The welcome news that Space Dandy will indeed be 26 episodes (split cour, with the second presumably coming in the Summer or Autumn) couldn’t have come at a better time, because the series is on a serious roll at the moment. There’s no official word that the second cour will air on Cartoon Network as this season is, but it seems very likely – without the support of CN I don’t know if the series figures to generate enough revenue to support another season. For a show with excellent TV ratings and (projected) mediocre disc sales to continue only in Japan would be a real surprise.
I’ve liked Space Dandy from the beginning (well, after the first 10 minutes at least) despite some peaks and valleys inherent to its narrative style. But I’ve really come to appreciate just how adventurous it is, never treading the same ground twice and acting pretty much independently of anime storytelling convention. Great directors usually produce top-rate anime, and Watanabe Shinichirou is one of the best. He’s never tried to repeat himself, to cash in on his own success by self-plagiarizing – every Watanabe work is different, and he’s taking that to a new level with this series by sourcing top-notch talent from all over the anime industry to lend their vision to the individual episodes.
Compared to some, the names at the top of this week’s staff list are modest – the director is BONES veteran Miyaji Masayuki (who helmed the underrated Xam’d) and the writer Ueno Kimiko, with her fourth contribution to the series (including the classic zombie-themed Episode 4). They may not have star power but they’ve teamed up for one of the best episodes of the season, coming on the heels of last week’s surrealistic masterpiece. This one is totally different, quite traditional visually, striking perhaps the best balance of comedy and seriousness of any episode in the series. And it offers up a plot twist that’s straight out of Hollywood, using it to gently offer some pretty deep philosophical insight.
The episode starts out with the Narrator breaking the fourth wall a bit, teasing us with the possibility that the reason why Dr. Gel and Bea are chasing Dandy might finally be revealed. Instead it’s a brief refresher on the galactic conflict between the Gogol and Jaicro Empires. The latter have just launched their supreme weapon, the A.L.E. (Armed Legendary Equipment – which looks exactly like the galaxy-destroying Ideon). In response Commodore Perry (remember H x H fans, that’s the new Netero voicing him) launches the Gogol’s own C.O.R.E. (Cranium of Raiding Enemies) despite the fact that the “Pyonium control” is incomplete. As with everything Team Rocket does the results are disastrous, but this rare pre-credits snippet is here for a reason despite being hilarious – the Pyonium released when the
Ideon A.L.E. blows up the C.O.R.E. makes it all the way to Betelgeuse, where it plays a crucial role in the premise of the episode.
We haven’t gotten much background on Meow up to this point, but that’s corrected in a big way – what Episode 5 does a good job with for Dandy’s character, this episode does a great job with for Meow’s. Meow is of course a Betelgeusean, and that happens to be the closest planet when the Aloha Oe breaks down beyond the abilities of an enterprising Roomba like Q.T. to fix it themselves. Despite Meow’s protests – rather one might almost say gleefully in spite of them – Q.T. and Dandy take the ship to Meow’s homeworld, with the promise of free lodging and embarrassment for Meow far too much to pass up. Also making its way to Betelgeuse is the aforementioned Pyonian energy, which zaps Meow’s hometown and traps everyone inside it inside a time loop (July 8th) straight out of Groundhog Day.
This whole sequence could have been cliche, saccharine, boring or any combination thereof – but it was none of those things. The scenes between Meow (real name Me#$%*, Mii-kun for short) and his family are genuine, unpretentious, funny and surprisingly emotionally resonant. Betelgeuse is a backwater – a planet with nothing much there except a “NO MICE” road sign – and Meow’s family, a working-class bunch living in a modest, somewhat ramshackle house. There are several younger siblings, a kind and supportive Mom (Ichijou Miyuki), old pals and and old crush. Most importantly there’s Dad (Yamaji Kazuhiro, genuine and utterly convincing), a simple, honest stiff who makes screws in a one-man workshop that not even he can tell you the use of. But it puts food on the table and a roof over the kittens’ heads, and it’s clear from the beginning that Dad isn’t the complaining type.
It’s easy to see why Meow wanted to get away from this place – it’s the same story for kids from small towns all over the world. But just as obvious is the emotional connection to his parents, who’re not at all angry or judgmental about Meow’s decision to flee, even though as the eldest son Meow should have taken over the factory. Meow’s dilemma is a universal one – it kills him to be stuck in this place but leaving it behind he leaves part of himself, too. It takes a while (108 loops, in fact) for any of the BBP trio (Baka, Bonehead, Pinhead) to realize that the days don’t just all seem the same – they actually are the same.
What to do when tomorrow won’t come? One of Meow’s middle school pals says it’s easy, just go to Yahoo Answers – which they do, and quickly are given the reply “Google it, idiot! You probably just forgot to tear the page off the calendar, LOL.” That’s a brilliant gag on so many levels, but it does turn the trio’s attention to the calendar in Meow’s house, which stubbornly resists everything the BBP can throw at it. It falls to Meow’s Dad – “I’ve been a metalworker all my life” – to save the day. Literally, in this case.
I don’t want to make too much of it, but this episode is actually pretty deep. You’d think that being forced to repeat the same day in a place he couldn’t wait to flee would be pure hell for Meow, but he actually begins to appreciate the appeal of it. His old crush Katie (Matsuki Miyu) works as a hostess at “L’il Mama’s”, and there are wistful notions of settling down – though she crushes those by revealing that she’s a lesbian. There’s also a chance to let Meow’s father know that he appreciates him and that’s he’s sorry he can’t follow his path, and a “grass is always greener” realization that a comfortable daily routine has its own charms. The time loop is just a metaphor, of course, a stand-in for the daily routine that’s at the heart of so many lives – and highlights the choice so many young people must make between the lure of adventure and a new vista every day and the knowledge that you’ll never want for a bed, food on the table and people who care about you close-by.
After Meow’s father fixes the time loop (if only it were that easy) there’s a fairly low-key farewell with the family where Dad tells his son that he should live whatever life he wants to lead. A return to the Aloha Oe means a return to that life – and it turns out that not recognizing time loops may be a more common problem than we realize. It’s a beautiful way to close to loop on a beautifully written story, another winner for a show that’s really firing on all cylinders now. It’ll be very interesting to see what sort of series this ends up being in the second season – will this episodic one have been the introduction, or will Space Dandy continue to put on a new guise every week, each episode only loosely connected to the others? I’m not sure which I’d prefer, to be honest – as much as I’d like to see Watanabe tackle a larger plot I’ve become quite taken with the prospect of a completely different style and tone every week, and curious to see where else Watanabe and his team can take us.