Saturday, February 15, 2014

Space Dandy has renewed my boyish enthusiasm for anime

My history with anime began in the same way that it did for the majority of the people in my generation: watching episodes of shows like Sailor Moon and Pokemon as a kid.  Back then, I was too little to know what anime was, and those shows were grouped in with The Rugrats and Doug as just cartoons in mind.  It wasn't until I was around 9 or 10, when my love of anime reached its peak with the popularity of Dragon Ball Z, that I really started to understand what it was.  DBZ was like event television at that time.  Every boy in my 4th grade class was obsessed with it, and I remember hoping that my mom would pick me up from after school care in time to watch the latest episode on Toonami, lest I be unable to participate in the elementary watercooler conversation that occurred the next day.  (I'm sure there were some girls who watched Dragon Ball Z too, but if they did they were too busy pretending they didn't, in the same way that we were lying about not watching The Powerpuff Girls.)  I still loved many American cartoons, but I knew there was something different and exciting about Japanese cartoons like this one and Yu Yu Hakusho.

As I got older, Toonami changed its airing schedule from weekdays between 4 and 6 PM to Saturday nights, where it aired shows like Naruto and One Piece.  Despite more modern animation, those shows still shared the maddening decompressed storytelling of Dragon Ball Z, but the block led into Adult Swim's late night anime programming.  Here was where I was introduced to the work of Shinichiro Watanabe, whose Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo continued the growth and sophistication of my taste in anime, redefining my expectations of the medium.  I loved Cowboy Bebop's maturity, its jazzy soundtrack matching the laid back pace at which the episodes progressed.  Many people regard Bebop as the best anime of all time, so while my love of it isn't a bold opinion, the fact that I prefer Samurai Champloo is.  There's just something about the blending of samurai action and hip hop brashness in the latter that really hit me back in high school, and its brand of melancholy registered more than Bebop's did.  Regardless, the two of them are basically my favorite anime ever.

Since then, my anime viewing has slowed down, to the point where I had given up on it for the last two years or so.  Even still, I consider myself such a Watanabe fan that I vowed I'd watch anything he worked on, no matter what my relationship with anime was at the time.  Well now, just that has happened, as his interstellar romp Space Dandy premiered on Adult Swim a few weeks ago.  (Aside from its notability for being Watanabe's first non-adaptation anime since Champloo, Space Dandy is also monumental because it airs in America before our friends in Japan get to see it.)  Initially, I was very wary, because Space Dandy was pitched as more of a straight comedy.  Even back when I was a more frequent anime viewer, I tended to stay away from comedy, because I generally don't have a Japanese sense of humor.  Bebop and Champloo certainly had comedic moments, but they weren't given the space to become tiresome in the way that the gags do in comedic anime.  The first half of Space Dandy's pilot certainly suffered from this problem, and the humor didn't really work for me.  I admired the old school charm of the show, but its tired meta humor and boob-obsessed protagonist weren't a good introduction.

Luckily there's a bit more to the show than that.  Things turned around in the second half of the episode, when the jokes fell away in favor of the show's artistic prowess.  The pure visual splendor on display, awash with vivid colors and psychedelic designs, was much more in line with the boldness of Watanabe's previous work.  That's where the true core of Space Dandy lies, in its ability to irreverently treat its world like a sandbox for its playful "anything goes" mentality.  The next few episodes still featured some of the hammy elements that nearly brought down the pilot, but it was always saved by just how wild the show was willing to get, offering up a new flavor with every new episode, and sometimes switching things up in the middle of one.  This extreme tonal variation is a Watanabe staple, but his previous shows never reached the pure comedic lunacy that Dandy does.

No episode exemplifies that sense of insanity more than "Sometimes You Can't Live Without Dying, Baby," the show's 4th episode.  In it, Meow gets bitten by an alien that turns him into a zombie.  The genius of the rest of the episode is in just how far it takes this standard concept.  Soon the zombie outbreak spreads -- even robot QT becomes zombified, her growl sounding like an autotuned R&B song -- to the point where Dandy himself becomes a zombie.  And that's just the first half of the episode.  It just keeps going and going with the idea, hilariously examining how life insurance changes in the wake of the zombie apocalypse.  The true star of the episode is the show's narrator, who languidly describes the progression of events, from the assassins in charge of killing the zombies so they no longer cash in on their insurance to the zombies' inexplicable love of malls.  But eventually even he can't escape the outbreak, as the episode ends with him somehow becoming a zombie as well.  It's a brilliant, bizarre, and ballsy episode that will be remembered as the show's first true sign of greatness if it ends up being one of the great anime of our time.

It'd be hard to match the ridiculous heights that the zombie episode did, so the show rightfully pared things down for its 5th episode, where Dandy bonds with an alien girl who's on the run.  It's the most Bebop-esque episode the show has had so far, matching that show's somber tone and showing a more mature side to the often juvenile Dandy.  Even still, at times it also seemed like a bizarre parody of those stories where an adult takes a troubled kid under their wing.  Further proof that the show can't be nailed down comes from its most recent episode, in which Meow and Dandy become embroiled in a war between the two species inhabiting a planet they land on.  The cause of the war: one side only wears vests and the other only wears pants.  At the point we find them, both species have been whittled down to only one member each, and Meow and Dandy get roped into things, choosing sides in this tiny and petty battle.  The severe incompetence displayed by both sides makes for a funny episode that only somebody with a truly warped mind could think of.

In just 6 weeks, Space Dandy has emerged as something truly special.  It's in rarefied air, belonging with shows like Community and Black Mirror when it comes to not knowing what to expect from it on any given week.  The show may have some rough edges and lapses into immaturity, but it's ultimately a fun way to spend 30 minutes.  If you're looking for the sophistication of Cowboy Bebop or Samurai Champloo, you're going to have to throw those expectations out of the door, because this is not either of those.  So just sit back and enjoy the ride, baby!


  1. I figured you were going to jump into this, I haven't had the chance to check it out yet, but from the way you describe it, it's definitely worth my time, so I'll probably try to check it out next week.

    1. Still need to check this out; will do eventually.

    2. It's gotten even better since I wrote this post. This show is like a...I don't even know. It's bizarre and brilliant and bold. You never know what you're going to get each week.