A few weeks ago, news of a long-awaited adaptation of the 90s cult classic, Cowboy Bebop, sent vibrations through the internet. Produced by Netflix with Shinichiro Watanabe (original director) serving as a ‘consultant,’ the show is slated to have 10 episodes in its debut.
Debates over the aesthetic, the acting, cultural considerations, and the direction of the shows semi-present story arc are sure to trickle out over the following months. Today, I want to talk about the casting, since this week the character breakdown list which included specific and non-specific directions casting the characters respective ethnicity.
A quick bit about my history with Cowboy Bebop and why I’m excited to discuss these details. I bought the Session 1 DVD of Bebop at my local mall at the age of 13. I was immediately enraptured with it slick animation, its brooding tone paired with fast jazz and traditional blues, its mashing of races and cultures, and the litter of western pop-culture references and nods. A few months later when I’d collected all six DVDs, I re-watched the series, and then again, and again. I would say that by the time I graduated from high school, I had watched all 26 episodes and the movie upwards 15-20 times. Some of my favorite individual episodes pushed 50 viewings and I could recite some of the dialogue by heart. I watched the American premiere of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door‘ at Anime Expo 2002. To this day, Bebop remains my favorite short anime (Under 50 episodes– my own arbitrary way of categorizing).
I remember during the early 00’s when there was a very real possibility of Keanu Reeves helming a live-action adaptation, wherein he would play Spike Spiegel. Around that time, I was super into Constantine and The Matrix and could think of no better actor to assume the lead role. I mean that genuinely. At that point, Reeves was well accustomed to martial arts training and had worked under some of the best stunt coordinators in Hollywood. To add to that, he even possessed the look of the lanky, apathetic bounty hunter. And Reeves even claimed to be a huge fan of the source material, which as a young nerd was super important to me– he’ll be too invested to fuck it up, I thought. This was years before ‘Ghost in the Shell’ with Scarlett Johansson and a mainstream conversation on whitewashing in film. I was more invested in whether film could capture the rundown futuristic flavor of Bebop.
Years passed and no Bebop adaptation came. Every now and then I still see folks calling for Keanu to assume the role of Spike, which now seems silly since Reeves is 54 (and would play a 27 year old). I’d given up on the hope of every seeing Spike, Vicious, Faye, Julia, Ed, Jet, and Ein on the big screen… or at least my television. But everything moves in waves, especially the pop-culture we consume. So, let’s take a look at the casting descriptions and see why Netflix has in mind.
**No worries. Spoiler Free**
“An Asian (or partially Asian) man in his mid 20’s to mid 30’s and must have athletic ability. Spike is the young and handsome male lead with a body like Bruce Lee. His carefree demeanor hides a seriously dangerous individual. Spike is prone to shoot first and improvise, unlike his more serious partner Jet, but he gets the job done. Spike tries to hide his sensitive side but is a sucker for a damsel in distress and is haunted by his past.”
An Asian guy named Spike Spiegel? Odd, right? I would say, sort of. Traditionally, anime characters come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, and unless specified, are assumed to be Japanese. Bebop, however, leaps regions and intentionally states that it features a clash of cultures. Spike even mentions his Martian birth in the first episode. Being that this is an adaptation of Japanese media, and given the recent backlash another Netflix adaptation received– Iron Fist, which features a white, martial artist protagonist in a predominately Asian setting, its safe bet that they (hopefully) learned and opted for an Asian lead.
In high school, my best friend would argue, convincingly so, that Spike is Jewish. My friend, of Jewish decent himself, pointed to Spikes unruly curls and the surname Spiegel. To this day, if you google ‘Spike Spiegel+Jewish’ it will reveal a wealth of message board debates and websites dedicated to uncovering this possible truth– like this one.
“An Asian (or mixed heritage) woman in her early 20’s to mid 30’s and must have athletic ability. Faye is the female lead of the show. She is an attractive bounty hunter with a sharp tongue. She’s a survivor who will con anyone to get what she wants. Faye has no memory of her early life, including family or friends. So, even though she’ll never admit it, she likes working with the other members of the Bebop crew.”
Perhaps its the look of her hair and eyes, but Faye seems the most obvious to me. I’m not so cavalier as to pin any specific nationality to her background, but she reads Asian in her physical features.
I like that Netflix included ‘or mixed race,’ though that could be applied in problematic ways. Being multiracial myself, I’m all for greater representation of mixed folks, though I am anxious that we could end up getting a nearly white-passing actor.
Whoever they pick will carry the bulk of the show’s ‘sex-appeal’ while also portraying Faye’s tragically scattered past. That’s a tall order.
“An African American (or partial African American) man in his mid 30’s to early 50’s. An ex-cop, Jet looks intimidating but is a softy at heart. He became fed up with the corrupt system, but he still catches criminals as a bounty hunter. While Jet believes in the law, he will always back up a friend. Occasionally, he will even relax and have fun.”
Honestly, this reveal solidified my interest in this project. As a teenager, it was a known and accepted FACT that Jet Black was… black. In that same way, that we know Max and Goofy are black. Yes, his skin color is light. Jet, if black, is hella light-skinned. Maybe it was his old head demeanor or his uncle vibes, but we just knew. I mean, you knew that when watching it in Japanese. Switch over to the English dub and Jet is voiced by black voice actor, Beau Billinslea– look at that melanin.
The direction casting is taking makes me so happy. Not only will it mean a black main character, but a black main character among a (potentially) Asian cast. How often does that happen? Seriously! How dope will that be?
14-year-old girl, must have athletic ability and short stature. Ed is a 14-year-old computer genius and expert hacker whose talents are indispensable. She is extremely energetic with a child-like wonder and is eccentric, bordering on the bizarre.
Interesting that no racial/ethnic direction is given. This seems like a great opportunity to cast an actress of Latinx, Arab, or South Asian decent. Ed’s brown skin and ambiguous backstory leaves the door wide open for all kinds of interpretation.
Surprise me, Netflix!
A man in his mid 20’s to mid 30’s of any ethnicity, with pale skin and white hair. Vicious is the merciless leader of the criminal organization known as the Syndicate. He will kill anyone who gets in the way of his business without a second thought.
To me, the casting of Vicious seems directly related to whoever they choose for Spike. If I had to bet, I would say one will be Caucasian and the other Asian. American pop culture loves to play on the whole ‘we’re not biological brothers, but we’re all the stronger because of a cross-cultural bond.’ I’m talkin’ out my ass here, but that’s my prediction. If they cast an Asian actor for Spike, then Vicious will be Caucasian, and vice versa.
Personally, both fit for me. Vicious isn’t derived of any cultural significance, nor are Vicious’ origins known. Whoever they cast better have a deep, brooding voice. That’s all I ask.
“A woman in her mid 20’s to mid 30’s of any ethnicity. Julia is a sophisticated blonde damsel in distress that has a mysterious connection to Spike. She appears to him in visions and whispers to him about his past. The real Julia is the girlfriend of the merciless Syndicate leader Vicious.”
Lastly, we have Julia– of ‘any ethnicity.’ Personally, Julia has always read white to me but I think this is actually an opportunity to play around with her character. With the only requirement being that she maintains a blond head of hair, I ask, what about a brown skin Julia? Race is in no way integral to her backstory and the direction her arc takes. Why not give the show a bit more melanin?
There will inevitably be debate, maybe even controversy when the cast is finally assembled– Will it be too white? Not Asian enough? As I said before, I hope that Netflix has learned from the mistakes of the live action Ghost in the Shell, and last year’s Death Note. This will undoubtedly be a show aimed at Western audiences, which while more diverse than Japanese audiences, are still very white. Fortunately, there’s more room for error than say a production of Akira or Spirited Away, which bear a great deal more significance to Japanese history and culture.
Bebop, unlike most of its peers, overtly leans into multiculturalism, it thrives on it. In our current climate, where actors of color are pushing further and further into the mainstream, this presents a unique opportunity, one that I hope the creative team embraces.
I have got to say, these little details regarding the cast have got me hyped. I’m genuinely excited for whatever comes. Years back, I gave up my purist stance on the anime. I’m just excited for the potential of a whole new generation discovering Cowboy Bebop.
Until next time… See you, Space Cowboy.