Why Wasn't Space Dandy the Next Cowboy Bebop?by Jacob Chapman,
It was the twentieth anniversary of Otakon, the biggest anime convention on the U.S.A's east coast. But this was not only my first time at Otakon, it was my first time interviewing a Japanese guest. Like many anime fans who spent their high school years devouring Adult Swim programming, Shinichiro Watanabe was one of my heroes, so I went into this intimidating first interview like one giant taut nerve ready to snap. I had prepared plenty of questions, but Watanabe hadn't directed an original series in almost a decade, and popular rumor at the time held that he might be having trouble finding work in the current anime production climate. So I was apprehensive about asking him what original ideas he might be exploring now, concerned I might accidentally insult him or simply be given an awkward non-answer.
Imagine my surprise when Watanabe looked around the room and started giggling along with his posse of about ten handlers and friends (a crowd size I now know is not common for convention interviews), before calling one of them over with a laptop to queue up the PV for Space Dandy. "I'm announcing this tomorrow, but you will be the first person to see it because you were the first person to ask me about new ideas." I was overwhelmed by the two minutes of neon spaceships and alien boobs to follow, and I still remember the distinct feeling of my feet never really touching that convention hotel floor for the rest of the day.
But I'm not here to brag about how happy that experience made me for many months to follow. (Okay, not this time. Maybe the next time I trot out this anecdote again.) I'm here to talk about the big stupid gaffe I made immediately following that moment, which marred an otherwise outstanding day with one of those slimy little memories that creeps into your head to shame you right when you're about to fall asleep at night. After hearing that one of the greatest directors in anime was finally making another original project, giving me a few precious minutes to ask him anything at all about the new show before my time would be over...
I glanced down at my script in a panic and chose to ask him some rote question about Cowboy Bebop instead. When telling other people about meeting Watanabe, I tend to leave this part out, but as I now dig up the memory from a pit of embarrassment in my brain, I distinctly remember feeling the electricity in the room die out as he switched topics over to Radical Edward for what must have been the millionth time.
I learned a huge lesson about the importance of improvisation and follow-up questions that day, but little did I know that I was also channeling a microcosm of most people's reaction to Space Dandy over the following year. Studio Bones' president Masahiko Minami has made no secret of the series being a commercial disappointment for the studio, and I definitely remember a tragically awkward moment at Anime Expo two years ago, when a Meow mascot costume came out to greet the audience at Junichi Suwabe's panel and almost no one seemed to know who he was or care. When people hear Watanabe's name now, they still think Cowboy Bebop first, Samurai Champloo second, and Space Dandy—no wait, probably The Animatrix third. I guess poor Space Dandy doesn't even make the podium.
From Cartoon Network to Studio Bones to Funimation, everyone seemed to have higher expectations for Dandy than what we got, as it disappeared shortly after its initial run from the airwaves and fandom consciousness alike. It's especially odd because this hype-death exists in contradiction to the clear affection that fans and critics alike had for the show at the time (and may still hold for it today). It took 5th place in our year-end poll of users' favorite 2014 anime and topped a number of our critics' superlative lists. However, when the series returned to a 2:30 AM slot on Toonami mere months ago, the promotional tenor was muted, prompting a mildly amused response of faint remembrance at best from anime fans.
Well, Space Dandy is still my favorite anime from 2014, I still revisit my favorite episodes on occasion today, and while I hold it near and dear to my heart, on retrospect I think I understand why this ambitiously weird little comedy was never going to be the next Cowboy Bebop. After mulling over the show's legacy (or lack thereof) for a while, these are the three major reasons Space Dandy's star might have fallen so fast.
Looking back now, 2014 fell in an unfortunate window of time when streaming anime online the day it aired in Japan was becoming commonplace within anime fandom, but bigger companies outside the anime industry weren't yet taking notice of this growing audience the way they do today. If Space Dandy's full run had been delivered to the world on Netflix after months of buildup in curiosity like DEVILMAN crybaby, maybe its impact would have been very different. However, since this platform of support for weird creative projects wasn't coming from the Western market that Bones was relying on to snap up this project, they tried to make lightning strike twice in the same place by distributing Dandy the same way they distributed Bebop: on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block, dubbed in English for people to discover on Saturday nights flipping channels.
While I can easily understand the nostalgia bid attached to this choice, and it's great that Western fans got the option to enjoy the show in their native language without having to wait, this decision was almost certainly a waste of money in terms of any impact on Space Dandy's audience reach. That's because the difference in circumstances between Bebop's success in 2001 and Dandy's attempt in 2014 spans more than just an unlucky 13-year gap. Bebop's world was one devoid of social media or streaming video, a world where people actually discovered media by stumbling through cable channels, and there were no corporate media accounts to help you gauge just how big this niche space noir thing you had found was becoming in real time.
The kind of in-depth information that instantly clarifies the line between "cult" and "trending", the kind we take for granted or even find ourselves eager to escape from today, was so nonexistent at the time that many newfound fans of Cowboy Bebop didn't even know it was made in Japan at all. It was the only anime on the block, sandwiched in with popular Williams Street comedies like Space Ghost and Harvey Birdman, giving it an edge completely divorced from the growing subculture still trading tapes through mail order that had been aware of the series for years. Bebop brought these two spheres of nerd culture together, but it didn't happen overnight, and over a decade of nights later, what remains of that generational blob of anime discovery has already splintered into a dozen otaku subcultures, and the new generation of teens are getting their touchstones from their smartphones, not a nostalgic throwback block late at night on basic cable.
Space Dandy came into a world where everyone tuning into Cartoon Network at night already knew what anime was, and if they liked it, they already knew where to find it on their own terms. If they didn't like anime, they knew to avoid it, probably shutting off Family Guy or Robot Chicken before the episode's truncated credits could even lead them into the opening moments of Dandy. After the first couple weeks of staying up to support the broadcast, most anime fans simply took advantage of their streaming subscriptions and watched it online when it was convenient or set the DVR to catch the dubbed version the next day. Space Dandy's Adult Swim simulcast was fun, but it didn't expand the show's audience beyond anime fandom because cable is no longer a place where young people discover new programming. Instead, it just shared a quiet evening with the premiere of Naruto Shippūden, which everyone had already seen two years ago, as if to drive home the block's irrelevance to how people consume anime in 2014.
Some people might argue that Space Dandy was doomed for success in the West because it's a comedy, but I don't buy that myself. In terms of its comedic roots, Space Dandy's colorful, bawdy, action-packed sense of coolness resembles the resounding successes of FLCL or Excel Saga with English speakers far more than most low-key dialogue-driven anime comedies that slink under the radar. Plus it had THE TRIUMPHANT RETURN OF THE DIRECTOR OF COWBOY BEBOP plastered all over its promotions, which is a statement that tends to override genre apprehensions for even casual anime fans.
I think the problem lies less with Dandy's choice of tone (cartoony comedy) and more with its choice of format (experimental anthology series). Even though Netflix hadn't yet shoved its mighty nose into anime production and distribution to the extent that it does today, people were already comfortable with the bingewatching model of media consumption that the platform had popularized, which basically led to audiences digesting television like really long movies rather than procedurals or sitcoms with skippable entries. "Peak TV" had already become a popular phrase for characterizing the growth of ambitious, continuity-heavy television with ballooning budgets and cinematic execution that required a greater deal of audience investment than before. Being a detail-obsessed nerd about the TV you unwound with in the evenings was officially mainstream.
As any fan of long-running shonen manga adaptations can tell you, anime was always ahead of the curve in this kind of marathon appeal, which may be one reason why it's started to regain mainstream traction in recent years. I remember so many non-anime-fans observing the format of series like InuYasha and Bleach in the 2000s and comparing their rhythm to soap operas. Now that's just Most Hit TV Dramas Period, from The Walking Dead to Game of Thrones. What was once a barrier to entry in a medium that thrived on protracted pacing, suspenseful cliffhangers, and detailed worldbuilding was now considered a draw in a society that had embraced bingewatching and did not demand that one episode of a series tell a satisfying story on its own. And this philosophy didn't just affect dramas; the comedies that Space Dandy's desired young adult nerd demographic embraced, like Community, Silicon Valley, and Veep, were defining the continuity investments of comedy very differently from sitcoms of the 2000s as well.
So where did that leave a series like Space Dandy, whose premise revolved around completely rejecting not only story continuity between weeks (the first episode ends with the death of the entire cast), but even stylistic continuity as the series' aesthetic changed completely between a plethora of experimental episodes handled by completely different staff each time? As you may have guessed, a series that works best when experienced one episode at a time, so you can cleanse your brain and renew your expectations before starting the next one, was not what anime fans or general viewers wanted at this point in time. Even viewers who did want this kind of anthology experience, meant to be savored one week at a time, might have had more trouble factoring it into their otherwise binge and catch-up based viewing habits. I remember the dropoff in viewership and discussion for Space Dandy each week being palatable, but given the vocally positive response to the series by its conclusion, I don't think it's because people didn't like the show anymore. I think it just made for an easy sacrifice on fans' "I'll get to it later" backlog pile, and that phrase snuffs hype out hard before it even has a chance to spread.
I want to reiterate at this point that I love Space Dandy just the way it is. The show's no-rules format may have crippled its wider appeal, but it also allowed it to fly free artistically in ways that I found refreshing and valuable to animation as a form of creative expression. So I think the "time and place" factors I've explored above are truly unfortunate, and it would be unfair to hold Space Dandy's staff or producers accountable for them.
But there was just one thing about the show that immediately struck me as creatively misguided, something that almost certainly crippled its chances of success in the West. Unfortunately, that thing was Space Dandy himself.
While many elements of Space Dandy's aesthetic are tailor-made to be inviting to Western audiences, from the pop culture references to the spaceship designs, I always found it strange that the creators of Space Dandy decided on this comic archetype for their protagonist, because Dandy hearkens pretty directly to a Japanese type of comedy that has not taken root in the West. For those unfamiliar with his archetype, Dandy might initially comes across as a big dumb asshole. He's (sort of) good-at-heart, but it's buried way down deep under a ton of selfish impulses and a very small handful of brain cells. Dandy's flagrant incompetence and insatiable lust for leisure can't necessarily be balanced by the specks of gold in his heart, but for many Japanese audiences, this unlikability is what drives the humor and ultimately makes the character likable—thanks to one of the longest-running and most influential comedy manga of all time: KochiKame.
The "hero" of Kochikame, Ryo-san, has had a wide-ranging impact on the protagonists of shonen manga in general that's hard to neatly summarize, but his closest relative that modern-day fans might recognize is probably Gintama's Gintoki Sakata, the "Silver-Haired Samurai" who spends his days picking his nose, reading comics, and dreaming up schemes to make lots of cash with little effort (so he can immediately gamble it away and offer some pseudo-zen bullshit excuse for not paying rent). If you put him on a rocket out of Edo and into the 23rd century, Gintoki could easily be mistaken for one of those many alternate-universe versions of Dandy. And just as Kochikame dominated in its heyday, Gintama is enormously popular and its hero has become iconic as the hilarious trash husband of many adoring female fans.
Deconstructing why this archetype is such a familiar standby in Japanese comedy would be an interesting rabbit trail that could fill up a whole 'nother essay, but to stay on-topic, I'm more interested in why these types of characters don't work as well for Western anime fans, at least not in Cowboy Bebop-loving numbers. (Gintama is beloved by plenty of American otaku, but its fanbase is still miniscule compared to most other Shonen Jump anime.) Now I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that most anime lovers are also fans of other genre media: video games, comic book movies, tabletop RPGs, all that stuff. They're nerds, Janet. Now nerds have an incredibly wide range of tastes and preferences, but thinking back to that Cowboy Bebop level of appeal that Space Dandy couldn't reach, I'm going to start speaking in terms of traits and values that the greatest number of nerds seem to find attractive in a protagonist. Fortunately, I have the perfect example to draw from, because at the exact same time that Space Dandy was fading from discussion, nerd culture was overwhelmingly embracing a different cartoon that starred two extremes of their shared value spectrum.
Now forgive me for painting in broad strokes on this one, but if I don't, we'll be here all day discussing the nuances of these two very popular characters. The short version is that Rick is a smart asshole, while Morty is a dumb nice guy. Sometimes Rick does dumb things and sometimes Morty is mean, but for the most part, the story is driven by the toll that Rick's massive intelligence has taken on his psyche alongside Morty's struggle to be a decent person in a universe where his peabrain is woefully ill-prepared for his grandpa's machinations. While both characters in the show are beloved, the show usually follows Rick's perspective, because nerds are more likely to see themselves in his position. Nerds consider themselves more intelligent than the average person, but many of us struggle with the consequences of this classification, from feelings of isolation and ostracization to mental illness and social disorders, all of which can turn us into the worst version of ourselves and may leave us feeling envious of the people we see as the "normal" Mortys in our lives. Morty has plenty of problems of his own, but because he (initially) feels a greater sense of belonging to the world around him, he finds it easier to be kind and trust others. And because he is kind, nerds will forgive him for being dumb, since he isn't using his ignorance to hurt others as they have been hurt.
Again, this is a topic that should fill an essay on its own, but generally, when it comes to character traits and values, your average nerd has a major soft spot for smart assholes and dumb nice guys, which the creators of Rick and Morty understand as nerds influenced by nerd media themselves. We recognize that it would be great to be super-smart and super-kind at the same time (and many superheroes share both these traits), but our life's experience often leaves us feeling that those qualities can't exist in harmony, so we forgive nastiness when it is tempered with intelligence, and stupidity when it is tempered with sweetness.
Enter Dandy, who emanates the nerd-repellent combo of stupid and mean in his pursuit of cheap thrills, big boobies, and the thinnest of excuses to screw over his equally lazy shipmates. (At least QT tries his best sometimes, but that makes Meow and Dandy look even worse for causing him more trouble.) Dandy's antics can make for a raucous, biting, and uniquely Japanese flavor of comedy when the balance is just right, but the moment the gags stop flowing, he has an uphill climb in trying to win Western viewers' hearts.
After the first episode, I remember seeing many comments that reflected a vision of Dandy as the school bully, a pompadoured wrecking ball who disturbed the barely-stable universe around him for no good reason. Of course, that's part of the joke, but even I have to admit that when the comedy simmered down in the show's more low-key weeks, it was hard to get emotionally invested in Dandy as a main character. While we did get a few sentimental episodes to keep the cast comfortable in their "hero" roles, dumb and dickheaded was usually Space Dandy's MO, and that was never going to be a hit with an audience who could easily see Dandy as the high school quarterback stuffing them into a locker.
I'll always love Space Dandy, warts and all, but its failure to make a lasting impact also reminds me why it's so hard to make art without fear. Sometimes big risks like Dandy won't pay off, but the silver lining is that we can always learn more about what works by observing what doesn't. It may not have hit big when it touched down, but Space Dandy will always remain as a part of anime history, waiting to be discovered and embraced by anyone left starry-eyed from its missed shot at the moon.
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