Are live-action anime adaptations always doomed to fail?

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The live-action “Cowboy Bebop” felt as if an algorithm made it, though perhaps that’s not far from the truth. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

When I’m watching Netflix, Netflix is also watching me. Execs of the streaming giant have always been open about their aggressive user data-mining, from what we watch, when we pause, to what we abandon after a few minutes. Simply, everything I do once I log in gets fed into this gargantuan machine that determines what I see on my homepage.

The Netflix algorithm, then, knows I devoured the live-action adaptation of cult classic anime “Cowboy Bebop” in one uninterrupted sitting, which landed on the streaming platform on Nov. 19. Netflix knows that I rewound a scene where John Cho, as the aloof bounty hunter Spike Spiegel, perfectly delivers the line, “What? I’ve got a soft spot for mommies.” Then I rewound it again, then again, laughing even harder each time.

Prior to the live-action’s release, one of the many worries shared by longtime fans is whether it could pull off the balance between humor and melodrama that the anime has been known to nail. Because the original “Bebop” was a masterwork in transcending genres, in doing things never been done before, it only makes sense that fans would expect the same from anyone who dares to touch this untouchable series. It is, after all, considered one of the greatest anime titles ever, leaving a mark that remains indelible since its initial release in the 1990s.

The cast is very aware of the stakes, but they know better than to fear it. “There was a reverence and a respect, and we had to balance that against wanting to feel creative, free, and playful,” Cho said in a roundtable interview last Nov. 11. “[There was] pressure in the sense that we wanted to make something that the fans would enjoy, but it didn’t feel burdensome. It felt like an honor.” Mustafa Shakir, who plays Jet Black, former-cop-turned-Spike’s-partner, shared the sentiment. “We were made more confident by the level of commitment on all parts, like set design, costume design, everybody. This show was made by fans of the show.”

Still, the team behind the live-action never intended to create a frame-by-frame recreation. While there were plot points and visual motifs directly lifted from its source material, the goal of this 10-episode Netflix rendition was to extend the backstories of some of the most adored characters of all time. Daniella Pineda, who plays subversive femme fatale Faye Valentine, called the show “the greatest love letter-fanfiction of ‘Bebop.’”

In Netflix's "Cowboy Bebop," John Cho plays bounty hunter Spike Spiegel, Mustafa Shakir plays former cop-turned-Spiegel's partner Jet Black, and Daniella Pineda plays femme fatale Faye Valentine. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

Spike, who is canny, comical, and canonically 27 in the anime, feels more lived-in and jaded in the live-action; perhaps justifying the initially-debated choice to cast the more mature Cho. When asked how he approached the iconic character, the actor explained, “I was really just trying to get in there, look like him, move like him, and then feel like him in those moments. And I don't think I thought in terms of difference or sameness.” He says he was more concerned with making the character human.

While purists may cringe at any sort of deviation from the original, Cho assured that it’s still “a really fun world to be in.” He says, “If you keep an open mind, you’re gonna have a really good time.”

And I did. While watching I was reminded of its platform neighbors “The Umbrella Academy” and “A Series of Unfortunate Events”: I would be overcome with intense enthusiasm for these shows in the two-day window I would binge them, but I would forget about them shortly after. The live-action “Bebop” is a popcorn blockbuster, an instant dopamine rush. I didn’t have to think too much, and that in itself is not always a bad thing — except, of course, in this case, where the anime it adapted is heralded as revolutionary in every sense of the word, from genre to storytelling to visuals to characters. When your source material is still being talked about, analyzed, redistributed, and hailed the greatest even after more than two decades, the worst thing your adaptation can do is leave no lasting cultural imprint at all.

This is not to say the live-action downright botched the legacy of the anime. I do think it’s not as bad as people expect, though I’ve been trying to articulate how, despite the show being endearing and enjoyable and even good, it never not feels like something to be consumed. Unlike the original, it doesn’t feel stylish or cool, which may be the fault of the medium itself. There are simply more things you can get away with in anime; slick fight scenes and interplanetary travel may come off as amateurish in live-action, and perhaps any non-animated bounty hunter from a fictional 2071 is bound to feel costume-y.

Of course, this calls into question the existence of a Hollywood live-action version in the first place, especially when previous attempts (also mostly by Netflix) have failed colossally. Frankly, it seems like a cash grab — geek culture has overtaken pop culture after all, and superhero movies and anime are suddenly global phenomena worth a lot of very real money. Creating shows with a large preexisting fanbase is undeniably less risky than gambling on original content. And while I don’t doubt that the showrunners are indeed big fans of the anime, the pitch perfect recreations of some iconic scenes come off less like an homage and more like a way to entice hesitant fans, perhaps an attempt to convince audiences that the whitewashed live-action “Death Note” is already behind them.

Still, the adaptation was made to appeal to the broadest audience possible, resulting in a show that felt sanitized and manufactured. It was as if an algorithm made it, though perhaps that’s not far from the truth.

The pitch perfect recreations of some iconic scenes come off less like an homage and more like a way to entice hesitant fans, perhaps an attempt to convince audiences that the whitewashed live-action “Death Note” is already behind them. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

While Netflix sought extensive user data to curate customer homepages, today that data is being used to determine which genres, actors, and projects are most in-demand. The complex algorithm is a major deciding factor on which Netflix Originals get picked up or renewed, something previously impossible with traditional TV networks.

As early as 2014, Netflix heads have said scripted TV content is among their most reliable formulas: shows where the action starts early, often led by a charismatic lead and a well-known director or showrunner, and based on preexisting material. This was the case for their wildly successful, first-ever original “House of Cards,” and this is still the case for John Cho-led, live-action “Bebop.”

The hollowness of Netflix’s “Bebop” is symptomatic of the larger, algorithm-driven media landscape the streaming platform has cultivated with its business model, always opting for what is guaranteed to succeed commercially and smoothing out any nuances in the taste of viewers.

Besides, in the world of streaming, success is more defined by viewership than critical reception. It doesn’t matter that live-action anime adaptations are almost always critically panned; Netflix has already won by the time we press play, even if we did so skeptically. As critic Alison Willmore wrote: a Netflix show doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be there.

There are a lot of things the live-action did right: I stand by my belief that the main trio was perfectly cast, which I was surprised to discover was an opinion I did not share with the majority. I’m still reeling over the fact that Faye Valentine is (finally, might I add) canonically queer. I was glad to get to know Julia (Elena Satine), who was given very little backstory in the original. But at the end of the day, when you enter something into the Netflix machinery, even if it’s something as classic as “Cowboy Bebop,” it’s bound to lose the craft, sophistication, and ingenuity the original was lauded for.