By Pablo Castillo Lacalle
The news that streaming-giant Netflix would adapt Sunrise’s classic 90’s science-fiction anime Cowboy Bebop (directed by Shinichiro Watanabe) was met with tepid excitement to say the least. And though some interest has been rekindled with the recent release of a first trailer recreating the iconic “Tank” opening of the series, suffice to say most people (myself, a big fan included) are content with maintaining a weary air around the project.
There’s a good reason for this: live-action adaptation of anime series (that’s animated Japanese television for those unfamiliar, most commonly adaptations of popular manga, or comic books as we know them in the West) have almost universally tended to be significantly poorer in quality than the beloved properties they are setting out to bring to (3D) life. Exceptions to the rule are few and far between, usually only dictated by particularities of the source material: the live-action saga of Rurouini Kenshin for example, is only spared due to its historical Meiji era setting and emphasis on martial artistry rather than overly fantastical plot elements.
This is not the case for other infamous flops, and Netflix has accrued a particularly negative reputation for butchering well-known Japanese stories. Its 2017 take on psychological horror-thriller Death Note (Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata) stands as a perfect representation as to why the very concept of transforming an animated, stylised visual medium into the real world is conceptually flawed: character designs that work on the page fall flat in the harsh, dull light of reality, intensely artistic scenes depicting emotion cannot be matched by the limitations of conventional camera-work, and in an attempt to market properties to as wide a Western audience as possible, many elements specific to Japanese tradition and culture are eliminated entirely. 2017’s Death Note was set entirely in America, with an almost purely non-Asian cast, which is a glaring issue when tackling material that relied heavily on concepts of justice, legality and morality inherent to contemporary Japanese society.
There’s a reason these stories are told through animation: as a medium it excels in transferring the energy of drawn comic-book art in a way that does not compromise its heightened meta-reality. Its comparatively less expensive process also allows for animators to convey action, worlds and concepts that would require extraordinary budgets to do with CGI or practical effects. Already in the trailer for Cowboy Bebop this is apparent: backgrounds of the rich, lived-in, cluttered and uniquely worn world of the series are (for production reasons) rendered in eerily crisp and polished computer imagery which specifically detracts from the rugged and ageing feel transmitted by the fringes of space in Bebop and its eclectic locations.
Yet the dogged adherence to live-action seems to stem from a belief that this will attract a greater viewership, possibly by removing the associations of animation as being ‘for kids’, without seeming to pick up on the fact that these series have enjoyed lasting popularity and success, precisely because they exist in the form in which they do. Perhaps Netflix is also clinging to the fallacious idea that flesh-and-blood actors will be more commercially appealing. Yet famous actors being cast into roles doesn’t excite fans - if anything it hinders the versatility and nuance only native Japanese professional voice talent could bring to their roles.
Netflix doesn’t seem to quite be able to pick up on the memo though. Already a new live action series is in the works alongside Bebop, this time of Eiichiro Oda’s ludicrously popular One Piece (the single-most successful comic book ever created by a single author) which seems to show that Netflix still doesn’t at all understand the source material in their hands and how to work with it, and instead cares more about brand association. One Piece is a nightmare to present with real-world tools. Its character design is popular due to a unique, cartoonish style that exaggerates body proportions, facial features and clothing. Its universe is a sprawling, high-fantasy smorgasbord of colourful, wacky islands. Concepts that work due to the suspension of disbelief that art and animation provides fall flat on their face and become awkward when they have to be applied to actual human actors.
The protagonist, Luffy, fights by stretching his rubber-like body due to powers granted to him by eating a magic ‘Devil Fruit’; swordsman Zoro wields three swords (two in each hand and one in his mouth) and chain-smoking ship’s cook Sanji attacks with devastating flaming kicks which he heats by sheer force of friction. These are but three examples, but it becomes quite clear how concepts that are creative, quirky and visually engaging risk becoming laughably stupid and clunky when depicted outside the very specific context in which they flourished.
That’s not to be all negative. Who knows, I may be wrong, and I would very much like to be proved so. But the core rule of the adaptive process is that said adaptation must justify its existence: what is it adding to this story, how is it telling it differently and how does telling it in that way build on or improve the original?
The problem is that the live-action medium inherently already starts off by detracting from the efficacy of anime and manga. It sets it up for a slew of hurdles, especially monetary ones, which usually results in the end product looking lack-lustre and with clear signs of financial strain. And Netflix seems to care more for the superficial presentation (recognisable star studded casts) and the hopes of snaring in pre-existing fanbases, than engaging with the medium, in many cases flat out rejecting it (see Death Note’s whitewashing or the revelation by show-runners that they would not faithfully follow the Cowboy Bebop series). This strategy seems to forget that viewers already have excellent renditions of these series that they fell in love with and can always go back to. So, if offered the choice between quality, and a poor facsimile similar in name only, it’s not a shock when audiences will choose the former. Netflix’s obsession is supplying to a non-existent demand.