Alex Hassell and John Cho face off in front of a stained class window.

Queued Up

Cowboy Bebop

Get ready for a hyperspace adventure in Netflix's live-action adaptation of the 1998 cult classic anime from Shinichirō Watanabe.

By Ryan G. Smith
November 19, 20215 min Read

What happens when you mash up the ethos of a Western with the aesthetics of a noir and set the entire thing in a space-dwelling sci-fi world? Cowboy Bebop happens. Based on the original, cult classic anime, which premiered in 1998, the upcoming live-action series follows three bounty hunters, a.k.a. “cowboys,” from vastly different beginnings as they try to outrun the past across the universe. 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. But they can only kick and quip their way out of so many scuffles before their pasts finally catch up with them.

Showrunner André Nemec and Tomorrow Studios created a vivid live-action production with the help of the animated Cowboy Bebop team; original anime series director Shinichirō Watanabe served as a consultant on the reinterpretation and original composer Yoko Kanno worked her magic on the score. Kanno infused Cowboy Bebop with velvety jazz numbers which provide a delightful juxtaposition to the futuristic setting and action-packed scenarios that Spike, Jet, and Faye find themselves in throughout the course of the series.

John Cho, Daniella Pineda, and Mustafa Shakir stand together. Cho wears a navy suit, Pineda wears a red jacket and leather boots, and Shakir wears a grey jumpsuit.

John Cho, Daniella Pineda, and Mustafa Shakir

Finding actors who would do justice to the iconic space cowboy trio of Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, and Faye Valentine couldn’t have been easy. Casting directors Dylan Jury (Mulan, Inception, Dragonball Evolution) and Debra Zane (The Hunger Games, Catch Me If You Can, American Beauty) hit a grandslam in securing John Cho as the lead anti-hero, Spike Spiegel, the impossibly cool bounty hunter with a deadly smile, wry wit, and effortlessly cool style. In the two supporting roles of Jet Black and Faye Valentine, Mustaka Shakir (Luke Cage) and Daniella Pineda (Jurassic World) were cast. Shakir embodies the role of Jet perfectly, from his fearless captaining of the group’s space-hopping vessel, the Bebop, to his equally fearless partnership with Spike throughout the neverending predicaments they end up in. Pineda brings to life the unpredictable Faye, along with a level of emotional complexity that wasn’t seen in the anime character. The live-action trio feels very true to the original 2D characters. Cho says it was important to honor the “original material, while throwing in things that no one would expect.” And the result is an arc in character development that strays from the original series while still respecting each character’s origin story and allowing for new opportunities in their development through the live-action format. And the cherry on top — a real-life Corgi plays the group’s furry sidekick Ein.

No-holds-barred visuals defined the original Cowboy Bebop anime series — from the environments to the costumes to the fight sequences. Netflix’s live-action interpretation delivers on this front, bringing the show’s 2D world to stunning three-dimensional detail. Award-winning production designers Grant Major (The Power of the Dog, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Mulan) and Gary Mackay (Shadow in the Cloud, The Man Who Lost His Head, Do No Harm) lended their expertise to the series in navigating over 140 different sets and locations in which the live-action series is filmed. The most complex of all the sets, the Bebop spaceship, took 12 full weeks to build. Because the Bebop was originally a fishing trawler, set decorator Anneke Botha and team found a real-life fishing trawler for sale in Tauranga, New Zealand and stripped its insides to repurpose the piping, engines, and machinery to decorate the Bebop for the show. In recreating the iconic yellow couch in the Bebop, the team bought a sofa and hand-dyed its leather, then stitched and aged it for the final look. The production design team also went to incredible lengths to mirror several exact shots from the famous anime episode “Ballad of Fallen Angels,” and recreated the cathedral set in extreme detail, down to crafting the same red and black tile floors from the original.

John Cho, Jan Uddin, and Lydia Peckham face off in a parkinglot filled with planes. Uddin points a gun at Cho as he shields a pregnant Peckham. Behind the duo is a yellow car.

John Cho, Jan Uddin, and Lydia Peckham

When it came to transforming the actors into their characters, costume designer Jane Holland not only honored the original anime but also imbued their looks with contemporary stylings and layers of delightful detail. Spike Spiegel’s blue suit features silver buttons with the kanji for water, a nod to Bruce Lee and the “be like water” principle inherent to the legend’s fighting style, Jeet Kune Do, which Spiegel also practices. Cho’s character’s suit jacket is also printed with roses in reference to his past with Julia (Elena Satine), a beautiful songstress who captured his heart in a previous life. Spiegel’s arch nemesis Vicious’s (Alex Hassel) costume is embellished with Cormorant imagery, which is incorporated into the belt buckle, knuckle duster, and gun holster of their classic “man in black”-inspired Western costume. When it comes to our lead heroine Faye Valentine, her look in the original anime series was given a fresh take with a more functional, wide-lapelled leather jacket and a pair of cutoff shorts with more belts and holsters to help her be the best space-travelling bounty hunter she can be.

Fans will be happy to see that facing off against Spike Spiegel and his crew of space cowboys are some of the most unforgettable villains from the anime. Brought to life are the explosive-happy Teddy Bomber, demented gun-slinging clown Mad Pierrot, and of course eco-terrorist “Twinkle” Maria Murdock and her band of space warriors. These bad guys, along with ultimate villain Vicious and the all-powerful puppetmaster he reports to — the Syndicate — may very well catch up to Spiegel and his crew. You’ll just have to tune in to find out how it all unfolds in this immersive live-action production.

See you, Space Cowboy.

Josh Randall floats above a carnival scene in a black suit complete with fluffy white collar and black top hat.

Josh Randall