Wed
Jan 21 2009 10:10am
Cowboy Funk

First, tally up all the translation errors that accumulate when movies are adapted from comic books. Now double that number. (Imagine that: quadrupling the negative effect of casting Halle Berry as Storm and Catwoman.) You might have a ballpark estimate of how badly Hollywood will fare in its pursuit of the next source of film material as fertile (both in the sense of bounty and stench) as comic books have been. For the studios have begun to circle, not like sharks but vultures, around the mostly untapped and bountiful resource of anime and manga. All the same difficulties of adapting to cinema as comic book series—rabid fans, writers insufficiently immersed in the culture to appreciate the nuances, studio demands ostracizing talent or promoting mediocrity—plus about a billion more that come with the culture barrier of East meeting West. And that’s before you get into specifics of Japan meeting America, and all of their complicated history.

To those near-insurmountable difficulties add the stench of failure that comes when animated source material is reworked for live-action and you have precisely the injury that Fox Studios is going to inflict upon the wildly artistic, impulsively fun Cowboy Bebop series, should they follow through with current rumor. Compound that butchery with Keanu Reeves in the lead, and you don’t just have something that’s dead in the water. It’s dead, reanimated, killed again, shattered into pieces, and then revived in animatronic form with some bits missing and the rest put on back to front.

Cowboy Bebop is a marvel of a series, one of the highest forms evolved from the medium of Japanese animation. It is a nexus of talent and innovation applied without ego or self-irony. Director Shinichiro Wantanabe’s guiding force to the series is jazz music, incredible selections and remixes which are sprinkled throughout, produced by composing genius Yoko Kanno. With that scattershot scat-man soundtrack, the series had a funky spine that could bend, twist, and fold backwards over stories both profound (“Ballad of Fallen Angels”) and inane (“Mushroom Samba”). One week, the hero, Spike Spiegel, might topple his opponent with his Jeet Kune Do skills (masterfully animated to show the fluidity and speed of real moves); the next, he’s being undermined by a slobbering, yet clever hacker—and the under-age girl who takes him on his walkies.

It is the flexibility of Bebop’s narrative that defies simplification even on top of all the other aforementioned complications. While the series spent the majority of its time rocketing between absurdism and noir, it dabbled in horror, existentialism, situation comedy, and, of course, science-fiction. (The series took much of its sci-fi aspects—space ships and hyperspace travel—for granted. Plots specifically focused on those elements concerned themselves more with characters than technologies.) The full-length anime movie, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, tried to sell a straight story about the bounty-hunting crew of the good ship Bebop chasing down a sympathetic terrorist. Although it had the series’ technical and stylistic flair, the introduction of an antagonist previously unknown to the audience (as opposed to serial villain Vicious) demanded a lot of time and drained a lot of the spontaneity and fun from the film. It limited the focus on the recurring characters from five down to two, with the other three serving as devices to further the plot instead of providing the lively exchanges upon which so much of the series’ humor depended.

So, how’s that sound for a movie? An ensemble cast picture warped by the presence of a debatably talented, nonetheless huge movie star; devoid of (or worse, brimming with poorly adapted, Americanized interpretations of) the humor, action, style, and music that made the original so poppingly brilliant; edited down to spare those as won’t be able to follow anything with spaceships past the two-hour mark? Close up the store, turn the lights off on your way out, Hollywood, because nothing could else could ever compare.

(PS: I say this as a person who thinks Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is better than Doctor Who as far as matters of time travel are concerned; as someone who memorized the dialogue from The Matrix, special effects noises included; and as the only person to ever pay to see Johnny Mnemonic more than once: Keanu, for the love of God, stop taking an interest in my favorite shit. Stay the hell out of genre period.)

13 comments
René Walling
1. cybernetic_nomad
"writers insufficiently emerged in the culture to appreciate the nuances"


I think you mean "writers insufficiently immersed in the culture to appreciate the nuances"

That said I fully agree with you, as do others
Dayle McClintock
2. trinityvixen
@1: I blame MS Word! After saying "IGNORE THE JAPANESE NAMES, DAMN IT" so many times, I clearly got lazy about checking for errors. It has been corrected, and thank you for pointing that out.

It's nice not to be alone in my anger over this movie, even if I'm alone in being a stupid ass misusing my 10-cent vocabulary.
James Wu
3. kamikazewave
I loved Knocking on Heaven's Door. I thought it was spectacular.
Nathan Lilly
4. nelilly
Sign of trouble #1, compressing a 13 hour (26 chapter) story into under 2 hours, regardless of who is starring in it.

I'd much rather see a "no name" get the role, but I don't think that Keanu will make a *bad* Spike Spiegel. Who's set for the role of Jet? I wonder if Hollywood will change the ending?

I think it'll come out better than the attempt at compressing the 85+ episodes of Robotech (with Tobey Maguire as Rick Hunter).
Dayle McClintock
5. trinityvixen
@3: I don't mean to bash Knockin' on Heaven's Door excessively because I did enjoy it. It just felt like an extraneous, extra-long episode. Coming after the series ended but set before the finale episodes that broke my heart, I was a little miffed that it didn't involve all the characters equally. It was the last we'd get to have of them, and they didn't really include Jet, Ein, or Ed beyond a scene or two. I love Spike and Faye, but not at the expense of the others.

So while the movie had its high points (Spike was funny and the action scenes were better than some live-action movies), it didn't quite hit the same notes as the series. The fact that even the people who made the series had trouble recapturing the essence of the series is what makes me frightened of this Hollywood attempt.
Dot Lin
6. fangirl
I also enjoyed Knockin' on Heaven's Door, but didn't love it.

Japanese anime excels in weaving overarching narratives with humorous or surreal non-plot-necessary asides-- and two-hour movies sadly take all that out.

Incidentally, a wonderful aspect of Asian series (even live-action soap operas) is that they end. Are you listening, America? :P even if the show makes money, they don't drag it out to the poorly written end, where fans become embittered and crazy and rant on forums.
Eugene Myers
7. ecmyers
fangirl @6:
they don't drag it out to the poorly written end

Well... the end may not drop in quality as much as some American series, but boy do they drag things out. Dragon Ball and all its incarnations ran for over 500 episodes, Detective Conan (Case Closed in the US is still running with 520 episodes produced so far, Sailor Moon had 200 episodes, and so on... Plus countless theatrical films and direct-to-video (OVA) releases. More and more, I appreciate the tight storytelling of a limited 13 or 26 episode series and a complete arc, which may also be why I find British shows function better in smaller seasons. When the story reaches a satisfying conclusion, it's over!
Hanna Clutterbuck
8. karracrow
i can't say i agree with you about the "bill and ted" versus "doctor who" thing, but i absolutely agree with "please don't ruin anime, too!" i'm going to refer my odd friend or two who is still gamely arguing, "but keanu reeves did the matrix, right?" to this post!
Chris Byler
9. cbyler
I think it doesn't matter how long your storytelling arc is, but it does help to *know* how long it's going to be and plot with the end in view. Babylon 5 has over 100 episodes and the BBC miniseries Jekyll just 6, but they both (IMO) have the kind of tight storytelling you're talking about because the writers knew where they were going before they got there.

A lot of anime does this too - Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Noir, many others - but some of the most commercially successful series just go on and on, Dragonball being the most infamous example.

Sometimes after the first story arc is finished, financial success will convince the creators to try writing a successor story. Sometimes this works well. Other times it doesn't. Fans don't always agree which is which. (Magic Knight Rayearth fits under one of these categories, for example - it's hard to imagine after the end of the first arc what they could *possibly* do for a second season, but they have one anyway. I like it, mostly, but I can't deny it's very different from the first - nobody can turn back the clock on what happened in the first season.)


That's a little OT, though, I guess. I wonder how much of the story they're going to try to cram into movie length for Cowboy Bebop (or, for that matter, Dragonball - I'm not normally a big fan, but a couple hundred episodes of storyline could fill two hours pretty well, maybe.)

P.S. I might be able to tolerate Keanu Reeves as Spike, but I dread hearing who they're going to cast as Ed. Well, probably a nobody and hearing the name will tell me nothing, but you know what I mean. Ed is a very unusual character and a bad Ed could ruin the whole thing.
Dayle McClintock
10. trinityvixen
@8: When The Matrix came out, I went and watched most of Keanu's catalog. It was a strange journey, but one that taught me not to trust the man farther than I could throw him. Enjoy what he does well, fine, but go against my instincts and give him the benefit of the doubt? Never again!

@9: Really? You can see him as Spike? I get that he could maybe do the action sequences and is the right sort of figure for it (tall, lanky). But I wouldn't put Spike's sense of humor nor his gravitas on his shoulders. Ed is another catastrophe-in-the-making, though, you're absolutely right. You'd need a kind of virtuoso child actor (a Dakota Fanning or a Freddie Highmore sort) to pull off her boundless enthusiasm and her intelligence without her ending up just another tweener tweaker.
Dominic Wellington
11. riotnrrd
Keanu, for the love of God, stop taking an interest in my favorite shit. Stay the hell out of genre period.


Regarding the Johnny Mnemonic thing, I paid to see it once, and have watched it once more, but I didn't pay for the second viewing. That is just taking it too far.

There's a nice Italian sci-fi film called "Nirvana", directed by Gabriele Salvatores, which came out at about the same time as JM and was immeasurably better. It looks like it did make it to the US, so check it out if you want an antidote!
Dot Lin
12. fangirl
@7: aha, I guess I am still watching #10547 episode of Bleach.

I guess I was thinking of more the popular short-series works like Death Note, Evangelion, Samurai Champloo, etc. and the, ah, live-action Asian dramas that are too embarrassing to mention here.

That's also the reason I love your short British shows (waiting for Gavin & Stacey..).
Erin C.
13. Erin C.
For all the reasons you state, I can't imagine a Hollywood Cowboy Bebop being an artistic success. About the best thing to hope for is that it gets more people interested in the source material.

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