How I Would Have Cast ‘Cowboy Bebop’ (Time Machine Required)

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Source: Flickr.

So news of the Netflix cast is out, and I can’t help but wonder… did they get it right? I have some choices of my own for the four main characters (I don’t care about Vicious, really) that I’d like you to consider as well.

Consider the following criteria:

Aesthetic — irrespective of race, gender, etc., we’re going on how well the choices look and sound compared to the source material. Here, I’m leaning towards the English dubs more for what we’re going for.

HistoricityCowboy Bebop may be a mashup of sci-fi, westerns, and noir genres, but it somehow exists within a recognizable real world. Thus, to an extent, these historical contexts must be acknowledged with respect to the potential audiences.

Essence — This is harder to define but so important for us to consider. I think this quote directly from the series says it all. “They must create new dreams and films by breaking traditional styles. The work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called… COWBOY BEBOP.”

I’m looking for those who fit … yet somehow break molds as well.

With that in mind, here’s my own vision.

I see Cowboy Bebop as best a reflection of Southeast Asian / Pacific Island cyberpunk sensibilities, casting according to an attempt to capture the technological sophistication and cultural chaos of that particular section of the modern world.

It feels like Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, Saigon, Manila — and maybe a bit of Latina America from time to time. Thus, I cast with those places in mind.

Also, I need a time machine.

Let’s proceed!

Spike Spiegel — Takeshi Kaneshiro (circa 1994)

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There’s even another actor I thought would make a great Spike — Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He’s the right age, has a great look and voice, can act, and is quite athletic, enough to learn a little kung fu to pull of this iconic role.

That said, I want Spike to be Asian. Three reasons:

  1. It’s just in the name. Watanabe’s assignment of name “Spike Spiegel” is almost as arbitrary as “Faye Valentine” in Cowboy Bebop. He chose it because it sounded “cool.” There’s no other connection to Spike’s historicity as being of European descent.
  2. His background is pretty Asian. A past assassin for a Chinese crime organization called the Red Dragon Syndicate, a practitioner of Bruce Lee’s jeet kun do martial arts, and a general zen’d out dude, Spike comes off as part-gangster, part-monk. He’s mostly based on Yusaku Matsuda, one of the most important film actors of Japan in the 1970s and 1980s.
    Sure, Spike was born on Mars and there’s no definitive DNA test that pins down his background, but Spike certainly seems Asian, and it’s not a coincidence that part-Asian Keanu Reeves would be a great fit. Maybe Spike could just be one of those mixed race future guys who are really into Asian stuff, but …
  3. Representation matters. Casting yet another white actor for this role would be par for the course. Even though I think JGL is a better fit to me, I’m somehow … more excited at the possibility of what John Cho can do here. Yes, this is personal for me, but it should celebrate every single time someone from the minority community gets a major leading role like this, and I’m not going to take that away from Cho.

That said, I have someone even better in mind: Takeshi Kaneshiro circa 1994. He’s actually now about the same age as Cho, but back in the 1990s, he was one of the coolest heartthrobs who could pull off a criminal while making you feel for him all the same.

I chose that year because 1994 is the year of Chungking Express, and he would have perhaps even been too young at the time but able to pull off the role.

Don’t believe me? Check out his performance in Fallen Angels as a mute thug who bullies victims to stop his overbearing services.

Faye Valentine — Maggie Cheung (circa 1990)

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Source: Wikipedia.

I actually think Daniella Pineda looks a lot like Faye Valentine, and I especially love the little gap in her teeth that adds a little character to an otherwise very popular, complex character. I hope she’ll do great.

Still, I’d like the character to look like someone who (spoiler) is actually from Singapore, thus should be Chinese. There’s no other person in mind who can do that better than Maggie Cheung circa 1990.

Cheung is one of my favorite actors of all time, working in many of my favorite films over the years, in particular the works of Wong Kar-Wai. I remember this New York Times article from 15 years ago perplexed by someone of this much talent never able to break into Hollywood. (Answer: racism.)

I chose that year because that’s around the time Days of Being Wild came out, and I fell in love ever since then.

Don’t believe me? All you need to watch is this dancing scene from In the Mood For Love, deleted because it would certainly have ruined the film, but I’m grateful it exists.

Jet Black — Temuera Morrison (circa 2010)

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Source: Wikipedia.

Call me a little too nuanced: it felt too obvious to cast a black person as Jet, but that’s totally fine. For me, Jet is a older, kind soul, even though just by the look of him, he’s done a lot of damage over the years. From what little I know of Mustafa Shakir, he might be a little less gritty than what I prefer.

Temeura Morrison circa 2010 has the perfect aesthetic for Jet: rough-faced and built like a tank, but I’m sure people will fight me on the fact that he’s quite an expressive actor, prone to outbursts of violence in one moment and whimsical joy the next.

The adjustment for Morrison would be easy: apply a persistent feeling of guilt for his past actions but an inability to find closure, despite his best efforts.

Morrison is 58, which might be a bit older for the role of Jet but could still work. I’d say a decade ago this would have been absolutely perfect.

Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV — Jake Zyrus (present day)

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Source: Wikipedia.

This character is notoriously hard to transform into a live action context, but I have a suggestion. Born Charmaine Clarice Relucio Pempengco and performing under the stage name Charice, Zyrus’s personal journey reflects much of what I perceive as the best way to represent Ed.

While Ed is presumptively female, I think of Ed as much more gender-fluid, nonbinary, and completely out of the normative tropes of the other three main characters. In my opinion, Ed’s a queer character, and is best represented by a queer performer.

Zyrus is small and young enough to play a young teenage child while bubbly and whimsical enough to potentially handle such an energetic role. My best reference of this is, well, when he was in Glee.

The only other alternative: make Ed CGI. And have Zyrus be the model.

What do you think?

The casting is fairly set, so I know this won’t change things. This is all meant to be a love letter to those who look to create from this beloved source material and to pay attention to the things that make for terrific storytelling adaptation. It’s not just the superficial, the spirtual, or the contextual, but all three should be factored in when executing on Cowboy Bebop.

I genuinely hope this effort works out well.

Am I way off in my thinking here? Share your thoughts as well!

— Lee

Write with intention. Think with compassion.

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