Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Feb 19th 2014
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Space Dandy is a space bum. Nominally he's an alien hunter; one of a brave breed who explores the unexplored, looking for new alien species to register (for a bounty). But really he's a slacker who bangs around the galaxy in his fixer-upper spaceship, getting into profitless adventures with his navigator, the modified vacuum-robot QT, and his partner, the dim-witted cat-alien Meow. Occasionally he also visits a restaurant chain called Boobies.
Space Dandy's first episode is a calling card of sorts. But it's a card that needs to be read the right way.
You can't, for instance, take the episode's quality as the message. In it our lunkheaded hero goes to Boobies, explains his job, gets in a bar brawl, meets Meow, and eventually ends up on a planet with a bunch of monsters where he blows up his ship, the planet, and the monsters along with himself and his crew. It's a marginally amusing construct that rather inelegantly introduces the show's setting and characters while drowning in an ocean of self-conscious wackiness, culminating in its reset-ready gag ending. It is, in short, an acute disappointment. Especially when you take into account that Dandy is the much-vaunted reunion of the creative team behind Cowboy Bebop.
But director Shinichiro Watanabe and his crew of Bebop graduates are doing something sneaky and important with their stupid gag ending. By blowing everything up and killing off everyone, they send a signal. Anything goes, that explosion tells us, and once it does, the show can punch the reset button and at the beginning of the next episode be ready for a whole different anything to go. That sounds like a problem—like a series-length version of the "it was all a dream" device—but screw up one eye and squint at it right and you can start to see it in a different light. Don't look at it as a group of lazy bums bypassing the need for narrative continuity while trolling the audience with their hip comedic nihilism; look at it as a team of talented animators writing themselves a blank narrative check with each new episode.
Because that's what it is. You cannot watch Space Dandy as a serial narrative. It isn't a serial; it's an anthology—a collection of short-form films that just happen to have the same characters (and the same crew). They can begin anywhere and go anywhere and have any tone or purpose they desire. (So long as they don't wholly betray the series' comedic intent that is.) There's a wide, wacky universe to be explored, filled with whatever the animators can dream up, and no narrative rules to constrain them. Watched that way, each episode is a miniature adventure in artistic license. Each week we stand before an experiment, waiting to be shown what mischief this fecund team has wrought with the blank check given to them.
Now mind you, the mischief isn't always great. That's the nature of an anthology. Some entries are inevitably better than others. The first episode is one of the lower points, weighed down as it is by the introductory nonsense that needed doing. The ramen-hunting episode and the episode about a sexy alien with a revolting secret aren't exactly paragons of entertainment value either, though even they are elevated by the wit and unpredictability of Watanabe and his team. The sexy alien episode features a narrative reveal so visually excessive that it knocks you right out of your seat, and the ramen episode deflates its loony silliness with an unexpected shard of melancholy to end on a surprisingly gentle note.
And for every slumpy episode, there's another that is, in its own usually-silly way, totally inspired. Of these, the zombie episode is definitely the poster boy for the show's narrative strategy. In it, Watanabe and company not only have the effrontery to zombify their main cast—including the robot!—but then let the premise keep ambling on, past the run-and-scream horror, past the zombie apocalypse, and onto the post-zombie universe, where a galaxy of zombified aliens live surprisingly normal un-lives. Among the episode's many insights: 1) yogurt is good for zombies, since it helps them ferment rather than rot; 2) zombies can live off of their own life insurance; and 3) most zombie hunters are insurance agents.
A bit lower down the inspiration scale is the episode about Dandy and a little girl who transfers his soul into a stuffed penguin, which follows a well-worn sentimental track and yet somehow manages to be lovely and touching (while also adding a welcome extra dimension to Dandy's lumpish personality). And somewhere in between the two is the episode about an annoyingly silly war between underwear-haters and vest-haters that is actually the ridiculously meticulous set-up to a visual gag so stupid and pointless that it achieves a kind of Zen brilliance.
Watanabe and his merry band deliver all of this wildly variable madness with equally wild visual panache. They have great baseline visuals to work with. BONES' animation is top-notch, as you'd expect with a high-profile venture such as this. It's smooth, adventurous, and gives Dandy's goofy galaxy a tactile depth that a lot of shows lack. Human characters are stylish and fun and very easy on the eyes—even Dandy, who's basically a walking pompadour joke. And the aliens... they're a bewildering bestiary of cartoon space-opera weirdness, frolicking in a galaxy of whimsically improbable sci-fi tech and fanciful planetary frontiers.
Take all of that, wind it up to a fever pitch, and throw it heedlessly in our faces, and you have something akin to Dandy's resting state. Imagine Tex Avery animating John Carter of Mars (the original Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, not the cinematic excrement made from them). There's hardly a bland or unimaginative frame in the show.
The real strength of Dandy's execution, however, has nothing to do with skill of drawing or polish of animated movement. Rather, it's the pure joy of creative freedom. So many of the show's best sequences are sequences where someone somewhere said "wouldn't it be awesome if..." and then spent an entire episode making it happen. Sequences like a curvaceous babe erupting into a mountain of slithering boobs and slathering mouths (followed by Dandy fighting a classically-styled super-robot rumble with the mountain). Sequences like the opening episode's Looney Tunes bar brawl, or kickass lady bureaucrat Scarlet's acrobatic thrashing of a robot army, or the vest/undie war's punch-line, which I cannot spoil but will say is ludicrous, hilarious, totally cool, and almost lyrically beautiful.
That last sequence is also one of the better platforms for Watanabe's score, which he cobbles together from a bewildering variety of artists (Watanabe is a supremely skilled musical archivist, as anyone who has listened to Michiko and Hatchin knows) including of course the great Yoko Kanno. The war's punch-line plays out to the perfect accompaniment of a smooth, vintage pop ballad, which is just one facet of a score that spans rap, rock, classical, and a great many other modes besides, while never being less than tres cool. Kind of, if you think about it, like Dandy itself.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-
+ One of the great creative teams in anime given free rein to do whatever the hell it wants in a universe of its own devising; the zombie episode; wonderfully fun visuals.
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