So – is anime saved? For now, the jury is out and the bag is mixed.
OP: “Viva Namida” (ビバナミダ “Viva Teardrops”) by Yasuyuki Okamura
There are many unusual things about Space Dandy, but perhaps the weirdest for me is this: it’s definitely the first time I’ve seen a TV anime’s first review in the New York Times. I don’t know whether that’s a good or bad thing (I do know it was a mediocre review), and likewise I’m not sure about it premiering on US television (in English) before it premieres in Japan. Expectations for any new Watanabe Shinichirou series (for BONES yet) were already going to be sky high, and when you add in the likes of Satou Dai, Yamamoto Sato, Okouchi Ichirou, Kanno Youko and even Otomo Katsuhiro on the staff, Space Dandy was always going to have a lot to live up to.
I know this for sure – it’s a shame BONES decided to preview the first half of the premiere episode last week, because the second half was much better. Between that mediocre ten minutes and the general resistance anime fans have towards series that debut in English, get written about in The Atlantic (don’t worry, the article was full of mistakes) and, quite frankly, any anime that’s overtly trying to appeal to an international audience the blood was in the water after the US premiere. This was a show a lot of people were waiting to rip apart, and when they saw their chance they took it. Frankly, going into the opener I was expecting the worst.
Well, thank goodness what I got was definitely not the worst. In fact, it was pretty good and the second half even better than that – but you have to judge the episode as a whole. The OP and ED (and BGM) are fantastic and beautifully suit the material (as you’d expect from a Watanabe series) and the second half of the episode is wildly creative, bizarre and legitimately psychedelic. The series looks fantastic start to finish, and the voice cast is excellent (yes, the Japanese dub is much better than the American dub). The problem is that the episode in total is wildly uneven, and so is the humor – though there were several moments that made me laugh pretty hard.
This is of course the second series in three months from a big-name director working with probably his most successful writing partner, and the similarities between Space Dandy and Kill la Kill going in were quite striking. In both cases we have the men involved saying they were going to do a lowbrow, populist show that aims to entertain first, with lots of comedy and fanservice. With no disrespect to Kill la Kill fans – it’s fine for what it is – my low bar going in was that Space Dandy was going to end up like Kill la Kill, and that would be a disappointment. I find that show to be pretty unambitious and repetitive, not to mention fairly unimpressive visually. Better than the average bear, but when a director/writer team like that one – or even more, like this one – steps in, I want something significant because we don’t get that many chances for that in anime.
Visually, at least, it always seemed pretty likely that Space Dandy would escape that fate – a BONES series is going to have a much bigger budget than a Trigger one, and Watanabe is free to indulge his wild imagination without having to use duct tape and CGI. In fact it’s a BONES hallmark to use very little CG even in action scenes, and so it is here – almost everything is gloriously hand-drawn, and I make no bones (pun intended) about the fact that this scores major points with me. BONES has also been more aggressive than any studio (especially since the virtual demise of Gonzo) in trying to make anime that appeal to a broad audience beyond the “house of pies” anime fanbase, and that’s pretty apparent in this premiere – the humor is less about anime tropes and more about space opera and American culture (though there are some callbacks to 80’s and 90’s sci-fi anime, for certain).
If it seems I’m not talking about the plot much, well, there is a reason for that – it’s very, very silly. We have a guy who’s something of a cross between Buck Rodgers, Han Solo and The Big Lebowski in Dandy (a fabulous Suwabe Junichi). In the company of his outdated robot QT (a very funny Satake Uki) he travels the universe registering new alien species for cash – though his real passion seems to be ladies, and specifically their butts. However his fondness for the “breastaurant” chain “Boobies” (an obvious Hooters parody – it’s dumb, but “breastaurant” is a good pun) indicates his interests are broader than that. It at the local Boobies that the pair track down Meow (Yoshino Hiroyuki) a Betelgeusean who may or may not (I was never clear on that) be a new species himself, but who leads Dandy and QT to a planet where he says there are “gentle” species waiting to be registered.
Meanwhile there’s a war between two great empires for control of the galaxy going on, and Dandy is somehow (we get no clue how) involved to the point where the Gogol Empire wants him captured (or dead). Their hit man is Dr. Gel (Ishizuka Unshou), whose henchman is Bea (Hatekayama Kosuke, Nitorin from Hourou Musko and Ginkaku from Uchouten Kazuku). They travel in a space ship shaped (that’s fun to say) like the Statue of Liberty’s head in bondage (subtle, not) and Gel himself looks like Buddy the Gorilla dressed as a pimp. When Meow triggers Dandy’s faulty warp drive all hell breaks loose, and that’s when the episode gets really good. It’s utterly bizarre and packs a relentless energy that totally works for me. The end of the episode is Dandy using a self-destruct hidden in a surfer doll to blow up the planet, his ship, himself and crew. The end. What?
Like I said – the jury is definitely still out, here. As a whole the premiere was certainly about on par with that of Kill la Kill – which is to say uneven but pretty good (and pretty sexist). In fact I might lean towards saying KlK’s was better, but even then I wondered if that premise had legs. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but I feel as if the enormous potential for Space Dandy showed through in the second half. There’s so much talent on display here – the cast is fantastic and the ability to deliver a truly surreal experience in animation is one few directors possess. And some of the comedy in that second half really flew, too – like the reference to the “Tochigi Galaxy” and the world’s slowest transporter on Dandy’s ship (it did everything but say “Buffering”). And next week’s ep is going to be about space ramen – how can you go wrong, there? I have enormous faith in Watanabe-sensei for the simple reason that he’s earned it, and with reportedly 26 episodes (there’s some conflicting information on this) to work with I think there’s a good chance he’ll find the sweet spot and deliver something really funny, sexy and visually spectacular. But for now, I’m taking most of that on faith.
ED: “Welcome to the X Dimension” by Etsuko Yakushimaru