The Dandying Ends… For Now: The First Season of Space☆Dandy

Space☆Dandy is the most anime thing I’ve seen in a while. It had action, was a sci-fi work, was also a comedy work, had bits of martial arts, came to America straight from Japan (before Japan could even see it), was totally unexpected, and was certainly not kids stuff at certain points. If ADV still existed, I’m sure they’d love to get their hands on Space☆Dandy. We’ll getting more of Dandy soon, but given it’s a couple of months until season two, let’s take a look at how the first season worked out.

When Space☆Dandy first dropped, I wasn’t all too impressed. Since those irresponsible Dandy Days, the show evolved a bit over the course of its thirteen episodes, and proved itself a work worth paying attention to. But, did it meet the lofty expectations set by its predecessor, Cowboy Bebop? After thirteen episodes, it unfortunately has not. And yes, I will be comparing Space☆Dandy to Cowboy Bebop because I think they have a lot in common. I could also compare Samurai Champloo, but I don’t remember that one very well, so I’ll leave it out of this.

Space☆Dandy and Cowboy Bebop share some common attributes that makes them apt for comparison:

  1. They are both heavily episodic works
  2. They are both science fiction works (with martial arts and action, natch)
  3. They both place heavy importance on music
  4. They share the same director
  5. Woolongs

However, while sharing these common attributes, their respective approaches are quite different, particularly in the first one. Cowboy Bebop is mostly episodic, but does have a few story threads that underlie the whole thing, while Space☆Dandy is unabashedly episodic–one of its strengths–and it gives a lot of power to episode directors, animation directors, and script writers. Less than being a coherent work, as Space☆Dandy progresses, it becomes about letting creators do their own thing in each episode, which makes for a very eclectic set of episodes.

But before getting that deep, here are some favorite episodes.

While the show gets off to a weak start, it hits its first very strong outing at episode five, in which Dandy helps a young girl reunite with her family. Interestingly enough, this episode is less comedic and more rooted in the Japanese’s love for tear-jerking emotional bullshit, but thankfully it doesn’t lay the emotional stuff on too heavy, balancing out it with some fun scenes that stray from the main jokes the series had established until that point, none of which were particularly funny. It warms the heart without being too overdone.

The next really good one comes five episodes later, where Dandy and crew find themselves on Meow’s home planet. Being someone who has actually lived in the dead-end Japanese suburbs before, the way the episode perfectly captures the bleakness of that environment–with shots of unfinished highways, abandoned shopping arcades, and old rusted metal work–along with the monotony and redundancy of life out there by actually throwing the characters into a time-loop is very well executed, and an appropriately severe examination of a major issue in real life Japan. However, at the same time it doesn’t completely bash the inaka lifestyle, and also shows how it does work for some people. The episode has many details that bring it very close to home–despite everyone being cat-aliens. Meow’s delinquent sister asking for money to buy “textbooks”; his old friends souping up an old clunker of a car and painting it garish colors; and the down-home snack bar the trio finds themselves in every night are all real slices of Japanese life outside of big cities like Tokyo that give the episode a palpable realism and familiarity. It addition to its sharp commentary, the episode also has a sharp sense of humor–the scene with Dandy getting all yankii (btw: I think that article is meant to be sarcastic–there is nothing cool about yankii) in Meow’s house is pure gold, and the revelation of the relationship between Meow’s childhood crush and the Mama-san at the snack bar is hilarious, and comes at exactly the right moment. This wit can be credited to script writer Ueno Kimiko, who writes a lot of the show’s funnier/weirder episodes.

But the show’s absolute best episode is the twelfth, where it goes complete slapstick, and doesn’t letup with a succession of hard-hitting, wonderfully stupid gags and running jokes. The episode is also one of the few to move at a very brisk pace, and effectively fits three different stories into its twenty minute run-time. This again comes to us by way of Ueno’s pen, taking the show’s basic setup to great places. Making QT a fishing addict? Hilarious. Making the universes’ most mysterious and unknown alien a stupid prankster? Hilarious.  Making Dandy face off against himself in a Who Wants to be a Millionaire?-style game show? Hilarious. This episode was the only one that had me laughing out loud, which the show really should have been doing from episode one.

There are a few other good ones–episode four’s zombie apocalypse gets off to a pleasantly morbid start, but the second half is a bit too slowburn for me. The seventh episode’s space race is almost funny enough to make it into my favorites, but I think the pace should be more on par with episode twelve. Episode eight–by Bebop vet Nobumoto Keiko–has a strong emotional first half, and a strong comedic second half, but the way they blend doesn’t quite work for me.

But yeah–giving power to creators. On the forefront, the show boasts a wide variety of art styles every episode, and effectively enables animation directors to get their own individual style out there, whether that be pushing their own vision, or just letting the animators under them do whatever they want. The coolest looking episode is the eleventh, which brings to mind Shinbou Akiyuki, if his style was more muted and sketchy, and makes for a deeply mysterious and moody atmosphere that compliments the material perfectly. The show’s ninth episode fully convinces you that Yuasa Masaaki is behind it all until the credits roll to reveal that it’s actually Eunyoung Choi following in her master’s footsteps. It’s a great looking episode that takes cartoon expression to the extreme, both in the bold way in which it presents itself and in the imaginative design of the world itself. The show’s sixth episode which, according to Anipages Daily, is mostly the work of a single man, has a decently strong visual individuality, mostly in its rough and bizarre backgrounds that set the tone for a suitably bizarre episode. Nobumoto’s episode eight also looks really good in addition to being one of the better written outings of the series. The characters look distinctly more cartoony, and move constantly with energy and dynamism. While not exactly pushing some huge artistic agenda like the show’s eleventh episode, episode eight brings back a more loose and free cartoon atmosphere that is sometimes lost in a medium filled with lots of very well drawn still shots and not much in the way of movement.

Okay, so both Bebop and Dandy use the episodic format in similar but different ways. They both take advantage of their episodic approach to flesh out the world through a series of one-offs, but they differ in that Bebop uses it to cop various genre movies, while Dandy uses it to give power to a variety of creative hands. One thing that makes or break any show, especially a show without a serial plot, is the characters. You have to be interested in what these people are going to get themselves into each week, or else your show isn’t going anywhere. Cowboy Bebop has a motley crew of misfits who don’t get along with each other and are written as realistically flawed human beings. They are a very strong pillar that holds the series up, even during some of its weaker outings. Sadly for Space☆Dandy, its motley crew of misfits doesn’t quite do it for me.

To put it bluntly, they’re all very stupid, and not in a good way. Dandy’s yankii personality is genuinely funny, but he doesn’t have much to play off of. QT is the obvious straight man, but is played entirely too straight. Same with Meow–he’s supposed to be this nerdy country bumkin, but that angle isn’t played up at all–he just actually acts like a real otaku from the country side. I know those people. They’re boring, and Meow is boring. And with Dandy left with no-one to really bounce himself off of, he too begins to fall flat as a character. For these characters to work, they have to be brought up and above the stereotypes they’re supposed to represent. At the moment, save for a few episodes (notably the twelfth) they’re just the real thing, and those people kind of suck.  The writers have to find what makes those character types funny and exaggerate those aspects, or turn them on their head–not play them straight.

Actually, on the whole, the show just isn’t funny enough for a comedy. The beginning is particularly dire, as it relies on the same couple of jokes far too often, but thankfully it moves away from that swiftly enough. Once the show hits its stride, it does have some amusing outings, but there’s only really one that’s honestly laugh-out-loud funny. The show has a few more serious outings, and they’re good, except for the fact that the characters remain their typical stupid selves, clueless to what is going on around them, which makes the episodes fall flat. I would have loved the show’s eleventh episode with its moody visuals and trippy story if the characters were a bit more keen to what was going on. Same with the ninth.  These episodes are great chances to give these characters some extra dimensions, but at the moment they’re just idiots being passively strung along, which doesn’t make for compelling storytelling. The show actually does this in episode five, showing that Dandy isn’t just a giant pervert, and has something of a soft spot. But there’s not enough of that.

Dr. Gel, Bea and Admiral Perry are the show’s antagonists who show up every now and again, and it unfortunately kind of takes too long for the show to really have fun with them. Sure, they get blown up in the first episode, but other than that, they’re not terribly funny until about the show’s half-way point, where they become the funniest part of each episode. When they show up, that is.

Okay, so the characters more or less suck and the writing is questionable. What about the sci-fi setting? Cowboy Bebop came on the scene with a very unique approach to SF that cranked up the realism and the grit, with characters living out their days on busted up spaceships and jumping between planets with cities overflowing with grime and character. It’s an SF work in the sense that there are spaceships and high technology, but it’s painted over with a thick brush of realism, with nothing exuding a particularly “futuristic” vibe. Space☆Dandy goes the exact opposite direction into vintage SF, taking itself into colorful intergalactic territory, something it touted right at the get-go with its long list of artists in charge of alien and world designs. Dandy’s setting is what allows the animators to go crazy–it’s an anything-goes universe that stretches as far as the creator’s imagination. If there’s one thing Dandy gets right, it’s some serious-business world building. Well, maybe not serious, but there are many worlds in the show, and they’re all unique and wonderful in their own way. But, similar to the Bebop, the Aloha Oe is also a clunker. It does look slightly nicer, though.

Much like Bebop, one big thing Space☆Dandy boasted about before it even started was its music. While Cowboy Bebop has a primarily jazz focused soundtrack with some blues, country, and a few other eclectic genres mixed in–all from the talented mind of Kanno Yoko (guess who got his Cowboy Bebop limited edition CD boxset signed!!!)–Space☆Dandy calls upon several talents to provide musical accompaniment for Dandy’s adventures. Despite having a wide variety of artists on music duty, the soundtrack leans heavily toward the electronic side, with some exceptions. For a show that calls upon so many people to handle its music, there doesn’t seem to be much variety. It’s all well done stuff, but a lot of it just falls in the background, whereas any given cut from Cowboy Bebop’s soundtrack jumps out every time it comes on. Perhaps I’ll see the music in a different light once I get my hands on the soundtrack. One track that really gets me is the disco number at the end of episode six, though. That owns hardcore. And Dandy surfs through space while it’s playing! That’s a really good scene is what I’m saying, okay?

The music really shines in the show’s opening and ending sequences. Japanese funk-master and former drug-addict Okamura Yasuyuki (affectionately dubbed as “Okamura-chan” in Japan) provides his entirely overdone (and entirely wonderful) soulful voice to the show’s funky-as-hell dance opening, Viva Namida. And as if God had granted a wish I never knew I had, Space☆Dandy brings Kanno Yoko and Yakushimaru Etsuko together for a spectacularly phantasmagoric and spacy tune in the form of X Jigen e Youkoso. Kanno’s strings and sax goes with Yakushimaru’s airy voice in a way I never thought possible.

As far as the direction goes, while lots of Dandy seems to be left up to episode directors, Watanabe guides it all with his steady and experienced hand. What surprised me about Space☆Dandy is that Watanabe is actually a pretty lousy writer, writing the extremely weak first episode. He also wrote episode nine, which was substantially better, but the original idea was by Eunyoung Choi. In short, I think he’s better in the director’s chair and figuring out what music to match to which scenes.

As of season one, for all the efforts put into its stylistic elements, Space☆Dandy falls devastatingly short in the writing department, specifically in how it portrays its characters. Cowboy Bebop isn’t even a comedy, but its characters fare way better in comedic situations than Space☆Dandy’s do, and they obviously do much better in serious stories than Dandy’s could ever hope to do. I hope that season two will mix things up more and make the characters more interesting, because at the moment they are what’s dragging the whole thing down. Everything else is great, guys! The Woolongs are a nice touch, too!

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