AKA Why One Piece Succeeded While Cowboy Bebop Failed?
It's no secret that I'm a big nerd. I grew up with Toonami as my first real introduction - if you don't count waking up early to watch Ronin Warriors before it got dubbed into Cartoon Network's lineup - to anime. That means that I'm from the Dragonball Z/Gundam Wing/Outlaw Star sensibilities.
It also means that I fell in love with the music of Inuyasha, the magic of Princess Mononoke, and the masterclass of Cowboy Bebop. Especially in the realm of these last three, I've written and published dissertations and analysis' on story structure, musical theming, and music as a character.
Cowboy Bebop remains a pinnacle of modern, compressed storytelling. Sure, there are some silly moments, but the freneticism when it arrives is really a product of the human lens - all these worlds and colonies, filled with interesting, colorful people. Much like the Wild West, you're going to have moments where the characters can regard the crazies, shrug, and move on.
...That DOESN'T MEAN that those moments were the core of the show. In fact, they were essential points of levity in an otherwise jagged and tragic narrative. These are people with vices, lingering pasts, vengeance... I'm going to go into detail on specific story points concerning our main cast, so if you haven't seen the full anime for Cowboy Bebop, I suggest you skip down to the giant asterisk (*).
The plot in Cowboy Bebop assumes, among many things, a passage of time between episodes. The characters grow, but we're not with them moment to moment. So these punctuated vignettes rarely connect time-wise cut to cut, while their themes and character branches are consistent. And that's the thing: CHARACTER. You have to nail the characters; the moment a character acts out of place with their core principles and abilities, a fan will be ejected from the story.
Spike Spiegel - an intelligent, savvy, and quick-witted scoundrel with a good heart. Though he can get in over his head, Spike is quick on his feet and believes in people, even when they disappoint him. He practices both the martial disciplines (Jeet Kune Do) and philosophy of Bruce Lee, easily put on display anytime there's a well-animated fist fight. We learn slowly through a peppering of clashes and a lattice of converging paths that Spike used to be a part of a crime syndicate, and left when he faked his own death. He is haunted by memories of a woman named Julia, who we learn he feel in love with. His rival, Vicious, shows up only a few times in the show; instead of being a prolonged villain, his scarcity breeds intense mystery and malevolence, so whenever he arrives, their confrontation never overstays its welcome.
Jet Black - a tall, muscular ex-cop turned bounty hunter, Jet serves as Spike's foil during the series. Hard-working, Jet thinks himself more of a renaissance man, collecting skills and connections to better catch the bad guys. During a bad job as a cop, he was critically wounded and chose to have a robotic arm replace his own as a reminder of his mistakes - biological replacements were available, but he refused. Jet is very much a man of principles and work-ethic; he hates to see people give in to their base desires, and is the strong "Dad" of the group trying to keep his strange family together.
Faye Valentine - Faye has to have one of the deepest backstories spiraling that I've seen. In the anime, she is often the eye candy without being flaunted (the lens isn't weird about it). A woman who is used to getting what she wants, Faye is resourceful, a great pilot, and an expert in firearms. She also has her own vices: drinking, gambling, lying, and money problems in general. Most of her predicaments revolve around debt and lies. Her main arc revolves around developing trust in her crew, her friends, but especially in Spike. The two with probably the most layered pasts who clash often, also hold unspoken care for one another - though their time is shorter than anyone thinks.
The tragedy of Faye is that she is an amnesiac, who also was cryogenically frozen for over 50 years, and upon waking, felt the immense betrayal of owing debt for an action that was out of her control. So she re-enters a world alien to her, burdened with debt no human could ever pay, and is forced to rebuild her entire identity.
Ed & Ein - everyone loves Ein, the super-intelligent "data dog" and the Best Good Boy around. "Ed" on the other hand, is a genius teenager who is distractible, strange, and absolutely off-the-wall. Abandoned by her equally intelligent, but distracted father, Ed finds a home of sorts with the crew, acting as their hacker and researcher, if she can stop speaking in rhyme long enough to make a coherent thought. The anime's dedicated comedy relief, just as with anything else, Ed carries some intense layers of abandonment, but much like her rarely seen father, doesn't let it bother her.
What I Struggled With In The Netflix Adaptation*
I watched the first episode and though I was giving the show my benefit-of-the-doubt, something felt off. As I reached episode 4 (perhaps longer than others gave it, I know, but I was collecting data), a few things became clear.
1) There's a lot more of Vicious. When Vicious shows up in the anime, he is goddamn terrifying. Faye meets him early in on, and she has no idea who he is...and he horrifies her. The vibe he gives off shocks her into silent fear. Netflix Vicious...is a bit of a whiny brat when he first arrives. He wants a lot of power and has daddy issues, and is easily manipulated by Julia. Sometimes, less is more. In the anime, he's not in charge (at least not yet), but he is certainly confident in his strikes and agendas, staging an elaborate coup late in the show. This version shows a more chaotic depth to Vicious, revealing his own instabilities. We even get some syndicate flashbacks, which I honestly craved from the anime.
2) With more Vicious, they added more Julia. - Julia is an excellent character, but more screen time in this adaptation also created strange interactions in the beginning. Loaded screen time away from other character developments, and padded Game of Thrones manipulations. ...Which I...guess I just wasn't in to at first. And yet, it grew on me.
3) The episodes sometimes feel too long. The writing doesn't feel tight; instead filling scenes with other bloated elements (like Jet's daughter, a fabrication of the adaptation).
4) Julia commits to a pretty gnarly heel turn in the last episode, which cements her character as one fully departed from the anime and manga. Then again, that's true of most of the characters by the close of the season.
HOWEVER, none of these are damning offenses. As the show hits its stride, and viewers (like myself) stop expecting it to BE the anime, you can begin to enjoy what the show does do right, which is quite a lot, despite the vocal minority.
John Cho and Mustafa Shakir have good chemistry, and personify (most of the time) the right dynamic of character. The cast interacts well enough, but feel disjointed until about Episode 8 - Sad Clown A-Go-Go, when they finally begin to jive and the show seems to embrace its style.
Sets and world-building are strong where it counts, and scenes between most characters feel organic after the episode 6 mark, like the show gains momentum as it goes. We even crescendo and build tension with a manner of skill toward the Ballad of Fallen Angels fight. Episode 9 is my favorite of the season, finally offering a depth and lens to the series, like a pre-show short story. A great slice of sci-fi noir.
Cowboy Bebop is lauded as an anime that weaves between multiple genres while offering thematic through-lines. It is clear that this was what they were going for in the adaptation, I just feel that they spun their wheels a little in the beginning. I was rewarded with a satisfying story by the end, but I fear the attention span of the average streaming viewer and their ineptitude to form their own opinions in the face of the angry minority contributed to this show being cancelled. Do I prefer the solo showdown of Spike vs syndicate gunners in a church while melancholy jazz plays? Hell yes. But can't both exist without it being the butcher of your childhood?
Hate on HBO's Velma, not this.
Why One Piece Is An Excellent Adaptation
For mental health reasons, I turned off notifications for Nerdrotic, Critical Drinker, and many more of our complainers upon the inter webs in favor of forming my own opinions upon finished artistic works. It has saved me from both speculation and spoilers concerning new content, so I might be happily surprised when I see a live-action One Piece adaptation!
And let me tell you, as a long-standing fan of the entire anime, that I PREFER the adaptation to the anime.
I - Character First
From the get-go, we are introduced to a world rife with possibilities, and introduced to Luffy (played by Inaki Godoy), who proclaims his dream to become "king of the pirates." This actor successfully embodies the enthusiasm, startling faith in himself and dreams of others, and the carefree anti-stealth of the manga's Monkey D. Luffy. Immediately spot-on rendition. In fact, every character introduced fits the spirit of their portrayal while also adapting. I absolutely ADORE this cast; they are perfect.
II - Setup, Payoff, and Pacing
One Piece is a GIGANTIC manga and anime with over 1000 episodes and multiple films, there's A LOT of...fluff. Let's be honest. As a serial anime weekly shoved out, and airing from 1999 to at least 2019, the animation definitely looks it. Big characters, weird proportions, super exaggerated expressions, crazy world building, and tons upon tons of scenarios to keep the show going. I am a child of that time, and know full well that one piece's animation and style is a lot closer to the 80s structure - everyone knows there are dozens of "beach episodes" sprinkled between actual, thoughtful story.
The first major arc in One Piece is 61 episodes long, and ends with the reclamation of a beloved crew member and the liberation of a town. With tight writing and thoughtful editing...that's the whole first season in this adaptation. You'd think that we'd be cutting out truly important beats, but actually this is a superb example of Beginning with the End in Mind.
When you're producing an anime without an ending, you do your level best to draw things out as long as possible. Dragonball Z did it so much back in the day that it's now a meme. One Piece 10x'ed this crap. Why so many characters that don't add much in the long run squished between characters that do? Padding the runtime. But with the end in mind, a good team can pare down the fluff and get to the best moments, and pace them so that they're earned.
Every character gets their moment - earned tear jerkers, badass reveals, actually seeing character relationships develop and change, and a treasure trove of subtle easter eggs for all us fans without alienating anyone new. In only these 8 episodes, we meet the main cast of Luffy, Zoro (Mackenyu), Nami (Emily Rudd), Usopp (Jacob Romero), and even Sanji (Tan Skylar), with a great long-standing focus on Coby, and get to see the first additions to our "rogue's gallery" with Alvida, Buggy, Kuro, Mihawk, and Arlong. And the best part? It all feels smooth and easily enjoyed. Chemistry is great among these actors, and I couldn't be happier with our villains; Buggy is menacing in this rendition, and his connection to Shanks is put in the forefront of his characterization; Kuro is terrifying here, and the actor has his mannerisms DOWN. I know in the manga that Arlong is HUGE, but here he FEELS big; presence of character translates much better than a CGI mess.
And looking through the writer's lens with the whole of the story to choose from, this team selects perfectly where and when to show an easter egg vs a conversation vs a flashback, all for its momentum; some subtle, others big, and all being important. Nothing feels drawn out or wasteful either, something I felt the anime suffer from often.
III - Action On Point
Roronoa Zoro is my favorite character to watch fight people (fantastic sword work), with Sanji at a close second. Both actors absolutely sell it and have clearly put in tremendous physical work to do so practically. The second fight we see Zoro he's owning a set of marines in a bar using mostly his hilt and a half-drawn blade; it's stunning to witness. In fact, the cinematography and camera work does a fantastic job in applying weight and speed to characters, so you feel every impact, especially from characters like Arlong or Axehand. I have found myself rewinding episodes just to watch the fight again because the actors were so impressive. Cannot wait for a rematch with Dracule Mihawk.
IV - Music On Point
From the anime, I barely noticed the show's music, save for it's opening theme, but I've purchased this score (by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli) for myself and listened to it multiple times. I love the theme, and how the composers honored the anime opening as a literal track in at least two episodes, plus made a specific stinger for ever-changing title card at the beginning of each episode. They explore numerous instrumentations and have a penchant for guitar, as well as variations on the main theme, so much that one can just listen to the soundtrack on its own and still tell a story. Just solid.
V - Keep the Details, Center on Character Arcs
No filler episodes. What can you accomplish when you know what's coming? What relationships should be cultivated, and others minimized? What story points are central motivating factors for each character and their dreams, while still being compelling?
I prefer this approach. The story feels stronger and smoother, and in an age where we look for story beats and arcs, for setup and payoff, this delivers over and over again while never sacrificing the spirit and integrity of these characters.
It's worth it. Give it a watch.
...And no one cares about Luffy's sandals...
Sometimes it's okay to just like things.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
Honestly, I write what I want when I want. Often monster lore, sometimes miniature showcases, and the occasional movie/show review.