It would seem that Space Dandy has ventured so far and wide across the stylistic map that it should have offered something for just about anybody by now – and if your tastes happen to be of an eclectic nature, then so much the better. My suspicion is that just as Episode 5 was the most mainstream and went on to be the most well-liked, this week’s effort will end up being the most divisive. It offers little in terms of comedy and conventional narrative – it’s more or less an extended surrealist doodle. But boy, did it ever work for me.
More so than with just about any series in recent years, it’s crucial to read the credits if you want to know what to expect from an upcoming episode. The director this week is Choi Eun-Young, who’s two things very rare among anime directors – a woman and of Korean descent. More crucially she’s a disciple of Kaiba and Tatami Galaxy director Yuasa Masaaki – whose singular vision tends to be pretty divisive itself – and that aesthetic is all over this episode. I sometimes struggled with Yuasa’s perspective growing tiresome over the course of an entire series, but Choi-sensei’s vision is a spectacular success for this episode (which was written by Watanbe himself, as was the premiere).
In short, I loved pretty much everything about this episode. I have to start not with the visuals, but with the music, which seamlessly blends with those visuals and bathes the entire ep in a bouncy, bizarre and oddly hypnotic rhythm. We’ve come to expect incredible visuals from Space Dandy but these were some of the best – a fabulous riot of colors and irregular shapes constantly in motion in a kind of native dance of the plants. This is psychedelia in a way we rarely see it in anime – if you’ve watched Kaiba (or played LocoRoco) you have some sense of what to expect, but the look of this episode was even more distinctive and spectacular.
It’s fitting that the speech of the sentient plants via Dandy’s wrist translator is halting and deliberate, because that’s exactly how the story is laid out. We have the gang traveling to planet Planta in search of Code D, a rare alien Meow has read about in “Space Adventurer Magazine”. Some kind of force field prevents the Aloha Oe from landing, but happily QT has modded the transporter so that it’s now lightning-fast – unhappily at the expense of accuracy, as it deposits Meow and Dandy in mid-air (and some distance apart). One painful landing later, each comes into contact with one of the two sentient plant species on the planet – Dandy the advanced Vegims, and Meow the tribal Movies – and that’s where the real story begins.
The last time this happened (Episode 6) we got a very straightforward comedy that was an homage to 70’s science-fiction but this is handled in completely the opposite way – there’s nothing broad or conventional about it. What’s happening to Meow (the “foie gras treatment”) is immediately obvious, but most of the focus is on Dandy. He’s collected by scientist Dr. H (the great Mugihito), who’s never seen a human (or any non plant or microbe) and initially mistakes Dandy for a strange plant. We also meet his daughter 033H (Tomoko Kaneda, who does great things with very few words), who’s a surprisingly cutting twist on this particular moe trope.
Dr. H is kind and welcoming to Dandy once he’s been identified, and he too seeks to know more of the mysterious Code D – which emits a hormone that causes plants to expand to even more preposterous size. What he doesn’t realize is that it’s also Code D’s presence (it turns out to have been a meteorite) that gave the plants of Planta their sentience – and when Dandy and 033H (I’m not clear on why her father allowed her to come) go on a magnificently surrealistic journey to find and retrieve Code D, the result is the end of sentience on Planta. Dr. H is sanguine as his evolution reverses itself – “This is not an ending, but a new beginning.” For Meow, it seems, this all happens just in the nick of time – and once again all of the main trio escape the chop (and in an ep where the transporter was used, too).
Any time you try and describe an unconventional story that’s mostly told in image and sound using words on a screen, you’re going to lose most of its essence – and none of the above does justice to the experience of watching this episode with an open mind. I keep falling back on the same words – hypnotic, surreal, psychedelic – and it ends up working quite well on an emotional level too. The entire episode is a triumph of imagination and a ringing endorsement of Watanabe-sensei’s approach of allowing his staff almost total creative freedom in crafting their individual episodes. It’s one of the best episodes in this series, and one of the best of the season.