noted that Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichirō Watanabe is serving as a consultant on the show, and touted fellow season one writers like the aforementioned Greenfeld and Vivian Lee-Durkin, both of whom are of Asian descent. He also said the show has been committed to diversity in front of the camera (something that Netflix’s other high-profile anime adaptation, Death Note, failed to do).


“Spike Spiegel has to be Asian. Like, you can’t Scarlett Johansson this shit,” Grillo-Marxuach stated. “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.”

As far as when we’re going to finally see Cowboy Bebop, the answer is: No one knows. Executive producer Marty Adelstein previously said three episodes had been finished before Cho’s on-set injury delayed production, but Grillo-Marxuach isn’t sure whether that’s true. He did say he doesn’t think any of them will be released before the full season is ready, because they’re all meant to be watched together (like most Netflix shows). Cho’s injury, combined with the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, brought things to a standstill and the show has been pushed back to at least some time in 2021. New Zealand, where Cowboy Bebop has been filmed, recently gave the green light for some Hollywood production to resume with safety guidelines, but Cho may still need more time to recover.


In the meantime, the writers are already working on season two, and more seasons could follow. Grillo-Marxuach said there are no plans to end Cowboy Bebop after a certain number of episodes, even if the original anime was written with its ending in mind, because “there’s always going to be criminals to catch.” In the end, Grillo-Marxuach hopes that it’s worth the wait—especially for fans of the original series, who they’re hoping to win over with their own take on the weird, stylish, and “fucking cool” anime.

“Everybody has a different idea of what the best version of a show is, and a lot of Cowboy Bebop fans believe that the anime is the best version of that show. We hope that we can convert them to look at our version of it, and think that it’s a wonderful translation, a wonderful addition to the original canon,” he said. “We’re deep enough in a world that where fandom is important to the existence of shows, that people like me don’t ever really lose sight of that. I think that there are always going to be tone-deaf reboots of things and all of that, but we’re fans. You know, we come at this as fans. We love genre, we love science fiction, and we love Cowboy Bebop.”


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