Anime Review: Space Dandy
Written by: Cody Baier
For several years now, anime has been stagnating. Sorry anime fans, but you know it’s true. Season after season we’re bombarded with samey-looking moe girls, shows about school clubs, more shows that take place in schools, shonen fighting anime, an anime adaptation of some toy line or Kamen Rider ripoff, with the occasional little light of innovation that usually amounts to one 20-something episode show a season. Gone are the days of stylish, detailed art and talented artists stretching their creative legs. Giant eyes, dot noses, and milquetoast male protagonists with brown, sea urchin-like hair rule the day now. Many of us have cried out for innovation, begging for something new. We begged for something the tradition-obsessed Japan, known for its fear of risks, has all but abandoned in favor of safe cash-ins; a show that could truly be called “inspired”.
Our cries summoned Shinichiro Watanabe back from his slumber. A rare kind of director, Watanabe made a name for himself above and beyond your typical anime director for just two shows (and Macross Plus, but that was more of a warm up and most people haven’t seen that, anyway). But two shows were all he needed. Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo have left their mark on the entire anime medium, the latter standing out as a truly one-of-a-kind artistic endeavor, and the former frequently considered one of the greatest anime series of all time. After that, Watanabe was content on resting on his considerable laurels, sticking to music production, directing shorts rather than full series, and other smaller roles.
Popular consensus is the state of anime today is what called him back to the director’s chair (interestingly, when asked to confirm if this was true, rather than denying it, Watanabe’s response amounted to “I shouldn’t say ‘yes’ because if my new show is bad, I’ll look like an idiot”. Giving that answer rather than an outright “no” speaks volumes). After stretching his legs with an anime adaptation of the manga Kids on the Slope, Watanabe brought us his first original anime series since Samurai Champloo in 2004, Space Dandy. But how does it hold up?
Space Dandy follows the exploits of (Space) Dandy, an Alien Hunter whose job involves capturing unknown, unregistered aliens, and taking them to a registration center where they can be, well, registered. The more rare the alien, the more money they’re worth. The series is episodic, with each episode following Dandy, his robot companion QT, and the cat-like Betelgeusian Meow, on whatever kind of adventure the writers can come up with. Space Dandy is very much an anthology series, telling whatever type of story tickles the writers’ fancy. While the series is primarily a comedy, the subject of an episode can range between raunchy hijinx, black comedy, heartstring tugging drama, crazy action, and everything in between.
This series is a passion project the likes of which we haven’t seen in ages. Certainly not in recent memory. Every episode has a different writer (many of which make up the writing staff from Cowboy Bebop), and a different animation director, each given free rein to leave their artistic stamp all over an episode. However, this often leads to inconsistent animation quality and style. Each episode can look radically different than the previous one, which can be especially noticeable when binge-watching. The episodes never look bad, and because everything is done by the same studio the character models and default art style remain the same. However, you will find yourself going from an episode with a stiff and structured look to one with a loose, free-flowing animation style. The same goes for the writing, which can shift tone, sensibilities, and even the structure of the fourth wall from episode to episode. Going right from the clever and silly zombie episode (done as a tribute to George Romero) to the very cliché episode where Dandy takes a trip with an orphan alien girl and bonds with her can be jarring on a marathon viewing. The anthology feel of the show works well with all this, however, since each episode is a new story being told by all new people. Dandy and the characters around him are the tools used to allow a swath of creative artists and writers to do their thing. In a series with an ongoing plot this would be a problem, but in an episodic series like this it highlights the show as a larger art project, of sorts. Even the myriad of alien species seen throughout the series were all designed by various different artists, some quite prominent in the anime/manga world. The presence of Watanabe as the “General Director” helps provide a balance and keep things from getting too dissonant, thankfully.
One thing is consistent with the animation; it’s gorgeous. Not the absolute best we’ve seen from TV anime, but it’s certainly among the greatest you’ll find. In fact, many sequences seem to exist solely to let the animators show off. The extended action sequence in the first episode is nothing but a spectacle done to throw gorgeous animation all over your television screen, complete with a moment of crazy, psychedelic coloring that has no reason to exist other than “it looks cool”. In a way, it almost feels mean; like Watanabe and his team are flat out showboating all over the rest of the medium. Anime is notorious for productions done on the cheap, and much of Space Dandy feels like a damning statement, asking “what is your excuse? Look at what you could be doing.”
The plots to each episode run the gamut from simple, basic stories to some truly out-there concepts. The simpler episodes can be a bit predictable and worn out in their premises (the episode with Dandy and the alien girl, while still good, is a half hour of uncreative schmaltz), but when the show decides to go nuts, it’s truly something special (a war between two broken-english-speaking aliens over the supremacy of vests vs. underwear that ends on a surf sequence with a musical number, for instance). And when the show goes for parody, it hits the mark like few others (the space race episode has become a fan favorite for a reason. Well, several reasons). Even seemingly predictable stories can throw you for a loop (such as the end of the aforementioned space race episode), to say nothing of the pre-requisite, Shinichiro Watanabe staple of the horror episode where the cast all die, this time done the aforementioned tribute to George Romero’s Living Dead series, as well as a unique parody of the zombie apocalypse genre. While there is no bad episode in this entire set, some episodes are definitely better, and/or more creative, than others.
Fanservice is present in heavy doses, but not in the way you might think. Space Dandy uses fanservice in an interesting way, often lampooning the sexualization of women in anime. Even daring you, the viewer, to be enticed by it, since the T and A in Space Dandy is done in such a way that the narrative of the show is painting all of it as being for perverts and losers. Much of the fanservice comes in the form of the girls at Boobies, which is essentially Space Hooters. As Dandy ogles the waitresses while they show off their goods in ways that are obvious ploys to entice their customers (much like the real Hooters), there is a Suda51-esque jab at the audience, and an interesting game of chicken being played; as soon as you get an erection, you are effectively being played. You’re the puppets of these fictional characters (and the writing staff behind them, of course). It’s also strangely refreshing to have it done in this honest and up-front a manner. No accidental panty shots, no inappropriate jiggling, no hot springs episode with the female characters giggling while engaged in homoerotic BS (the fact that the women are clearly of-age, developed, and reasonably proportioned is a nice change of pace, as well). The main character is a pervert and he frequents Space Hooters, and the show indulges in the “Dandy lifestyle” right along with him. Typical anime fanservice is even directly lampooned–quite viciously, in fact–by the Dethgerian; an alien who takes the form of a typical anime girl with a ludicrous character design. Of particular note are her skirt and shorts, both so short they physically cannot cover her, and both act as belts more than anything. The episode then spends quite a bit of time pulling all the usual tricks to get your typical anime fan excited, complete with impossibly bouncy boobs and a lingering camera shot on her butt. After the show has played you enough, she transforms into a breast-covered Lovecraftian abomination whose transformation sequence just reeks of the creative team laughing as they have first mocked, then crushed, your boner.
Space Dandy contains some elements that might not appeal to the more hardcore anime fan, however, and to a point this is by design. If you’re the type whose first response upon becoming a fan of a show is to create/edit a wiki dedicated to it, Space Dandy isn’t concerned with you. World building is done only where necessary to either provide context for a storyline/scene, or to set up a joke. Main characters can die if that’s the funniest outcome of a situation, only to be alive like nothing ever happened in the very next episode. Heck, the first episode ends with all the principle characters being vaporized, followed by a large “The End” title card. When the show first broadcast, it was amusing to see people trying to create timelines to explain all this away, and figure out what was “canon” and what wasn’t. “Canon” is not something this show is terribly concerned with. Its storytelling methods are more akin to Tex Avery than Cowboy Bebop. It’s much more of an anthology than Bebop and Champloo were, because it can, and will, disregard everything that’s ever happened in the show for the purposes of telling a new story. If it wants to, it’ll turn right back around and re-canonize any previous events it wants to. This is a show more concerned with making you laugh and getting you enthralled in entertaining stories than immersing you in another world. In essence, Space Dandy is an incredibly rare creature itself; an anime that isn’t super-cartoony, gag-a-day fare that cares far more about entertainment than escapism.
Space Dandy is the show that anime needs right now. A passion project made with effort and care. A show where not one corner was cut as a team of creative, talented people sought out to make the best damn show they possibly could. Tragically, that’s something you just don’t see very often in this day and age. In a way, it’s also a damning condemnation on the anime industry today; something so creative and so well made it makes one embarrassed for the manufactured, color-by-numbers anime series that have permeated the last few seasons. Like flicking through channel after channel of trashy reality TV after you finish watching an episode of The Wire. If you missed out on watching it when it was on Toonami, do not drag your feet on this one. Space Dandy is something no anime fan should pass up. It’s the shot in the arm anime has needed for a long, long time. We can only hope more series follow its example.
Welcome back, Mr. Watanabe.
- Gorgeous animation
- Clever storytelling
- Immense levels of effort was put into this. No corners were cut.
- An anime comedy that’s actually funny
- Great music
- Inconsistent animation
- Plays fast and loose with its canon, which is certain to turn off hardcore anime fans.
- Plots to some episodes are quite clichéd.
- Context and world building are done for gag purposes only.