Binge Watch Society

Bad grammar

Harmonious: A still from Blade of the Immortal

Last month, Netflix decided to pull the plug on its much-hyped November release: the live-action series adaptation of Cowboy Bebop , the 90’s anime classic often cited among the greatest of its kind in animated history. The series was cancelled after just one season, a disappointing end to a show with such impeccable source material and a very likeable lead in John Cho.

Cowboy Bebop follows a bunch of bounty hunters across their inter-galactic adventures in the year 2071, and like Serenity or Guardians of the Galaxy , this loose structure allows the narrative to bring in different sub-genres and visual flavours to each episode: Westerns, mafia stories, kung fu movies and so on. The iconic status of the anime was not just because of the show’s visual achievements, however: it was also because of the relentlessly crisp yet playful writing, which complemented the ambitions of the larger set-up.

Too narrow definition

The show, however, just did not... get it, I have to say. The postmodern tonality of the anime comes across as Internet-era glibness here, despite the earnest efforts of Cho and his colleagues. There are more than a few cringe-inducing attempts at recreating frames from the anime. Cowboy Bebop ’s failure is yet another example of the difficulties of adapting the visual and stylistic signatures of anime to the live-action format. The Scarlett Johansson-led Ghost in the Shell was a similar disappointment, The Last Airbender an even bigger one (Dev Patel playing Zuko is still the stuff of snarky memes years later).

What are the narratives common to all these failures? For one, I’d argue that a lot of these projects relied on a too-narrow definition of the idea of ‘adaptation’ itself. There is very little sense in recreating the framing, lighting and/ or costumes from an anime in photographic detail (something Cowboy Bebop tried to do several times, with mixed results). The thing about animation is that form-and-content boundaries are even more blurry here than with regular cinema. It’s both vessel and wine, as far as anime is concerned. Transposing that grammar onto live-action movies and hoping for the best is just not good enough.

Netflix’s own earlier live-action adaptation of the anime Death Note failed because of the exact opposite problem — it focused too much on the plot and too little on the distinctive visual weirdness of its universe. Basically, it overcompensated for the different visual grammar and thus, very little in the live-action version was instantly recognisable to fans.

Purely visceral

Which isn’t to say that harmonious anime-to-live action adaptations cannot happen. My personal favourite is legendary director Takashi Miike’s 100th film, Blade of the Immortal (2017). This blood-soaked, supernatural samurai sword-fest is based on the 2008 anime of the same name and follows an ageless, immortal ronin (a samurai sans master) called Manji who comes to care for an orphaned girl looking for revenge.

The film works at a purely visceral, blow-by-blow level, of course. But there’s all this mythology which Miike rolls out very efficiently indeed — we see how the ronin came to be a ronin, how he failed to protect his sister’s life, how his single-minded quest for revenge sent literally hundreds of men to shallow graves. Takuya Kimura’s performance as Manji is unforgettable: the excellent martial arts scenes apart, he is also superb at bringing out Manji’s relentless humanity, the heart that refuses to stop beating, curse or not.

Where Miike succeeded (and where too many others have failed in the recent past) is in the filmmaking balance between exposition and purely visual communication. Getting it right becomes all the more difficult with anime adaptations and, sadly, Cowboy Bebop is a casualty of that dissonance.

Aditya Mani Jha is a writer and journalist working on his first book of non-fiction.

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Printable version | May 7, 2022 12:08:59 am |