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.)