Like many other people, I really enjoyed the new opening sequence for Netflix’s upcoming Live Action Cowboy Bebop series, which tries to be a perfect remake of the anime’s. I thought it was really cool, and looked almost like the iconic Tank! sequence from the original Cowboy Bebop.
However, after letting it digest for a bit it did bring up an interesting problem I have with live action anime in general. What’s the point?
Don’t get me wrong, Cowboy Bebop looks like it has a good chance of being, if nothing else, better than a lot of live action adaptations, especially one produced outside of Japan. John Cho is an amazing looking Spike Spiegel, and the characters really look their part.
But at the end of the day, all that effort was spent just to mimic an anime that already exists, that at the end of the day is going to, on principle, always look better than its imitators.
Animation, The Medium Of Being Deliberate
Unlike acting on a set where you’re never in 100% control of what happens, animation is a medium that is 100% deliberate. A page is empty until you draw on it, and you have to describe every movement exactly as you want it.
It’s the kind of mindset that every animator from Glen Keane to even the most amateur YouTube animator has. Animation never follows real-world rules to the letter, because it’s about enhancing it to a point where it feels spectacular, but in a way that doesn’t suspend your disbelief. Cowboy Bebop is a good example of this too, since on an animation level it’s not particularly wild in terms of things happening on screen.
It doesn’t matter if John Cho can’t effortlessly snap a broom, because all you have to do is draw Spike doing so and it’s there. You can even control where each piece of debris falls, having it all move to the tempo of your pre-selected background music all without a pretentious close-up.
This isn’t auteur nonsense either- like I said, making these decisions is a mandatory part of animation, unlike with live action. We all know the historic story of Die Hard, where the late Alan Rickman was told he would fall off a building as a stunt on 3, but they released him on 1 instead so the look of panic would be more real. You’d have to constantly be using tricks like these if you wanted to get some involuntary actions out of your actors- because involuntary is the operative word here.
When Animation Is Your Go-To
One of the most bizarre things I’ve noticed is how often a live action adaptation just doesn’t realize that its IP was never meant to work in real life. Kakegurui is a great example of this- surreal to its core, distorting models of all its characters to create horror laced with eroticism to highlight the most intense moments of the anime and manga. This isn’t “this actor just seems to always look erotic”, it’s a case of the medium explicitly choosing to look this way every single time.
You could even ascribe it to one more perk of working in a 2d medium versus a physical one- Kakegurui characters have regular anime levels of detail, with simplified facial features 90% of the time. The drawings never go into detail until they have to, which give scenes like the one posted up there so much more weight when they do. And that’s kind of the point- you just have so much more control, that even the way things look is at your disposal if you’re behind a desk animating it.
The other great example is the rom-com, Kaguya Sama: Love is War. This is a series that I’ve always believed makes the best use of the media its on- the manga panels work great within the constrains of a story you’re reading one panel at a time. Meanwhile, the anime diverges from a lot of the directorial choices of the manga instead to work with its new constrains- animation.
With the live-action though, you’ve lost the entirety of the anime and its appeal. With the exception of Jim Carrey, you just can’t be as expressive as a jumble of lines, which is kind of the crux of the humor of both these series- that characters are reacting so laughably dramatically to what is ostensibly just a card game or a high school crush.
Trying to imitate it isn’t a great look either, since everyone just looks like they’re making their own YouTube thumbnails instead of being any kind of entertaining.
When You Really Wanna Like Something
Look, I’m not trying to rail against the live action Cowboy Bebop. Like I said at the top of this I think it could very well be one of the best live-action anime adaptations we’re getting. But the problem is that no matter how good you make it, it’s always going to be playing catch-up to its source material. The new Tank! sequence looks like one of those high-quality videos cosplayers make, since it’s trying so hard to effortlessly recreate the original.
In a way, it’s almost better for live action adaptations to start doing their own thing. The Way of the Househusband, another series defined by its bizarre directorial choices, takes this to heart well- its drama is its own original story, only at times loosely referencing the manga it was based off of. And you know what? It’s not that bad.
Sure, it’s not a shot-for-shot remake of one of the greatest slice of life comedies ever written. But by working with what they have- a team of talented actors and not trying to be anime-but-real, they do a pretty damn good job. Because while animation direction may have started mimicking film, that relationship just doesn’t go both ways and mean that film can be anime.
I think it’s also something that’s better for the cast- just like how you wouldn’t tell your girlfriend to dress and act more like your favorite Vtuber, it’s probably better for actors to not be constantly told they have to work towards becoming a cartoon character. Sure, fans might bemoan how many liberties you took, but at the end of the day your individual production should have the integrity to stand on its own two legs.
Does that mean I’m against live action anime? Not really. But I do think more care should be taken into how you exactly plan to execute it, and if you can still have the spirit of the source material carried forward. If nothing else, don’t let Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure be adapted by any medium constrained by the limits of the human spine.