We took a little trip into live-action nostalgia last week with a visit to summer camp via Nickelodeon’s Salute Your Shorts. This week, we return to animated fare with Cowboy Bebop, a popular late-90s animated series that completed its run at 26 episodes. Arguably, Cowboy Bebop is the closest one on our list of “Hollywood! Adapt This” installments to actually be made into a feature film. The series did manage to land one full-length animated film, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, but a live-action adaptation would bring this fantastic property to the masses. Hit the jump to join the crew of the Bebop as they trip across the solar system in search of bounties. Hollywood! Adapt this: Cowboy Bebop!
Opening up the can of “anime adaptations” is something I should probably regret, but definitely won’t. As a fan of Americanized anime, I enjoyed whatever I got to watch while growing up, not even realizing how watered down most of it was. Akira was the first movie that opened my eyes to that fact. And thank God for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim for introducing me to the likes of Outlaw Star, Trigun and Cowboy Bebop. Let’s get into it.
What It’s About:
Cowboy Bebop was a 1998 Sunrise series developed by a production team composed of director Shinichirō Watanabe, screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto, character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, mechanical designer Kimitoshi Yamane and composer Yoko Kanno. It’s set in the future (the year 2071) where exploration of the other planets in the solar system has been made available by hyperspace gates (an early, experimental version of one of these gates blew up and damaged the moon; the resulting debris falling to Earth made the planet somewhat inhabitable and decimated the human population). Survivors fled Earth to colonize other planets, the Asteroid Belt and the moons of Jupiter. Mars became the hub of civilization, along with crime syndicates who exert their influence over the ISSP (Inter Solar System Police). Therefore, much like the Old West, a bounty system was put in place to deal with criminals (bounty hunters were referred to as “cowboys,” so you’ve got the first part of the title).
The show followed a team of four (or five, if you count dogs) mismatched bounty hunters as they attempted to collect on their paydays to keep money in their pocket (and to keep their pasts from catching up to them). Though Cowboy Bebop centers on this ensemble of characters, they’re a dysfunctional family at best, with one or more of them going solo for an episode to deal with their own issues (and storyline). First up is, arguably, the main protag, Spike Spiegel, a laid back ladies man in his late-twenties. A master marksman and expert in Jeet Kune Do, Spike possesses two slightly different colored eyes (one is cybernetic) and a bushy afro of blackish-green hair. His complicated past as a member of the Red Dragon Syndicate quite often comes back to haunt him throughout the series, usually in flashbacks. Keanu Reeves was once attached to star as Spike in a live-action adaptation (more on that in a moment).
So where does the “Bebop” come from in Cowboy Bebop? (A big part of it is the reference to musical styles throughout the series.) Well, Spike needs some place to rest after all that bounty huntin’ so he calls the converted fishing trawler, the “Bebop,” his temporary home. Captain of that ship is Jet Black, a former ISSP officer known to his cohorts as “The Black Dog” for his tenacious pursuit of criminals. Disgusted by corruption and red tape (and the loss of one of his arms, replaced by a functional cybernetic prosthesis), Jet left the ISSP to eke out a living as a bounty hunter. The moral heart of the group, Jet acts as a father figure of sorts, even though he carries his fair share of emotional baggage. Jet is stoic and disciplined, often times in direct opposition to his fellow bounty hunters. He’s also a big guy, so don’t call his ship a pile of junk unless you want your teeth knocked in.
And now we come to Faye Valentine (careful with your Google searches, kids). Oh, Faye. Though the voluptuous, violet-haired beauty appears to be in her early twenties, she’s actually the oldest member of the team at around 77, having been frozen cryogenically for over fifty years. Faye uses all of her assets to her advantage, being as well-versed in the seductive arts as she is in combat and flying proficiency. The most capricious of the cowboys, Faye often cuts and runs when she has the upper-hand, only to come slinking back once she needs help from the Bebop crew. However, like the rest of our cowboys, Faye has a reason for her trust issues that all stem from her tumultuous history.
The final additions to the Bebop crew are Radical Edward (aka Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivruski IV, or Françoise Appledelhi, or just Ed) and Ein. Ed, a preteen girl and genius computer hacker, is a nutty bundle of energy. She’s probably the most stereotypical character in regards to that wacky anime sense of humor (fans of FLCL know what I’m talking about). Childish and goofy and probably having ADD, Ed saves the crew’s bacon a number of times with her computer skills. As some of the show’s episodes get rather dark, Ed’s lightheartedness and innocence allows the audience to have a breather. Ein, a genetically engineered Corgi, a “data dog” that is much smarter than most of the crew suspects, save Ed. Ein also provides some humor in the episodes where she is clearly the smartest character on board and manages to save her humans on a number of occasions.
Here’s the sticking point on this adaptation: it’s been in the works for a number of years and the furthest it got was the inclusion of Reeves as Spike. While I think Reeves and his passion for the property are great, he’s just a bit too long in the tooth (48) to be passable as Spike (27). And it doesn’t look like any headway has been made on a live-action adaptation, as Reeves said that the project is dead due to a high budget. I would have loved to have seen the script, as Reeves said it would cost around half-a-billion dollars to film it the way they wanted it (from what I read, it was supposed to focus on the drug Bloody Eye/Red Eye). Whoever wrote that is clearly missing the appeal of Cowboy Bebop.
The show’s brilliance wasn’t about the extravagance of flying around in futuristic spaceships or traveling to exotic locales; it was about the grit and grind of the everyday life of a bounty hunter trying to catch their target and earn their payday so they could live to see another day. It was about the cool, detached, non-committal interaction between the characters on the surface, while internally they struggled with powerful feelings towards each other, ones they felt they had to repress because of a past that was too painful to possibly repeat. Spike’s past is full of bloodshed, his steps hounded by Vicious, the former comrade and rival in the Syndicate; and also heartache, a presumed betrayal by his lover Julia that led to Spike’s near death and resulting fatalistic outlook. Jet is not without his own dark past, having dealt with corruption on the force and disaster in his personal life, as the woman he loved left him for being too overprotecting. Faye’s trust issues stem from her vulnerability upon waking in a world that wasn’t her own, surrounded by people who claimed they wanted to help her but only screwed her over. Even Edward’s past features a childhood spent in an orphanage. No one escapes unscathed.
The point is, the characters are lovable, memorable, incredibly well-developed and probably more complex than one feature film can even hope to capture. There’s no reason to spend upwards of $500 million to get that to come across on screen. That being said, there’s plenty of action set pieces to knock out of the park in a Cowboy Bebop adaptation: gun fights, hand-to-hand combat, car chases, space battles…okay, I can see how the writer got carried away. But picture the crew of Cowboy Bebop as an even less-likely assemblage of people than The Avengers, a crew so mismatched and so morally gray that there are actual fundamental reasons for tension between them. Rather than assembling to stand against a common foe, these cowboys are forced together by circumstances as mundane as making sure they earn enough woolongs to afford a hot meal. This is a rich property to mine if done right. Who do I think could do it?
Cowboy Bebop should absolutely be adapted into a live-action feature. It’s one of the most influential and critically well-received anime series of our time. You could use that same point to argue that it’s better left well enough alone. I wouldn’t fight you too much on that, except to say that I think the right combination of filmmakers could make a critically-acclaimed live-action Cowboy Bebop feature that would do the fans justice. So who should take on this monumental task of adapting such a popular series?
Writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) has already mentioned that some of the aesthetics from Cowboy Bebop influenced his filmmaking. He also revealed that his favorite episode of the anime series is “Pierrot Le Fou” (Requiem for a Clown), which is my absolute favorite for a number of reasons (it’s incredibly noir, over-the-top creepy and finally shows Spike meeting his match). If Looper is any indication, Johnson is able to take a sci-fi trope and breath life into it so that it fits within the world of the film, and then push it to the background so that his characters can emerge and develop. He’s the perfect answer for Cowboy Bebop. But with Johnson behind the camera, who should be in front of it?
If you’ve got Johnson, you’ve got to have Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He’s shown his noir sensibilities in Brick, his hand-to-hand fighting ability in Inception and his comfort in a dystopian future in Looper. He’s my Spike Spiegel, hands down. As for Jet Black, some people have suggested Ray Stevenson (Punisher: War Zone), others even mentioned Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy). I like both of those guys (though Perlman would have to be an older version of Jet), but I’m going to throw my hat in the ring for Kevin Durand (Robin Hood). He’s usually cast as a heavy so I’d like to see how he does with a bit more of a subdued role (Jet does cultivate bonsai trees after all). As for Faye, that’s a tough one as no normal woman has her proportions, but for a combination of femme fatale with the acting chops to pull off Faye’s subtleties, I’m going with Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs the World). I’m stumped as far as Ed goes (wait, what’s Elle Fanning up to?), so I’ll leave that one open to your suggestions. One iron-clad inclusion in any Cowboy Bebop film is that the brilliant composer Yoko Kanno must be involved. If not, the deal’s off! Even if you haven’t seen any of the series, check out Kanno’s music, most of which was performed by The Seatbelts.
Check out the awesome intro for Cowboy Bebop, featuring the song “Tank!” below:
That’s it for this week, kids! I know I rambled on a bit, but I love this series and would be out of my mind if it were ever to be successfully adapted. I hope some of you out there share my enthusiasm (Mr. Johnson and Mr. Reeves, I’m available to consult). Either way, please share your thoughts in the comments below, as well as suggestions for future articles.
Since a pair of video games made the news this week, with updates on the Halo and possible Gears of War adaptations, next week we’re going to take a look at a video game that has yet to be adapted. So stock up on arrows, bushwhack for rupees and polish that ocarina; it’s dangerous to go alone!