Space Dandy is a series full of magic-- a magic that first reveals itself late in episode 1, during a sequence in which the show's titular hero and his new pal, Meow, are forced to run away from a pack of jumbo-sized, pissed off alien monsters. Most of the sequence, created principally by the animators Bahi JD and Yutaka Nakamura, is done largely without the assistance of storyboards, and it shows, with the “camera” frantically following the duo up and down, and all over the damn place. Dandy and Meow leap and cavort crazily to avoid danger; his helmet shatters, they sink into the liquid body of one of the monsters, and as Meow laughs uproariously at the situation they're in, the pair are electrocuted.
It's in these moments that Space Dandy crackles with boundless energy and joy, like it sprang straight out of the mind of an 11-year-old kid, scribbling frenetically on their older sibling's copy of the July 1981 issue of Metal Hurlant. When chief director Shinichiro Watanabe announced Space Dandy in late 2013, we wondered if it would follow the intense, engrossing tone set by his signature series, Cowboy Bebop. Happily, he takes things in a new direction here, dishing out a broad, silly, and mostly episodic comedy flush with an eye-poppingly variegated color palette and an all-star selection of writers, artists, and animators to bring his vision to life. But Watanabe's influence is rarely overt in Space Dandy; his true genius is in simply assembling the talent, giving them a strong concept, and then getting out of their way and letting them work. The episodes feel like part of a greater whole, but taken one at a time, they are wonderfully diverse and interesting.
As early as episode two, the show's differing creative influences make themselves felt-- scriptwriter Dai Sato, inspired by the collection of tiny ramen shops in his home neighborhood of Kichijoji, sends Dandy and company on a quest for the ultimate ramen. It all ends at the ramen stand at the end of the universe, but not until we get to see a kinetic martial arts showcase, courtesy of Dandy's brusque, ill-humored alien registrant, Scarlet, that calls straight back to episode director Sayo Yamamoto's action fare like Michiko & Hatchin and Samurai Champloo. Later, Ikuro Sato directs a surprisingly apt, affectionate tribute to George Romero's zombie flicks. Even later, there's the one with the sentient plants—and that's when Space Dandy's deeper appeal starts to breach the show's surface.
See, aside from being an animator's playground, a real congeries of crazy artistic vigor, Space Dandy is also couched in a variety of fun science fiction and anime references. Antagonist Dr. Gel, a fabulously-dressed simian mad scientist, is obviously a follow-on to Spectreman's Space Ape Dr. Gori. Episode 7, “A Race in Space is Dangerous, Baby” opens with a direct swipe from Wacky Races, but closes with an extended visual hat-tip to sleeper 80s SF film The Quiet Earth. Episode 10, in which we meet Meow's family, kicks off with a shot of a robot obviously based on Space Runaway Ideon, before tantalizing us with a visual that's ripped from the J9 series and an episode-long running joke about an old mecha part from Gundam. Great, right? Sure. But you can take all of the clever references and callbacks, toss them aside, come at Space Dandy completely tabula rasa, and still have an absolutely fantastic time with the show. The aforementioned episode 9, in which Dandy and company meet intelligent plants and are eventually compelled to return them to non-sentience, is a surprisingly meditative affair. Two episodes later the team meets aliens in the form of a book and a ticket, who use them to hitch a ride back to their home planet—a giant library—and then make them forget it all happened. Courtesy of hard SF writer Toh Enjoe, this episode poses an oldie-but-goodie philosophical quandary: if nobody remembers something happened, did it really happen?
This mixture of high and low is what makes Space Dandy such a compelling series. Anytime Dandy's fixation on Boobies starts to get stale, the show abruptly throws something else at the viewer, be it a lonely space dog, aliens marching off to war over their choice of apparel, or robot coffee makers . Even back at Boobies, you'll start to notice that Honey, Dandy's favorite waitress, is clearly the smartest character in the series, something that you'll have to wait for the second half of the series to learn more about.
Much was made of Space Dandy's music when it was first announced. It's got some involvement from the great Yoko Kanno, and at his Otakon press conference, Watanabe was quick to point out that most of the artists on the soundtrack recorded their music using analog tools, since Space Dandy takes place in a far future where people still listen to cassette tapes for their music. It's good stuff; I'm always tempted to dance along to the catchy opening tune, “Viva Namida” by Yasuyuki Okamura.
Both the Japanese and English audio versions of Space Dandy have their strong points. I'd endorse the dub wholeheartedly if it wasn't for the fact that Junichi Sawabe is so utterly, amazingly hilarious as Dandy. His voice slips and slides across what sounds like four or five octaves as he delivers his dumb jokes and one-liners. The Japanese voices for Dr. Gel and his superior Admiral Perry are kind of the same way—they're respectively played by Unshou Ishizuka and Banjou Ginga, two actors known for their hugely powerful, rollingly deep voices. They sound completely ridiculous in their roles here, and I love it. On the dub side, I like Joel MacDonald's Meow, who sounds a bit like a happy, Disney-style cartoon character, only kind of threadbare from years of hard living. You really can't go wrong with either version.
The copy of Space Dandy I've got under the magnifying glass for the purpose of this review is Funimation's “Boobies Gift Box” edition, which is the limited edition (chipboard artbox and art cards) packed inside of a large, colorful box that prominently displays a typical Boobies waitress's derriere. Or is it her décolletage? It's one of the two, anyhow. Inside, there's a panoply of Boobies goodies—a pennant, a calendar, some stickers, and a mesh-back trucker's hat. These physical extras are kind of a wash; they're actually mostly repurposed convention giveaways. The hat's a fun accessory and the calendar would be great if it featured something a little more varied than (surprisingly low-res) screen grabs of Honey from episode 1, but taken together, they certainly don't justify essentially doubling the price of the regular set.
Thankfully, the on-disc extras are a little more substantial. It's funny, I usually don't go for dub actor commentaries, since they don't reveal much about the actual production of the series. But Space Dandy was dubbed under special circumstances, a project that went global all at once. In the two episode commentaries, we learn that Dandy voice Ian Sinclair also auditioned for Meow and Dr. Gel. We learn that, just like the Japanese cast, the auditioning actors only had key artwork and descriptions to try and sell their voices. We hear from a pair of studio regulars playing bit characters in episode 10, who still get attached to their roles and assign them names. These commentaries are a bit more than just some friendly banter by the cast—they're honestly interesting. The rest of the extras are good to have, particularly the DVD commercials featuring the cast of the show narrating in-character, but given the show's pedigree, it's weird that there isn't any behind-the-scenes animation stuff. Notably absent are a couple of picture dramas created for the Japanese home video release. I'm hoping we get them with the season 2 collection!
I'll also tip my Boobies trucker hat to the “Marathon Viewing” feature, which is a thing of beauty. Select it, and you can cruise right through the entire disc's episodes, handily skipping the intervening opening, ending, and previews. Sure, you'll miss out on seeing some production data, but sometimes you just want to veg out on the couch and watch and watch and watch. I wish that every TV series release had this feature.
Space Dandy's a hell of a dish, one brimming with cool animation, funny jokes and situations, and even a few really interesting, challenging stories. The only ingredient that Space Dandy is too low on is character—Dandy himself is a cipher, someone we never learn anything about, and you can only last so long before you start to wonder when he's going to get a character arc. Along with that, there are a couple of slightly weak episodes. But despite that, more often than not, Space Dandy leaves me grinning from ear to ear. It is so important that shows like this exist, shows that both push the envelope and have tons of fun with the medium. For me, anime is at its best when it's exuberantly showing you stuff that you've never seen before, and Space Dandy's loaded with that kind of magic.