How the Live-Action Cowboy Bebop Will Stay Faithful to the Anime

Showrunner André Nemec on his approach to making a live-action Cowboy Bebop for Netflix.

Live action Cowboy Bebop
Photo: Netflix

Ask anybody about their favorite anime and if Cowboy Bebop—a sci-fi Western about the misadventures of a gang of bounty hunters on a ship called the Bebop—isn’t at the top of their list, it probably won’t be too far down. Although the series aired its entire run of 26 episodes on Adult Swim way back in 2001, there’s never been anything else quite like it. With its dynamic animation, its mashup of genres, and its vibrant jazz soundtrack, it’s a singular artistic triumph. The text displayed during the show’s opening titles even asserts that it’s “a new genre itself.”

Even so, Netflix is now banking on recapturing that singular spirit with an upcoming live-action adaptation. However, Cowboy Bebop’s iconic status is not lost on showrunner André Nemec, who was introduced to the anime when, on a family visit, his brother sat him down and had him watch the episodes, all of which he had saved to DVR.

“I was hooked,” Nemec says. “It’s poetic, it’s beautiful, it’s artful, it’s funny, it’s violent at times. All in all, it kind of is its own genre of storytelling.” So, when the idea of taking on a live-action version of the series came up, “there was, of course, the moment of, like, ‘Oof, that’s pretty hallowed ground.’”

When it came time to assemble a crew, Nemec says, “We were blessed that most of the people who came to those interviews were actually wearing a Cowboy Bebop t-shirt from back in the day.” The mantra he repeated to all of them was, “This is Cowboy Bebop. Let’s not fuck this up.”

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Even people who claim not to like anime still often have a soft spot for Bebop because it draws from a cinematic language many of us are already familiar with.

“What became clear to me,” explains Nemec, “is that the best way to understand Cowboy Bebop was to look at Cowboy Bebop’s inspirations, all of which were live-action films. So, how do we dig back to their original inspirations—the Sergio Leone films, the noir pictures, the 1980s buddy cop movies that we all love and remember? Let’s draw inspiration from there in order to craft our story, while simultaneously making sure that if it ain’t broke, we don’t need to fix it.”

To that end, the Netflix team has dressed the live-action incarnation of protagonist Spike Spiegel (John Cho) in a near-replica of the anime character’s striking blue suit. His partner Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), is also attired closely to his cartoon counterpart, synthetic metal arm and all. The outfit of the third core member of the Bebop crew, Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda) has perhaps received the most conspicuous alterations. It’s understandable; the anime largely holds up, but one of the most dated aspects is Faye’s revealing outfit, which makes the character feel like fan service personified.

“There’s a difference between wearing an outfit and drawing an outfit,” Nemec says. While that outfit was possible in animated form, the physics of it make little sense in reality. “There’s not enough double-sided tape in the universe to make that outfit work,” Nemec adds.

There will be alterations to the storytelling as well.

“We don’t want to serve the exact same meal,” Nemec says. “We’re not remaking Cowboy Bebop. We’re making Cowboy Bebop in the spirit of the original anime.”

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The pacing has been recalibrated for live-action, too, with hour-long episodes as opposed to the anime’s half-hours. 

“A lot of what was important to us was really digging into the characters and understanding who they were,” he says. “It felt like we wanted to expand on the canon of the characters and that was going to require a little bit more time with them.” However, Nemec believes the Netflix version still captures the “cool, pulpy fun” of the anime.

Furthermore, fans agree that Cowboy Bebop wouldn’t be half of what it is without its soundtrack composed by the brilliant Yoko Kanno. Happily, that’s an aspect that will remain familiar as Kanno has returned to score this adaptation.

Nemec says she brought an enthusiasm to “rewrite music, write new music, use iconic pieces, and really live in the show that we were telling. She brought her Yoko flavor and her Yoko genius to all of it.”

Nemec understands there will always be purists. “I promise we will never take the anime away from the fans of the show,” he says, but he also stresses that “everybody came to this show wanting to tell this story, not because they wanted to change it, but because they loved it.”

“I love these characters,” he says, “and it felt like there were still more stories to tell for them.”

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Cowboy Bebop will be available on Netflix on November 19