Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and you're listening to The Takeaway. The year is 2071, the Earth is largely uninhabitable, and a crew of bounty hunters is moving through space on a ship called Bebop.
Singer: I think it's time we blow this scene. Get everybody and the stuff together. Okay, three, two, one, let's jam.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is the cult classic anime series, Cowboy Bebop, part science fiction, part Neo-noir, with a splash of slapstick comedy, the series follows a ragtag group of bounty hunters called Cowboys, as they track down fugitives across space in a dystopian future.
Jet Black: Three days ago, there was a big shootout between his group and a rival syndicate. He killed his own guys, then took off like the wind. Word is he's hiding out with some sweet thing in Tijuana.
Spike Spiegel: TJ, that place is for small fries.
Jet: Yes, well, these small fries we're doing half a million.
[end of audio playback]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Having originally debuted in the late '90s, the wildly popular anime series is now getting the live-action treatment, thanks to Netflix. The series, also called Cowboy Bebop, debut on Friday and stars John Cho as the lead, Spike Spiegel.
Speaker: Who are you?
Spike Spiegel: Just a humble bounty hunter, ma'am.
[end of audio playback]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Spike's fellow bounty hunters, Jet Black and Faye Valentine are played by Mustafa Shakir and Daniella Pineda.
Jet Black: A hundred thousand.
Spike Spiegel: Yes.
Jet Black: Barely covers fuel. Never mind food.
Spike Spiegel: I thought you said this bounty was going to go up.
Jet Black: Well, it did. Tanaka's worth 1.5 million, but we got charged for half the casino floating out into space.
Spike Spiegel: It's not our fault somebody brought a disrupter to a robbery.
[end of audio playback]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Adapting animated stories like Cowboy Bebop into live-action is no easy task. Anime especially, since it has a pretty unique visual and storytelling style that doesn’t always translate well with live actors. That’s according to Shirley Li, staff writer covering culture for The Atlantic. I recently spoke with Shirley and with Jeff Yang, cultural critic and co-author of the forthcoming book Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now, about the new live-action, Cowboy Bebop series.
Jeff Yang: Cowboy Bebop is cited, perhaps, more frequently by people of a certain generation as their onramp to anime, their real first taste of Japanese animation, and the thing that addicted them to the medium and to the genre. It is an almost impossible to describe, an amalgam of different genres sci-fi, Western, Neo-noir, and slapstick comedy. It has some indelible characters. It is funny and dark, and really deeply layered and emotional, and it's a cult classic.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That language use about how it is funny but also dark, it's incredibly sexually frank in certain spaces, surely, it always feels to me like part of what makes those things work together in the context of anime is that is in fact animated. I'm wondering about how a live-action adaptation of that can work.
Shirley Li: Well, often it doesn't work. It is a risky and really hard endeavor to transform anime into live-action. Anime, first of all, is inherently hard to adapt because it has such a precise visual style. I think anyone who has watched any series about a magical girl or a heroic little boy will notice how super-expressive their facial characteristics are.
The character designs are often really kinetic. That's not something you can really translate to live-action. You have these realistic and lush backgrounds, sure, but they contrast with, again, this seamless expressiveness of these characters. I think when you adapt it into live-action, you can mimic the aesthetics, think of the Wachowskis, for instance, but the storytelling of anime, as Jeff mentioned, is different.
Cowboy Bebop is especially different because it's about adults living out adulthood, and you have a lot of ambiguity and these self-contained conflicts instead of one overarching conflict that's driven by a good set of characters versus a bad set of characters. You're seeing characters cook, take baths, trim their bonsai trees, and looking out the window, and there's this feeling of melancholy and mystery that I don't think live action can translate really well. It's just really hard and it's risky to do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One might think that it would be easy because anime is meant to give us these strong signals for what an emotional moment is, but that stylized aspect of it does seem hard to then translate back into the live-action. I'm wondering, Jeff, what you think is gained, and what you think may be lost in that translation, and then we want to get to a few other things. I'm just interested in what we lose, but also, maybe what we gain by going to live-action.
Jeff Yang: I've never really been somebody who has the orthodoxy, this deep and abiding, religious, dogmatic principle on keeping interpretation of a work authentic to the original. I think that canon exists to be improvised on, like jazz, which of course, is one of the biggest reasons, I think, the soundtrack, the music that informs Cowboy Bebop's incredible popularity. If you want to make something new, you want to make something different, and not just something that reiterates what's already existing in two dimensions.
That said, I think that in some ways, the challenge of adaptation of anime is that anime just is told in a storytelling style that defies what we expect, in many cases, in Western storytelling. It doesn't have the same beats or story arc. It doesn't have the kinds of conclusions for characters that we expect. As a result, sometimes it can be very just discordant and jarring to people who are consuming this stuff for the first time in live-action without knowing what the antecedents are.
For people who've actually seen the original, you have that anxiety of influence, that constant comparison. We saw that at the very beginning when people started just showing off costumes and casting, and the embedded fan base for Cowboy Bebop just exploding in fan rage. I guess what I would say is, you always gain something. It may not be something good, but you're seeing something new when you do an adaptation.
I think what you lose when you go from 2D to 3D, though, is you lose, in some ways, that perspective of suspension of disbelief that we automatically bring to animated characters. We give, I think, a little bit more leeway, more elasticity to how stories are told in animated media than in live-action, and certainly here in the West. As a result, I think you're always going to have some disappointment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love this language of the interpretive aspects and the right to interpret any work of art and to create something new,
in this decision to create, that it's not, in fact, just translation. Maybe translation is the wrong way to think about it altogether. Instead, it's a reading and a retelling in, with all of the newness or difference that that retelling might bring.
Jeff, your point about people already having a set of expectations, especially if this was their onramp, so for a certain kind of generational moment, this onramp into this particular form, surely beyond the question of whether or not it is in and of itself as a product, good, bad, right, wrong, how do you think they will feel about it? Maybe in different categories, maybe folks who come knowing something and those who don't?
Shirley Li: I try to think this way when I was approaching the screeners' humblebrag, just from a perspective of what if I had never seen the anime. Am I getting just a great story? Am I getting a great performance out of these actors? It is really hard to erase your memory of the anime. I think the show, if you have never watched any anime at all, you might be able to appreciate this show. I do think that this show has been structured in a way to fit Hollywood storytelling, as I was saying before.
I'm not the first to observe this by any means, but it's the difference between watching a Miyazaki film and a Pixar film. One will, in its storytelling structure, prioritize this idea of space and gradual change and interiority and its characters. Pixar, on the other hand, is very conflict-driven, and it's a subtle structure that makes all the difference. If you have seen anime, maybe you'll watch this version and you'll feel like there's something uncanny about it, just as far as the comparisons go, but if you had never watched any anime, and you just watched the Netflix version, you might not have that uncanny feeling. You might feel like, "Oh, this is this is a fun story. This is basically a space Western", rather than the space opera that you get from the anime.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to talk about the music, I want to talk about the sonic aspects. Jeff, when you brought up the point of jazz and the important ways that the personic-- because we've been talking a little bit about the visual and even the way that plot and story are driven or represented, but talk to me about what it sounds like.
Jeff Yang: One of the things to really note-- and this is true, actually, of the live-action as well, in the sense that they did bring back the original composer, Yoko Kanno to do the score for the new score actually, a brand new sonic landscape for the Netflix series. Yoko Kanno created the soundtrack and the, again indelible audio space for the original animated series. What's really interesting, if you know a little bit about how the show was created, in many cases, she looked at early sketches, looked at early breakdowns, created music, and then after seeing later stages of the animation actually created new music, which then Watanabe, the director, essentially altered the scenes themselves to reshape around her altered, again soundscapes.
As a result, it really was like a jazz process, riffing off each other in a way that I don't think is very common in animation where any changes are expensive, and especially changes that are reflecting what might seem as whim. The music is so incredible, from the very beginning, even that completely unforgettable music that accompanies the opening credits. Cowboy Bebop has music in its name, and music in its soul, and even the style of storytelling very much feels like it's designed to reflect its musical forbear, if you will. It definitely has sense of almost being improvisational in parts. It definitely has a feeling of allowing each of its characters to almost serve like instruments stepping forward, then stepping back into the chorus.
It's really hard to describe it without having actually watched all 26 episodes to people who haven't watched all 26 episodes. Over the course of that one season, you really do feel like you've consumed like an album.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Shirley, just on the last question here. What could this mean? What might this Netflix series mean for Hollywood and anime? Do we want Hollywood to be doing a lot of particularly live-action anime?
Shirley Li: Boy, I'm actually torn on this. As Jeff was saying earlier, I also feel this way where if we want to take influences from global products-- God, that sounds so corporate. I think you know what I mean. Riff on them, I think that's the beauty of art. I do think this adaptation probably comes the closest among the graveyard of Hollywood live-action adaptations to capture the spirit of the original. The showrunners, the creatives, the team clearly respects the original anime, but they are also inviting these comparisons that we've been going through because they lean so heavily on what fans remember of the anime.
How do I feel about the future? I'm still wary of any announcements, such as the one about the live-action adaptation of your name, that's in the works, that's stalled. This is not Japanese anime, but Netflix's ongoing production of the live-action version of Avatar, The Last Airbender makes me weary, even if the casting is really great. It's just a medium that is so so risky to translate when it comes to Hollywood storytelling. I think Hollywood really likes to package whatever story that they found, and to make it just purely action-driven, black and white, good versus bad. That's why Netflix's Death Note didn't work. That's why the 2017 Ghosts in The Shell didn't work, for among many other reasons.
Jeff Yang: Many other reasons.
Shirley Li: That's why Dragon Ball Evolution was a travesty. I just think the problem that we've seen when it comes to turning animate into a Hollywood live-action product remains the same. Hollywood consistently tries to reshape the storytelling structure. I think if there's a way to move beyond that, I think maybe we could really see some riffing that is inspired, instead of rote.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Shirley Li is a staff writer covering culture for The Atlantic. Jeff Yang is a cultural critic and co-author of the forthcoming book Rise, A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now. See you both soon, Space Cowboys.
Jeff Yang: See you, Melissa.
Shirley Li: See you
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