Cowboy Bebop shows off New Zealand's range as filming location

John Cho, Mustafa Shakir and Daniella Pineda in Cowboy Bebop.
John Cho, Mustafa Shakir and Daniella Pineda in Cowboy Bebop. Photo credit: Netflix

When you think of movies or TV shows filmed in New Zealand, what images spring to mind? The magnificent shots of snow-capped mountains as the beacons are lit, when Gondor called for aid?

Maybe forests and farmland of Taranaki standing in for the wilderness of Japan in The Last Samurai?

Netflix's new 10-episode show Cowboy Bebop - released last Friday and based on the legendary Japanese anime series which broadcast on New Zealand screens in the early-2000s - taps into a very different aesthetic. 

Cowboy Bebop takes place in the year 2071. Earth is uninhabitable as the result of a catastrophic accident and has survived by colonising a bunch of rocky planets and moons in the solar system. 

In an effort to stem soaring crime rates, the solar system police force creates a register of bounty hunters, who chase criminals around space and bring them in for a reward.

Its unique tone, rich characters and distinctive storytelling have given the original series an enthusiastic following; it's considered one of the finest shows in the history of anime. 

Development on a live-action remake began in the late-2010s, but showrunner André Nemec says the decision to film in New Zealand wasn't always a given.

"The world is full of productions everywhere, it's hard to find a spot. And New Zealand had both availability and an incredible pool of very talented people. It felt like this was the place to go. We're going to find real artisans, craftsmen, and storytellers to round out our production if we come to New Zealand, and that's how we made the call." 

Filming took place in 185 locations around Auckland from July 2019 to March 2021, with more than 150 locals involved with the art and construction teams alone. 

Nemec says Aotearoa is building an international reputation for the wealth of TV production talent available for productions that shoot here.

One of those involved with the production was location manager Clayton Tikao, who also works as a location scout. 

Tikao says the filmmakers' aesthetic brief was very different to most productions looking to shoot on these shores. 

"If it could be grottier, they wanted grottier. We didn't want anything modern or new, it had to have character... something about it, some interesting quirk about it.

"It's the sort of stuff I haven't done a lot of scouting for, for a long time, because often everyone wants the most beautiful thing you can possibly find... this was all about grimy, dark, edgy. So the parts of the city we were looking to shoot in... from the old train station (downtown), what they call the Grand Apartments now, to Te Onewa Pa underneath the Harbour Bridge... we managed to dig out some pretty interesting locations." 

The show has been released with mixed reviews, but anime shows are notoriously difficult to adapt for live-action. 

It's certainly rating much better than M Night Shyamalan's film version of Avatar: The Last Airbender.