Cowboy Bebop’s live-action Netflix remake exposes the lingering snobbery about anime

Animation is a realm of boundless possibility. It is a mode of storytelling where no idea need go unexpressed, where no image is too fanciful to bring to life. When it comes to pushing the boundaries of animation, there aren’t too many better examples than Cowboy Bebop, the 1990s Japanese anime series about a band of interstellar bounty hunters. It’s often cited as an anime for people who otherwise wouldn’t touch it – a gateway drug to the form, compared to the tar heroin of something like Paranoia Agent or Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. It is one of the finest examples of episodic animation to have ever been made.

Despite this, or because of it, Cowboy Bebop has now been adapted into a live-action English-language series, arriving today on Netflix. Starring John Cho, Mustafa Shakir and Daniella Pineda, the remake has been met with excitement from fans of the original, but no small amount of trepidation. Though the series is painstakingly faithful to the anime in many regards – recreating its immediately recognisable opening credits beat for beat, for instance – early footage of the show also faced criticism for lacking the original’s visual elan. When the first reviews came in, they were roundly damning. But the problem with Bebop goes deeper than just a few drably lit backgrounds. It speaks to something fundamentally lacking in how anime is understood and valued in the west.

There are many errant stereotypes about anime. That it’s for children. It’s too weird. It’s for nerds. It’s off-putting in its approach to sexuality. There are reasons for this, of course. Many of the most widely recognisable animes among western audiences have been made for children, such as Pokemon, Digimon and Dragon Ball Z. Some anime series and films are regressive or bizarre in their sexual politics, though not all. As for whether it’s for nerds? “Nerd culture” is just an epithet ascribed to material that exists outside the mainstream but lacks highbrow critical esteem. In recent years, the old signifiers of nerddom – superhero fiction, sci-fi films, video games – have been subsumed into the very heart of western mainstream culture. The conventional “nerd” stigma was then affixed to other, more niche pursuits, anime being one such. But anime can hardly be called a niche fascination any more, even in the west. The anime film Demon Slayer topped the global box office last year (admittedly in a year stunted by Covid), taking in more than half a billion dollars worldwide. Nearly $50m came from US cinemas; the UK contributed more than £1m in ticket sales (hardly a sensation – but not nothing, either).

Bebop is not the only poorly received remake of an acclaimed anime to blight our screens in recent years. Ghost in the Shell took a seminal anime feature and bastardised it, controversially casting white American star Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. Western remakes of the seminal dystopian anime Akira and 2016’s hit body-switch romance Your Name are both supposedly in the works, with Taika Waititi somewhat ambiguously attached to make the former. There is, quite frankly, no reason for any of these projects to exist. Re-making them in live action is a transparent attempt to cash in on their greatness by repackaging it in a more widely marketable format, one that is sure to lose everything special and distinct about the originals. It’s telling that perhaps the best-known anime creator in the world, Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki, has turned down a litany of adaptation offers for his films.

Of course, the ill-fated live-action remake is not unique to anime. Disney are gradually ploughing through their catalogue of animated classics, re-imagining them as insipid CGI-laden remakes. The anime-inspired American series Avatar: The Last Airbender was adapted once, wretchedly, by M Night Shyamalan, with another Netflix live-action adaptation forthcoming. Though the stigma lessens with every generation that grows up in a post-Simpsons landscape, western animation still contends with many of the same inane prejudices as anime – that it is juvenile, that it is somehow less substantial than live-action fare. It’s just that anime faces the additional cultural barrier of being “foreign”, something that has always inhibited mainstream western audiences from enjoying some of film and TV’s very best.

I’m sure Cowboy Bebop’s defenders will point out that, at the very least, the new series will steer viewers towards the original (also available on Netflix). But that’s an awfully elaborate way to advertise a two-decade-old TV show. And it was doing just fine by itself, anyway. Cowboy Bebop was never meant to be source material for some glossier, more marketable re-hash. It was to be enjoyed on its own terms: as a dynamic, soulful whimsy that could only exist in animation.

‘Cowboy Bebop’ is available to stream on Netflix from Friday 19 November

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