When science-fiction anime series Cowboy Bebop first appeared on Japanese television in 1998, it didn’t even complete its run of 26 episodes. Broadcasters were concerned that the show’s violence and adult content made it unsuitable for a general audience. Aired on a channel targeted at older viewers, though, it became both a commercial and critical success. And when the series made the journey to American screens in 2001, it changed everything.
For many Americans, Cowboy Bebop was the first anime series they’d ever really watched. A few Japanese animated films had been critical successes in the US, and there were a growing number of hardcore anime fans, but Bebop reached a much larger number of new viewers. It paved the way for other anime series to reach wide English-speaking audiences.
If you weren’t around at the time, it can be easy to underestimate Cowboy Bebop‘s influence. Although it drew on the imagery of classic western, film noir and science fiction movies, there was absolutely nothing on American television, animated or live-action, that provided its blend of introspection, character development, uneasy moral themes and rich, immersive world design. And that’s not to mention the one-of-a-kind soundtrack by Yoko Kanno.
So when an upcoming live-action version of Cowboy Bebop was announced, fan reaction was a mixture of excitement and worry. Live-action adaptations of animated films or series have always been a bit of a challenge, and attempts like The Last Airbender, Dragonball Evolution, Ghost in the Shell and Speed Racer have proven controversial or even downright flopped (although from a purely cinematic perspective, the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer is an overlooked gem).
At this stage, we don’t know very much about the upcoming live-action version of Cowboy Bebop. We know that it’s intended to be a series rather than a film, and that it’s being produced by Tomorrow Studios. This partnership does include Sunrise, the studio that produced the original animated series, which is giving some fans heart. We also know that Chris Yost has been named as writer for the series. Yost has experience with both animated series and film: he was a writer on both Thor: the Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok, as well as working on the X-Men: Evolution animated series, where he co-created the character of X-23. Comics fans will also recognise Yost from runs on various X-Men and Spider-Man books, typically working in tandem with writing partner Craig Kyle.
Given the controversy that surrounded the recent Netflix Death Note adaptation, it’s interesting to see that interest in adapting manga and anime doesn’t seem to have decreased. Does this suggest that Death Note‘s numbers indicate that this kind of project is worthwhile? Or do Tomorrow Studios just have more confidence in their adaptation? What will be really interesting to see is the extent to which Cowboy Bebop still works 20 years on, in a media landscape in which the very idea of a science fiction action-adventure show that adults can enjoy on its own terms isn’t as strange as it wonce was.