It’s been a busy year for fans of master director Shinichiro Watanabe. Not only are we getting treated to a blu-ray release of Cowboy Bebop this month (I just ordered it at the time of this writing), we saw two brand new shows directed by Watanabe this year. As usually expected of the acclaimed director, both were highly ambitious anime with high production values and great music, but my opinions on the two shows could not be any more different. Terror in Resonance, my biggest disappointment of the year for anime, will get covered in a separate post, but since I’m riding high on the wave of praise from my Kill la Kill, let’s talk Space Dandy.
When Space Dandy was first announced, everyone was calling it the second coming of Cowboy Bebop. It reunited Shinichiro Watanabe with the screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto, Studio Bones was producing the animation, it was about bounty hunters in space, and it held infinite possibilities with its episodic content. They even share the same currency of woolongs. There are parallels to be found between Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy, but to fixate on that connection is to overlook what makes Space Dandy special. Comparing the scripts, Dandy comes ups short. The plots are often flimsy excuses for jokes about dimensional travel and wicked-cool animation unrivaled by anything else that came out this year. Cowboy Bebop is an animator’s wet dream, functioning as a playhouse where an animator can do whatever they want and not have to worry about continuity. The titular Dandy and his crew die in the first episode in a blaze of glory, and continue on their adventures in the next episode like nothing happened. Eventually there is an explanation for the continuity resets, and while it makes for some cool sci-fi, American audiences are already so used to episodic animated comedies like The Simpsons that we could deal with no explanation. It’s still neat that Dandy went the extra mile, and rather than being a boring exposition dump of science mumbo-jumbo, it becomes a statement for what the show is all about; infinite possibilities in infinite universes. Space Dandy is a goofy argument for why animation should exist, and I could not be happier about that.
Okay, so I guess I’ll reference Cowboy Bebop again here, even if Space Dandy deserves to stand on its own merits and totally does. Anime fans love to talk about their favorite episodes of their favorite anime, but I find that really hard to do with a medium that I remember more for its collective themes and developing character arcs rather than specific episodes. Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy, by nature of having adventures that wrap up in single episodes with changing genre and visual styles, practically begs viewers to pick favorite episodes. For Cowboy Bebop, my favorite episodes are the “Jupiter Jazz” sessions, the two-parter story that serves as the second act of the Spike vs Vicious story at the center of the show. Space Dandy is even more episodic than Cowboy Bebop due to its alternate-dimensions gimmick, and has more of a focus on comedy rather than Bebop’s bleak neo-noir drama. When I think of favorite Space Dandy episodes, I think of which episodes were the funniest or featured the most unique art style and animation. The Redline homage “A Race in Space is Dangerous, Baby” was the first episode I can recall where I was totally drawn in by both the humor and animation. The episode was written by Kimiko Ueno, who wrote most of the episodes for the show and could be considered the defining voice of Dandy next to Watanabe. She’s great at embracing the show’s absurdity, writing the best jokes while letting the animators do as they please. Any episode that ends with a metaphor for gay sex and becoming Space Buddha is a good episode in my book.
To be honest, one of the few disappointments I can say I have with Space Dandy is Keiko Nobumoto’s episodes. She brings her trademark bleakness to episodes like “The Lonely Pooch Planet, Baby” and “There’s Music in Darkness, Baby,” but they play out more like weaker versions of her previous stories in Cowboy Bebop and Wolf’s Rain. But she did write “We’re All Fools, So Let’s All Dance, Baby,” the Saturday Night Fever parody featuring a dancing disco alien named Ton Jravolta. While not the only episode based around music and dancing (“Rock n’ Roll Dandy, Baby” is another favorite of mine, written by Kimiko Ueno and directed by “needs to direct more shows” Sayo Yamomoto), it’s easily the most fun. The dancing animation is so much fun to watch, and as dumb as his name is, Ton Jravolta’s one of my favorite alien designs in the whole series. Any episode that ends with dancing cat sperm is a good episode in my book.
The joy of Space Dandy was all in seeing what new thing would be thrown at me next. Not all the episodes were winners, but even a bad episode of Space Dandy was ten times more interesting and enriching than your average anime. Well, okay, I didn’t really care for “A Merry Companion Is a Wagon in Space, Baby,” but maybe I just don’t like cutesy stories about needy kids. For fans of animation auteurs like Masaaki Yuasa and his protégé Eunyoung Choi, we were treated to two different episodes from them that, well, look like they were made by Yuasa and Choi. Yuasa’s loose-and-runny style doesn’t appeal to everyone, but in a series as committed to being something different every episode, it’s perfect for Space Dandy.
Had I been blogging during the show’s run, I would have loved to do a weekly blog on the series. Space Dandy isn’t a narrative masterpiece, but it’s less about narrative and more about a team of artists experimenting to their heart’s content without a committee telling them what to do. Anime is a medium with potential to break artistic boundaries, but is rarely allowed to do so because of the market’s demands. That Space Dandy was allowed to even exist is cause to celebrate. That Space Dandy is as excellent and unique as I hoped is cause to be hopeful for the future of anime.
Day 3 preview: ORAORAORAORAORAORAORAORA! *vogues*