The characters in Cowboy Bebop are, as astrophysicist Dr. Adam Frank put it, impossibly cool (opens in new tab). From the way Spike Spiegel lights a cigarette to how Faye Valentine serenely floats in zero gravity, animation studio Sunrise's vision melded 50 years of cinematic suave into one show.
It's one of the benefits of animation. Casting is not limited to actor availability of onerous contract negotiations, but rather the willingness of the artist. So when Netflix announced that a live-action Cowboy Bebop show was to be made, I knew I had to temper my expectations.
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Netflix doesn't have the best history of adapting animation. It's become so endemic that "Netflix adaptation" is a meme (opens in new tab) in and of itself. Regardless, I knew that casting for Cowboy Bebop would be difficult as perceptions of animated characters can vary from person to person.
For example, if I drew a simple smiley face, growing up in America I might assume it to be white. Draw that same smiley face in Mongolia, and someone there would envision it to be Mongolian. The point I'm trying to make here is not linked to race, but rather that our own life experiences can meld and morph what we feel a drawn character might look like in the real world.
I think the casting of John Cho was a great call. He's a tremendous actor with love for the source material.
But remember, Spike Spiegel is, as mentioned in my intro, impossibly cool. In the anime, he stands at 6'1" tall, with long lanky legs and broad shoulders. There are only a few actors that could nail down this look, possibly Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston. Keanu Reeves once eyed the role for a live-action film, which never got off the ground. And before anyone decries me of whitewashing the image of Spiegel, the world of Cowboy Bebop takes place in a space-faring future featuring a wide variety of ethnicities. Plus, Spiegel is a name of German-Jewish origin.
Cho doesn't quite fit this description. But again, that's just my vision of the character. I'm sure other viewers see him as the perfect fit, which, by all means, don't let this column detract from their excitement.
Danielle Pineda is taking on the role of Fay Valentine. Again, this is a hard role to nail down. In the anime, Faye stands at 5'5", although her model-like frame gives her an unrealistic pin-up presence. Yes, the animators at Sunrise gave her almost impossible proportions, and somehow made her shiny vinyl outfit not look totally ridiculous.
Sunrise also aimed to make Faye a seductress, one that would use her beauty and sexuality to her advantage. This not only came down to her looks, but the way she walked, dressed and flirtedly "smized" at others.
From the images, it's hard to tell if Pineda nails down the same charm. I do see why wardrobe decided to make Paneda's outfit more tame by comparison. I'm sure if she adorned the skimpy attire found in the anime, there would be cause for consternation.
I must say, the casting of Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black is spot-on. From his beard to his robotic arm, Shakir seems to embody the original character most fully. And seeing Shakir in shows like Marvel's Luke Cage, I feel he can nail down the elderly life-worn attitude and mannerisms of Jet.
One area that does worry me is set design. This was a problem in Netflix's The Witcher as well. In the Witcher, it was very obvious at times that the cast was filming on set, with fake plaster castle walls surrounding them. While more plastic-y materials would have worked in the days of standard definition, in 4K, the textural sheen of certain substances is hard to overlook.
Take Game of Thrones for example. In that show, the showrunners were able to film more in actual real-world locations, which gave each indoor castle roundtable scene that final layer of realism.
From the image above, the Bebop looks like an experiential room you'd find at Universal Studios. I worry that rust and other deformations in the spaceship might come off as painted, which could detract from immersion.
I know it's hard not to sound like a condescending malcontent, but I have such reverence for the original source material that my mind quickly jumps to where things falter over where things succeed. It puts showrunners André Nemec and Jeff Pinkner in a tough position. Expectations for this adaptation will be incredibly high, and any misstep will be magnified by social media.
Luckily for them, initial reactions on Twitter (opens in new tab) and Reddit (opens in new tab) are positive. Of course, just like with the final season of Game of Thrones, it all comes down to execution. I still plan on watching Netflix's Cowboy Bebop, but if it ends up disappointing, it'll just be another ill-fated anime adaptation set to rot with Deathnote and Dragon Ball: Evolution.