Netflix's Cowboy Bebop Is About Memory, Both For The Characters And The Viewers

The live-action Cowboy Bebop has to contend with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, both within the story and outside of it.


If you grew up in the USA and are between the ages of twenty and forty, there's a good chance the title Cowboy Bebop inspires a few key memories in your head--staying up late, tuning into Toonami's Adult Swim block, dub voice actors like Steve Blum, Beau Billingslea, and Wendee Lee--the works. For many of us, it was a foundational experience with anime as a genre, especially in the days before streaming services and subtitled simulcasts, and as such, it unsurprisingly occupies a special place in countless hearts and minds.

More importantly, the nostalgic pedestal it sits on for so many is well earned. It's hard to imagine a show that showcases the breadth of what anime is able to do as a medium better than Bebop, with it's effortless blend of genres, styles, and influences. It was completely unlike any of the Western cartoons of its day, and mostly unlike the other anime shows available in the West at the time as well--keeping in mind that for many, watching anime was an exercise in putting together disparate VHS tapes and scouring GeoCities web rings for episode summaries. Space bounty hunting may not have been a totally unique concept, but the adventures of Spike Spiegel, Faye Valentine, Jet Black, and Radical Edward were. They were so unique, in fact, that it's actually difficult to explain just what Bebop is really "about" without meandering through different one-off episodes, memorable side characters, and favorite songs on the soundtrack.

It's easy to see exactly how challenging it would be to translate an anime like this into a 10-episode live-action season, which forced the creative team to answer some of Bebop's more deliberately unanswered questions, as well as challenge their own perception of the anime as fans. How do you distill 26 genre-bending animated episodes that meander, almost stream-of-conscious style, through the daily lives of four main characters? According to producer André Nemec, you start by having your team challenge their own memories of the anime.

"We all watched the anime, we all shared that history," Nemec told GameSpot, "but we all have a fiction that we write for ourselves. So when we go back and watch the anime it would be like 'oh, well that's not exactly how I remember this moment playing out.'" This, Nemec continued on, really helped the creative team drill down into what he called the "spirit" of Bebop for the live-action version.

But more than that, it provided some groundwork for one of the major themes present in the Netflix version of the show. It's an idea that is played with in the anime--the concept that your memory of a person and the reality of that person may not exactly mesh together--but in the live-action, that concept is the backbone of the story. Each of the main characters had their respective story arcs reconfigured in ways that drilled into the idea of nostalgia--and the fiction they write for themselves.

For characters like Spike and Jet, these fictions revolve around lost loves and an idealized past that they might be able to return to someday, if they just play their cards right. For Faye, an amnesiac, it's about re-inventing herself on the fly. For Julia, Spike's ex-lover, and Vicious, his former rival, these stories are about escaping from, or perhaps into, the version of yourself written by someone else.

Elena Satine, who plays Julia in the show, said it this way: "There's a real duality to [Julia] in the anime. There's the perception of her through Spike's memories, and then when you actually see her she's running around with a gun, clearly not the same person as the one that lives in Spike's head."

Meanwhile, Alex Hassel, who plays Vicious, explained that the Vicious who exists in the Netflix show is someone he believes would idealize himself as the Vicious of the anime. "The Vicious of the anime is the person that our Vicious would like to be seen as, very cold, very clinical, cat-like [...] but what we've done here in this show is create this massive backstory that sets this very vulnerable sort of 'wobble' into him, underneath all that."

But perhaps the most interesting side effect of focusing the adaptation on these different lenses of memory for the characters themselves is the challenge it presents the viewer, who will likely also have their own fiction to wrangle as they progress. Are the stories from the anime actually the stories you remember from your childhood? Are the characters and beats the same? What stories have you told yourself about Bebop and your relationship to it since your first time through, back when Toonami was your gateway into this world?

There's obviously no right answer here. And love it or hate it, everyone's experience will be completely unique--maybe you'll feel inspired to give the live-action show a chance, or maybe you'll find yourself wanting to revisit the original. Either way, it's not a bad way to spend your time.

Both versions of Cowboy Bebop are currently streaming on Netflix.

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