Disclaimer: Although Netflix has since canceled the show, we really enjoyed watching it and working on this piece.
“3, 2, 1… Let’s Jam!”
Influential and ahead of its time, the anime series Cowboy Bebop received global acclaim in the early 2000s and became a gateway into other animes—now it’s back as a live-action Netflix series. Grammy-nominated DJ Steve Aoki lends his bountiful EDM skills to his remake of “Tank!”, the opening song for the new Netflix show.
Last month, people were treated to a virtual listening party of Steve Aoki’s “Tank!,” the series’ legendary theme song by acclaimed Japanese composer, Yoko Kanno. The virtual party also spotlighted a casual conversation between Aoki and the star of the series, actor John Cho. The two had great rapport–it was as if I was listening in on a chat between two old friends. Cho stars as the slick and sardonic protagonist, Spike Spiegel. As aforementioned, Aoki was tasked with remixing the original Cowboy Bebop opening song, “Tank!”
Aoki and Cho–the latter who had cartoonishly handsome jumbo hair–sat down to discuss their relationship to the original anime and consequently the new edition they are a part of. In 21 minutes, the two Asian American artists deftly discuss topics including Aiko’s creativity for the remix, Asian representation, and the cultural impact of Cowboy Bebop. For a show that takes place in the year 2071 and follows a gang of vibrant bounty hunters who go on various missions, Cowboy Bebop evoked many titillating topics from Aiko and Cho.
Impressive as ever, Aoki does rise to the occasion in his high-energy, tasteful remix. (During the discussion with Cho, Aoki notes that he has now toured non-stop for 15 years only taking a break due to COVID-19). He tastefully incorporates his predecessor’s iconic sound while staying true to his own electric style. His reimagining of the song has the right amount of nostalgia and innovation. In its own unique way, Aoki brings a new take on Cowboy Bebop.
Cho, a fan of the old and new opening theme song, tells Aoki that he believes “Tank!” is “one of the greatest openings for a show”. Indeed, the jazz-inspired score added a unique vibrancy and tapped into an immediate sense of urgency when paired with the stunning animation. The show also means a lot to Aoki because he has a long-standing love for the genre: Studio Ghibli and the film Ghost in The Shell had hooked him when he was younger–then Cowboy Bebop enamored him too.
“I love when Japanese culture is herald and showcased like this,” Aoki says as he explains his excitement getting to work on Cowboy Bebop, referencing how anime/manga certainly wasn’t as pervasive or widely cherished when he was growing up. Here in America, Aoki continues, “I’ve always wanted to see more of that.”
Genre-bending music was integral to the success of the show that aired from 1998 to 2000 in Japan before Cartoon Network (via Adult Swim) picked it up. Many episodes were also named after songs: “Asteroid Blues”, “Stray Dog Cat”, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” In other cases, the episode is still music-centric but titled after a famous dance style (ex. “Gateway Shuffle” or “Waltz for Venus”). Two episodes even draw from the band Aerosmith, “Fallen Angels and Toy In the Attic.” In the same way, Aoki pulls from many cultures, so does the music of the original Cowboy Bebop. Both seem to have an insatiable desire for variety.
Aoki is well aware of this and has crafted something new with something borrowed. He describes his take on “Tank!” as groovier than the original. “The original is very jazzy and electronic music is not jazzy,” Aoki shares. “I wanted to make it groovy, something people can dance to.” He is also able to articulate how his signature sound is a mix of many cultures including Latin. This harkens back to Kanno’s Latin jazz-infused scores that boosted the storytelling in the OG Cowboy Bebop. Aoki delivers a solid reimagination of Kanno’s creation while fanning the flame of energy that Kanno rendered vis a vis eclectic instrumentals.
Throughout the discussion, Aoki and Cho also took turns admiring one another. Early on in the discussion, Aoki unapologetically championed Cho. “When I heard about you getting involved I knew I had to get involved. That was really cool. “I was like ‘OK this is dope. It’s live-action. It needed to happen.” That fact aside, Aoki and Cho were fans of not only anime and the original Cowboy Bebop, but also of each other’s craft is evident.
Kanno, the original music composer for Cowboy Bebop, came up between the two artists. Both of them revere Kanno, as she scored the original version of the show 20 years ago. Cho and Aoki collectively fangirled over her ability to go against the grain in her artistic choices–and especially as one of the few female composers during her time. Cho shared that when he contemplated taking on the project, Kanno had to be on board. “I don’t think it’s wise to go forward without her,” Cho states. The music for the show is one of its hallmark traits–a jazz-infused anime with its own Japanese touch.
In a funny moment, Cho’s fangirling was emphasized by his confessions that he was not aware Kanno was going to swing by the event later on (which is not part of the live stream). Despite the fact that Cho portrays the main character, the look of disbelief and awe for Kanno overtook him. Aoki had to remind the latter “you’re a big deal” and that “people are here for you John!”
The Cowboy Bebop listening party talk also touched on the way animation is treated in Western countries versus Japan. Cho chimed in about how he has noticed that likewise, in China and Korea he can say “adults read manga… it’s not considered for kids only [and] you can elevate the art form.” Aoki agreed, observing how in Japan, compared to the U.S, it doesn’t matter if you are a child or elderly–people don’t grow out of anime and manga the way Western societies, like American, are expected to grow out of cartoons.
The topic of Asian American representation concluded the chat between musician and actor. For Aoki, he voiced his hopes of seeing more globally known Asian American musicians. Cho spoke to the topic as well but in terms of the realm of acting. “What’s been cool is that all the Asain entertainment that’s coming over here [to the U.S],” Cho remarks.
“The rising tide has lifted all boats.”John Cho
To the effervescent Cho, Asain American entertainment is at a special apex because there is no longer the worry of “the one.” In other words, there is no longer the fear of one Asian who is breaking through. With Aoki nodding in affirmation, Cho shares his joy with how “the idea of ‘the one! The one!’ has gone away; who’s the one star, the one show, the one star has gone away. It’s all of us–and that feels like the philosophy in the air.” Moving forward, he hopes to be more active in meeting more Asain American writers and actors.
On Aoki’s end, he talks about how he wishes he knew more Asian American DJs. “Unfortunately for DJs, there’s not that many known Asain DJs. I mean they’re coming outta the woodwork now…few and far in between.”
But he does cite two Asian American musicians who have inspired him. First, Mike Shinoda from the band Lincoln Park came up. Then, Aoki mentioned Filipino American musician Chad Hugo from The Neptunes who also deeply inspired Aoki’s choice to pursue music professionally.
For future DJs, Aoki shared one go-to piece of advice. “I always tell, you know, kids who come up to me and are aspiring musicians ‘keep making them hits,” Aoki declared. “Keep putting it out there. There’s enough platforms to be heard.’” With the advent of social media platforms, Aoki is hopeful that more Asian representation in music will grow.
With an anime with such a strong fandom, it can be a daunting task to make a live remake of something that many people feel is magnificent. The “why fix it if it ain’t broke?” mentality can often hinder people’s views on remakes. Yet, Aoki prevails with his seasoned beats elevating the show just as the original theme song did for the anime.
Cowboy Bebop is a multi-genre series that has been and still is hard to fit into one genre: it is an amalgamation of Western, comedy, buddy-cop film noir, and action film. Now, armed with Aoki’s head-bopping remix, a new generation will also enjoy a legendary show.
If you feel nostalgic for the source, the original animated Cowboy Bebop series is also streaming on Netflix. But you won’t find Aoki’s dance-inducing remix there–you’ll have to watch the live-action adaptation of the hit anime streaming now on Netflix.