What Is ‘Cowboy Bebop’ Anyway? Netflix Show and Its Anime Source, Explained

Cowboy Bebop Spike John Cho
Kristy Griffin/Netflix

Even if it weren’t a highly-anticipated adaptation of a hit anime series, the premise of Netflix’s live-action Cowboy Bebop would be enough to rope in viewers. The streamer calls the new show, premiering on Friday, November 19, an “action-packed space Western” that follows three bounty hunters — or “cowboys” — as they earn a living and try to escape their pasts.

“As different as they are deadly, Spike Spiegel [John Cho], Jet Black [Mustafa Shakir], and Faye Valentine [Daniella Pineda] form a scrappy, snarky crew ready to hunt down the solar system’s most dangerous criminals — for the right price,” the streaming giant adds. “But they can only kick and quip their way out of so many scuffles before their pasts finally catch up with them.”

Of course, the live-action series has big boots to fill. The Japanese original, which aired 26 episodes on TV Tokyo and Wowow between 1998 and 1999, has legions of fans across the globe. Created by animation studio Sunrise Inc. under the direction of Shinichirō Watanabe, the anime series was a pastiche of genres — blending sci-fi, film noir, Western, cyberpunk, and pulp fiction — and a comment on the human condition — with themes of existentialism, loneliness, and ennui.

The series earned universal acclaim, big honors at the Anime Gran Prix, and homages from filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Rian Johnson.

“On paper, Cowboy Bebop, the legendary cult anime series from Shinichirō Watanabe, reads like something John Wayne, Elmore Leonard, and Philip K. Dick came up with during a wild, all-night whiskey bender,” The Atlantic’s Alex Suskind wrote in 2014. “The response from critics and fans may have sounded hyperbolic — the word ‘masterpiece’ was thrown around a great deal — but the praise was justified. First-time solo director Watanabe had created a gorgeous tale of morality, romance, and violence — a dark look at the lives of outlaws that’s shot like an independent film.”

Luckily for newcomers to the franchise, the original series is streaming on both Netflix and Hulu in the United States, and it’s also available as a remastered Blu-Ray set.

The live-action Cowboy Bebop, meanwhile, has been in the works for more than four years now. Production company Tomorrow Studios announced the project in June 2017, touting a collaboration with both Sunrise and with the producing team Midnight Radio (made up of Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, Jeff Pinkner, and Scott Rosenberg, veterans of shows like Alias and High Fidelity). And producers brought Christopher Yost (Thor: Ragnarok, The Mandalorian) on board to pen the scripts.

“We are excited to work with Sunrise in bringing this beloved anime to the U.S. and global marketplace as a live-action series,” Tomorrow Studios’ Marty Adelstein said at the time, per Deadline. “The animated version has long resonated with audiences worldwide, and with the continued, ever-growing popularity of anime, we believe a live-action version will have an incredible impact today.”

Netflix scooped up Cowboy Bebop in November 2018, and by the fall of 2019, filming was already underway. But then Cho suffered a knee injury on set that October, delaying production for months.

Recasting the role of Spike was out of the question, however. “I can’t imagine anyone being Spike Spiegel but John Cho because John brings a depth to the character,” Nemec told Syfy Wire last month. “He’s incredibly facile with humor. He’s quick-witted. He can be laconic like Spike Spiegel. I think the anime had true moments of ennui, and true moments of dramatic pain that really did require someone, again, with that depth that John brought.”

So, will the live-action series do its anime predecessor justice? The Netflix title currently has a 47% Rotten Tomatoes rating, which doesn’t bode particularly well. But as Spike says in the original, “Whatever happens, happens.”

Cowboy Bebop, Series Premiere, Friday, November 19, Netflix