The Mike Toole Show Strike Up The Dandy
Some years back, I was talking to my friend Carl Horn about interesting anime directors. Mamoru Oshii was mentioned, of course, as was Hiroyuki Okiura, Mamoru Hosoda, and Mister Cowboy Bebop himself, Shinichiro Watanabe. At this point, Carl made an interesting observation: the anime business seemed to be awfully good at training up these impressive, mercurial directors, folks like Okiura, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, and Kunihiko Ikuhara, and then, after a few big hits, never giving them a significant project again. Meanwhile, a director who was a bit more obviously otaku-centric, like Akiyuki Shinbo, never seemed to want for work. It was an intriguing observation, I thought.
Of course, it's an observation that was missing some crucial context, and one made just a year or two ahead of many of these directors’ resurgences. Hiroyuki Okiura's spellbinding debut, Jin-roh, never yielded an obvious follow-up, but after years of hard work, his fun family movie A Letter to Momo hit theatres. Kunihiko Ikuhara rode the Utena wave to Los Angeles, where he spent a few years studying film and trying to learn English. After a variety of puzzling collaborations (anyone remember Schell Bullet?) and some odd jobs working on fare like Diebuster and Kokoro Connect, he returned, triumphant, with the intriguing Penguindrum. Kitakubo, a guy for whom I'd love to see a comeback, has kept busy working on recent stuff like Occult Academy and Argevollen. And Shinichiro Watanabe did not disappear after Samurai Champloo, the successor to Cowboy Bebop—he kept busy, largely as a music producer. He resurfaced in 2012 with Kids on the Slope, but that was just the prelude.
I was in the room at Otakon 2013 when Watanabe announced Space Dandy to the world. Unlike his return to direction, the period drama Kids on the Slope, Space Dandy was billed as a truly original work, a rollicking cosmic comedy-adventure about a pompadoured man that the director himself awkwardly described as “the dandiest man in space.” I don't think anyone was won over by the first promo images of Dandy himself, a skinny dude with a varsity jacket, a strong chin, and a rakish grin. His castmates, including an alien cat dude, a fireplug-esque robot, and a space ape adversary, were marginally more intriguing. But we were still filled with excitement, because the Cowboy Bebop guy was getting the Cowboy Bebop band back together. Soon, we'd realize just how much more Space Dandy had to offer.
Let's look at a typical anime series—late-night fare, obviously, but not a no-budget show doomed to the depths of the graveyard shift. Instead, we'll look at something with some muscle and a few big names behind it: Fate/Zero. You might already know that Gen Urobuchi created the story and Ei Aoki was the director, but look a little closer and you'll see that huge swaths of the show were managed by Kei Tsunematsu and Takuya Nonaka, who each storyboarded and directed four or five episodes. That's pretty typical—a troubled production might have a lot of staff in the mixer, but a stable show with a good director and line producer will feature a team or a dozen or so key creative types.
With Space Dandy, Watanabe took that scale to the galactic level. After all, why have five or six episode directors when you can have, say, twenty or so? If they're all working from the same playbook, under Watanabe's watchful management and with veteran animation director Shingo Natsume watching the storyboards and double-checking everyone's work, the results have to be good, right? What Watanabe and his team ultimately delivered in Space Dandy was a concept that permitted a huge variety of approaches, while still staying true to the show's chaotic narrative. But in looking back at Space Dandy, my big question is this: who are these people?
Several of them are, for lack of a better term, “anime household names.” Watanabe himself is widely-known enough that just attaching his name as chief director is a shrewd piece of marketing. Other Bebop alumni, like screenwriters Keiko Nobumoto and Dai Sato and composer Yoko Kanno, also lend the show some cachet. Some of the other collaborators, like Masaaki Yuasa and Thomas Romain, are already popular for their own creations. But that still leaves an awful lot of talented animators and writers still hunting for recognition. Let's look at ten of them, and the episodes and stories they helmed.
I'll lead off the list with Sayo Yamamoto, who's seemed on the verge of a breakthrough for years. Astute fans will recognize her name from Michiko & Hatchin and Lupin the 3rd: The Woman Named Fujiko Mine—she directed ‘em both, making her one of the show's more experienced directors. I'm partial to the second of her two episodes, “Rock n’ Roll Dandy, Baby,” simply because it's such a startlingly blunt tribute to To-Y, the obscure but influential 80s rock band OVA. Her first episode, the show's second, is still a bit stronger. “The Search for the Phantom Space Ramen, Baby” has a number of fine qualities that make it stand out—a blazing kung-fu fight by Scarlet, the show's disgruntled alien registration tech, and a trip through a bizarre assortment of space ramen stands. Writer Dai Sato based these stands on the real-life stands in his neighborhood; Yamamoto's approach is oddly delicate, but still hits like a sledgehammer.
Hiroshi Shimizu is one of Yamamoto's partners in crime, having worked with her on Fujiko, Michiko & Hatchin, and a number of other shows. I've gotten to meet this guy and quiz him about Miyazaki (“he can draw more than 30 high-quality frames in an hour – scary!”) and the beleaguered Little Nemo movie (“I was a regular animator, so we never really noticed the production's problems on our end.”) – he's a tough, seen-it-all veteran, but he's actually very seldom directed, instead plying his trade as an animation director. Like Yamamoto, he steers two episodes, both written by Keiko Nobumoto. The standout is “The Lonely Pooch Planet, Baby,” which evokes that sad dog episode of Futurama, Looney Tunes (a sequence where Meow, Dandy's vaguely feline stowaway/sidekick, chases after some food, complete with absurd sound effects, is one of my favorites), and Cowboy Bebop itself.
Another savvy veteran director employed in the dandy trenches of Space Dandy is Yasuhiro Nakura. His career as an animator stretches all the way back to Toward the Terra and that weird, too-long Cyborg 009: Legend of the Super Galaxy movie. His biggest project in recent years might be Metropolis—after director Rintaro, he was probably the artist most responsible for the look and style of the film. His “A World with no Sadness, Baby” follows the dimwitted, happy-go-lucky Dandy into what appears to be the afterlife, forcing the galaxy's shallowest thinker to have some pretty deep thoughts. The episode's philosophical story and meditative pace provide a much-needed break from the show's frequently zippy, frenetic tempo.
Arguably the biggest storytelling influence on Space Dandy outside of Watanabe himself is writer Kimiko Ueno. She handles no less than eight episodes of the series, including the superb, hilarious “A Race in Space is Dangerous, Baby,” an episode that manages to riff on Wacky Races and cult SF film The Quiet Earth in equal measure. Ueno's got an odd track record—she's mainly written for kids’ shows, and not done much work in science fiction. At Otakon, Watanabe noted that this was part of why he chose her – he wanted bold, new sci-fi adventures from a talented writer who'd never even seen Star Wars. Ueno fit the bill.
My other pick for scribes I'd like to see more of would be Toh EnJoe, a cerebral writer who's known for his challenging, obtuse hard science fiction novels. Viewers were suitably weirded out by his first Dandy outing, “I'm Never Remembering You, Baby,” in which the crew, in a story that feels right out of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide books, attempt to return an intergalactic library book. Turns out that the book itself is an alien, which seizes control of Dandy's mind to rescue itself. But EnJoe's talent for odd situations really shines in “An Other-Dimensional Tale, Baby.” In this episode, the gang confronts Dandy's old girlfriend, Catherine, a 4th-dimensional being that appears to be a constantly-shifting cube with a heart inside. What I love about it? Meow and QT might wonder how Dandy got caught up with such an abstract girlfriend, but their chemistry, helped along by director Satoshi Saga, is palpable.
When “Plants are Living Things Too, Baby” aired, many viewers mistook it for the work of celebrated auteur director Masaaki Yuasa. Don't make this mistake—it's directed by Eunyoung Choi. I guess the mistake is at least a little understandable, since Choi was part of the team behind Yuasa's otherworldly Kaiba, and she also helped out with his Kemonozume. She's also directed an episode of Casshern Sins, and is responsible for Ping Pong: The Animation's beautiful, stylized ending sequence. She also wrote the story treatment for her episode, a conflict between two races of plants that Dandy and company stumble upon. The episode's visuals are drastically different from much of the show, in a really loose, bizarre, and pleasant way. The slightly melancholic ending brings “Flowers for Algernon” to mind.
Takaaki Wada's episode is “The Transfer Student is Dandy, Baby,” which reminded me, at times, of Blazing Transfer Student, and Fame, and Galaxy High School, and that episode of Family Guy where they re-enact bits of Grease and The Breakfast Club. The episode is full of only moderately repetitious song and dance numbers, which are pretty damn hard to animate, but Wada and his team pull it off. The episode's energy and exuberance isn't that surprising when you check out the director's credits—he's responsible for tons of great animation cuts from the likes of Symphogear and Xam'd, and was a big player in the production of Gatchaman Crowds, having directed the last quarter of the series. But aside from Crowds, he's got relatively few direction credits, so this episode was a real chance to prove his mettle. Watching it, my mind kept wandering back to Galaxy High School, an 80s toon animated by TMS. Turns out key animator Kenji Hatchizaki worked on both!
Kiyotaka Oshiyama is an absolute madman. Most of the key creatives in Space Dandy did some double-duty—they directed and drew the storyboards, or wrote and directed. For “The Big Fish is Huge, Baby,” Oshiyama served as writer, director, animation director, key animator, art director, alien character designer, and storyboard artist—this one's about as personal an episode as you can get, and to boot, it's Oshiyama's debut as a director! In fairness, the episode's story isn't a narrative standout, but it's still packed with weird and fascinating experiments in color and visuals. The guy's a maniac, a true auteur. I can't wait to see what he does next.
I'm playing hype man for a bunch of key talents in this piece, but the one I'm tempted to hype the most is Masahiro Mukai. Not only did he direct the fabulous “I Can't Be the Only One, Baby,” featuring a cavalcade of alternate-universe Dandy crews, including such luminaries as Trucker Dandy, Michael Jackson Goku dandy, and the famous Sad Dandy, he turned in “Lovers are Trendy, Baby,” in which we get to see Dandy try and romance the standoffish Scarlet, who starts the episode completely repulsed by him. Meanwhile her ex-boyfriend, Dolph Lundgren (no, seriously, the guy's name is Dolph, and he looks exactly like Dolph Lundgren) shadows her jealously in his humongous mecha suit. The titanic mecha battle never quite materializes, but the episode still somehow manages to land a Chuck Norris joke. Mukai's directed pieces of the fine Book of Bantorra and the fan favorite Madoka Magica—if you ask me, what he's shown in Space Dandy is proof positive that he's due for his own show. Get in on the ground floor with this guy; I think he's going places.
There's one last name from Space Dandy's ranks that I want to drop, and it's the name of a dead man. After a long and distinguished career, animator and director Toshio Hirata passed away this past August at the age of 76. Turbo nerds like me know and revere this man as a master of his craft, who directed the eye-popping and memorable Unico, and one of the great lost OVAs of the 1980s, Bobby's Girl. His work wasn't always perfect, but he really was one of those guys who could take material that was pretty good and make it great. “Nobody Knows the Chameleon Alien, Baby” gave him one last chance to show the youngins how it's done—he turned in his usual good work as storyboard artist on that joint. With the inclusion of his name, Space Dandy's value is writ large—a bridge between the old generation and emerging talents. The episode is devilishly funny, and I hope that the folks working on it with Mr. Hirata drew inspiration from his works.
I'm not merely writing this piece to be a Space Dandy postmortem—I'm doing it because I want the names you see above to become bigger. Every time a great animator dies or retires, there's always talk about who's going to fill their shoes. We're all tired of the “next Miyazaki” talk, right? But here's the thing: there can never be a new Osamu Dezaki, or a new Tadao Nagahama, or a new Yoshinori Kanada. Those men were unique talents who emerged from their own time and place. Space Dandy is an incredibly valuable show, not just as a show with palpable international appeal, but as a production that allows young and mid-career talent to stretch out and walk their own paths. That's why, from the standpoint of a discerning fan with a lot of knowledge and appreciation of this stuff, Space Dandy feels like a huge success.
But what does that mean? How successful is Dandy, really? It's managed to engage fans all over the world, but look in the shop windows: there's very little Space Dandy merchandise there. At conventions this summer, FUNimation reps have pointed out that Dandy's status as a hit isn't quite clear just yet. Maybe Space Dandy is an artistic success, but it still needs to be a commercial success. Hopefully, part of that particular puzzle is solved when Space Dandy lands on blu-ray and DVD in North America. In the meantime, I'd like to humbly request a Meow talking plush doll, a Roomba that looks like QT, and official, licensed Space Dandy pomade.
On their website, Studio Bones lists projects that have wrapped up. But instead of the usual “SIGN OFF” message, with Space Dandy, we've got the above “hmm…” So, what do you think? Should we beg Bones for a Space Dandy movie? I think it just might happen if we raise our voices up loud enough. In the meantime, what was YOUR favorite episode of Space Dandy, baby?
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