How Netflix's 'Cowboy Bebop' Series Can Beat The Anime Adaptation Curse (And What It Can Borrow From Marvel And 'Star Wars')

Anime fans around the country clutched their chests in fear as they read the fateful words that Netflix is planning on adapting Cowboy Bebop into a 10 episode live-action miniseries.

If you're an American anime fan like me, then you've probably been a person who has had to suffer through several horrible live-action adaptations. It seems like Hollywood never gets their approach to live-action anime correct. Sometimes, it can seem like the industry doesn't even try.

Therefore, I've provided a set of lessons Hollywood should have learned from their past mistakes. Maybe by outlining them, the powers that be can finally get the message, learn what to do, and make Cowboy Bebop actually awesome.

Lesson 1: Cast accordingly

My biggest fear for Cowboy Bebop is that whatever studio might be behind this on behalf of Netflix might assume that the story needs to be "Americanized" for western audiences to understand it more. This kind of thinking is indicative in a lot of the live-action anime films we've seen. Audiences can be smarter than Hollywood assumes they are — a live-action film about an anime doesn't have to be divorced from its Japanese history for American audiences to love it. By the same token, a film doesn't have to have just white American actors playing Japanese characters for us to care about it.

If the very public Ghost in the Shell debacle taught us anything, it's that American animephiles want the integrity of their favorite shows to remain intact. Part of that includes respecting the fact that these shows stem from Japanese culture and include Japanese characters.

The story itself is so intertwined with Japan's grief and anxiety about its past, particularly the nuclear bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how it's dealt with such anxiety by throwing itself into technological advancement. The underlying theme of Ghost in the Shell is the push and pull between the old traditions and the new, detached ways technology make us feel about life. Because of the historical and poignantly Japanese sentiment behind Ghost in the Shell, it makes the most sense to me to hire a Japanese cast (or, since we're dealing with Hollywood, at least an all-Asian one). Instead, Hollywood went the route of simply focusing on the "cool" technological elements of the story instead of the all-encompassing, intrinsically Japanese sentiment within. Thereby, the entire film (and its casting) missed the point of the story entirely.

However, it must be said that not every anime adaptation has to have an all-Asian cast for it to be deemed respectful. You might be surprised to know that I think that the type of casting that goes into a live-action anime adaptation actually depends upon the type of anime that's being developed.

I've evolved to this line of thinking after writing a piece elsewhere about the upcoming Alita: Battle Angel. Originally, I wrote that the actors should have been Asian actors. But, as I did more research on the anime, I started thinking about how several characters don't look Japanese, meaning that casting for them can be more lenient. For instance, Christoph Waltz's character Daisuke Ido looks very much like a white man, despite his Japanese name. Shady Scrapyard businessman Vector is definitely a black man. To top it all off, the manga takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States, particularly Texas, California, Colorado and Missouri. Since that's the case, it makes more sense to have a multicultural set of actors portraying the characters.

So where does Cowboy Bebop come in with this? It's set primarily in space, the characters and influences of Cowboy Bebop are culturally eclectic, with the show drawing from American westerns, "spaghetti" westerns, blaxploitation, and crime dramas. Characters hail from different cultural and racial backgrounds, such as several black characters who have featured in the show, a surprisingly high amount for an anime.

Cowboy Bebop also features a wide range of music in its soundtrack, most notably jazz, a fully-American artform (particularly an African-American artform). But at the same time, its focus on space exploration and technology after a world apocalypse still comments, albeit loosely, on Japan's continuing conversation with itself about its future after its own technological apocalypse. So how does one cast for this type of film while being respectful to the Japanese sensibilities that are in this show? What I'd do is cast a wide net.

To honor the show, I'd give Spike to an actor of Japanese descent. I feel like that's only fair, given that creator Shinichiro Watanabe based the suave protagonist off of Japanese '70s movie star Yusaku Matsuda. As for the rest of the cast, I'd look for actors of all cultural backgrounds who best fit the role. If I had my way, the entire cast would be multicultural, to showcase how much the apocalypse has affected people from all walks of life, to the point of making a go of it in space.

Thankfully, it seems like Netflix is going in this very direction. According to That Hashtag Show, the casting breakdown is very diverse. Actors of Asian descent (including biracial and multiracial actors of Asian descent) are being looked at for Spike and Faye. The casting breakdown for Jet includes African-American or biracial/multiracial actors while the rest of the characters, including Ed, Julia and Vicious, actors of any ethnicity are being considered.

Lesson 2: Respect the story

I've already touched on respecting story in my first part, but just to reiterate: respecting the source material is highly important. For some reason, Hollywood seems to think it can simply ignore said source material, for reasons mentioned above.

Fans are much smarter than the studios give them credit for, though, and they can tell when a studio hasn't respected their favorite story enough. Let's take Dragonball Evolution, a film based on the highly popular Dragonball series. I'm a huge fan of the Dragonball franchise, so like an idiot, I went to see Dragonball Evolution, even though I knew it would possibly be bad. My gut feeling was definitely right; it was a horror show in the worst way.

It ignored the premise of the original anime, transforming Goku's mythic alien warrior into a high school student trying to get the attention of it girl Chi-Chi. Plotlines were ignored, villains were drastically overhauled, and somehow only Emmy Rossum's Bulma came out as the best part of the film, despite the obvious racial issue. But even with a mostly successful Bulma, the entire film was horrendous. Tonally, it didn't know if it wanted to be a comedy or a drama. It didn't know if it wanted to appeal to diehard fans or newcomers to the property. It also didn't seem to know what it's own original story was or why fans loved it. What's probably the most annoying thing is that the original Dragonball series was an action-comedy in the vein of Jackie Chan's early action-comedies from the '80s and early '90s. Something like this should have been easy to replicate into a film, even with the fantasy elements. But instead, the studios behind this film wanted to blend Dragonball, a comedy, with Dragonball Z, which is much more dramatic in tone. The experiment of trying to meld the two resulted in a film that didn't work at all.

For the folks behind the Cowboy Bebop adaptation, it's imperative that they know the story inside and out. Sure, some things might have to be changed for it to fit within a film narrative, but those changes need to make sense for the story. This is when Marvel has to be commended for its attention to detail; even though all of their films have had some artistic license when it comes to translating comic book characters to the big screen, most of the changes have made sense on the larger scale. For instance, it's much healthier to see the Falcon updated into an upstanding ex-military man instead of how he was originally positioned in the Marvel universe – a man who had lost his way, moved from Harlem to Los Angeles, and became a drug dealer before finding the path towards superheroism.

I assume something will be changed during Cowboy Bebop's transition to Netflix. But let's just hope that the folks behind the project know what they're doing so we don't have another Dragonball Evolution on our hands.

Lesson 3: Americanization isn’t necessary

Hopefully, the folks behind the Cowboy Bebop adaptation don't change things to the level of inverting the story the entirely. This happens when live-action adaptations become too focused on appealing to American audiences instead of relying on the unique qualities that made American fans fall in love with the property in the first place.

Take for instance Netflix's most recent attempt at bringing anime to live-action, Death Note. It was met with animus from most critics. The major complaint was that the film was too Americanized, detracting from the original story. Some critics wrote that the intense Americanziation changed the themes of the original anime altogether, and not for the best.

Buzzfeed's Alison Willmore acknowledged that Death Note failed Asian-Americans by not casting any Asian-Americans as characters, but she also wrote that the film failed by unnecessarily Americanizing the story:

"...[I]t's an earnest, ludicrously overstuffed attempt at reworking the original story for an American context, part of the latest instance of Hollywood's long pattern of devouring intellectual property and remaking it (for better or worse, usually the latter), from Vanilla Sky toThe Departed to January's ill-fated Jamie Foxx vehicle Sleepless. It's not illustrious tradition, but it's one Death Note is part of[.]"

Willmore writes how the film tries to evoke specifically American themes of real-life horror. In the Netflix film, Nat Wolff plays Light, a sadistic high school student who hides his sadism under a mask of perfectionism. To everyone, he's the perfect straight-A high school kid. At least that's how he was in the manga and anime. In the actual film, though, Wolff's Light is much more of the American version of a homegrown terrorist.

"Light isn't just any young white man. His look evokes a very specific sort of young white man, the kind who've made up the majority of mass shooters in the US," she wrote.

Clio Chang of the New Republic and Splinter's Isha Aran also reiterated how off-putting the Americanized Light is to viewers, particularly those who know the source material.

"The premise of Death Note would seem to be eminently translatable, a kind of cross between Dexter and American Gods," Chang wrote, adding that the film "completely Americanized" the story and Light to the point of being unrecognizable:

"In contrast, Nat Wolff's Light is given a troubled backstory. His mother was killed by a man who paid off the jury to avoid going to prison. Light gets beat up at school; his teachers don't understand him and his father is standoffish. Like the original series he is a mass murderer, yes, but he is cast in a much more agreeable light. As Isha Aran wrote at Splinter, 'It's this absolution of Light that actually whitewashes the story. Once again, a white American kid isn't actually responsible for the murders he commits.'"

Odyssey's Chain Shields goes even further, citing how having a white American character kill supposed criminals changes the entire meaning of the story:

"...[C]rime in Japan is not racialized like the US is. While Japan as a nation is certainly not exempt from racism and xenophobia, the population of the country is extremely homogeneous, almost exclusively comprised of the ethnic majority of native Japanese. The criminals executed by 'Kira' share the same race and skin tone as their killer, for the most part. 

...In the US, the police are not protectors of the incarcerated, preventing a vigilante from doling out justice; they are the perpetrators of violence against perceived wrongdoers, as evidenced by our outrageous records of police brutality, particularly against marginalized populations. Furthermore, the people most likely to be convicted and processed by the criminal justice system are (often low-income) minorities. When this population starts getting systematically murdered to 'cleanse' society by a privileged white guy, you can see how the story changes."

Even worse, despite the film changing its location from Japan to Seattle, the film misses a chance for a majority-multicultural cast. As Li Lai of Mediaversity Reviews wrote in her review, "Seattle is pretty diverse at 30% of the population being non-white – 14% Asian, 8% black, 5% mixed race, and 3% other according to the 2010 Census. Thus, the 'but we're set in America!' defense feels a bit weaker."

If Cowboy Bebop aims to avoid tragic Americanization, the writer simply need to study the source material and translate it as faithfully as possible. There's no need for pointless discrepancies just to try to appeal to an American audience. The audience is tuning in because they're already familiar with the story and culture being presented in the story.

Lesson 4: Hire actors who understand the source material

One knock against quite a few of these live-action anime adaptations is that it feels like the actors are usually quite detached from what makes these stories actually cool. It feels more like everyone involved is in it as a cash grab instead of trying to faithfully relay the story. So if Cowboy Bebop can excel in any area, hopefully it'll be getting actors who are actually interested in Cowboy Bebop.

There is a precedent set for hiring actors who are already fans of the films they're joining. For instance, Samuel L. Jackson. It's very popular to say how the Star Wars prequels sucked. But if there's one positive that can be taken from it is that the film did find people who grew up with the franchise, like Jackson. Jackson had made it clear that he was a Star Wars superfan growing up, and his commitment to the character and his intense background knowledge of the Jedi is what shown through, making him immensely watchable. It's actors like Jackson – actors who are already fans – who should be considered for Cowboy Bebop.

Of course, that seems like a tall order. But think about how successful the Marvel franchise has been. Several actors, including Clark Gregg, Benedict Wong, David Tennant, Mads Mikkelsen and others are self-professed comic book nerds, making their connections to their characters even more powerful. Their love for the comics as a whole helps uplift the films, since they understand how serious the roles actually are to fans.

For the most part, though, it seems like Hollywood underestimates how serious fans also take anime. Maybe it's because anime is an overseas industry, but it feels like Hollywood, as a whole, thinks they can take anime films less seriously because of its stereotype of as a "niche" property. However, anime is as intense as anything Marvel could put out. Therefore, it needs to be treated with the same amount of respect.

Hopefully, Netflix can find actors who are already fans of anime in general, if not fans of Cowboy Bebop. If the production can get actors who are already familiar with the genre, then the production has a better chance of success.

Lesson 5: Bring in a writer and director who understands the source material

Probably the biggest cardinal sin with live-action anime films, aside from hiring white actors for clearly Japanese roles, is that they are often led by directors who don't completely understand the property they're directing. I feel like quite a few directors view anime as a cash-grab, a way to sign onto what could be the next big "cinematic universe." But for films like these, making money shouldn't be the top thing in mind. What should be first and foremost is to tell a story that honors the original while pushing the narrative forward.

Take for instance, Marvel's Black Panther. The potential for Black Panther to fail was great. In the wrong director's hands, white, black or otherwise, the film could have either been a blaxploitation mess or a misguided attempt at performative blackness. But in Ryan Coogler's hands, the film transformed into a thought-provoking meditation on what it means to be black in America and abroad. While Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole looked at the Ta-Nehisi Coates run of Black Panther for inspiration, Coogler also added much of his own musings on the African-American experience, including his feelings about visiting Africa, into the film.

"The biggest thing for me was the themes of the story – letting them know where my head was at and making sure they would get on board," Coogler told Rolling Stone. "I was very honest about the idea I wanted to explore in this film, which is what it means to be African. That was one of the first things I talked about. And they [Marvel] were completely interested."

It's the personal touches that I feel were the most unexpected, and it's what made the film that much richer to the audience. Through T'Challa and Killmonger, Coogler and Cole were able to explore the different facets of what happens to a displaced people and how that search for belonging can devolve into violent means. He gave audiences a lot to chew on – how colonialism continues to hurt people of color, the search for family, and how the denial of black humanity causes intense psychological damage. These new elements aren't found in the original Black Panther comic book series from the '60s and '70s, but they help flesh out the story and characters in a way that's much more authentic.

Coogler utilized his personal and racially and culturally-specific experiences to better inform the main characters and the film as a whole. It can also be presumed that DC and Marvel are also on the search for Latinx and Chinese directors to help bring these superheroes to life. I hope that the search for cultural specificity continues with the Cowboy Bebop series.

Of course, there are talented writers and directors of all backgrounds who could make a great Cowboy Bebop series. But, it would be very interesting if the Netflix team hired a writer and director team from the Japanese diaspora. As I mentioned above, Cowboy Bebop is a series that includes lots of Western influences, but it's also informed by Japanese culture – as a Japanese product, how can it not be influenced by Japan? Therefore, it'd be cool to have a Cowboy Bebop series that not only accurately reflects accurately reflected its Japanese roots.

With everything laid out, hopefully Netflix and the Cowboy Bebop crew will make this live-action adaptation the best it can be. Who knows – maybe Cowboy Bebop will be the project that finally breaks the anime curse in Hollywood.