Here’s a a measure of just how trippy and weird this show is – this was the episode before the Yuasa Masaaki episode. Watanabe Shinichirou continues to make Space Dandy a revolving door of guest directors and writers (the biggest name attached to this episode is Cowboy Bebop and Wolf’s Rain writer Nobumoto Keiko) and that means you never really watch the same show twice – like the old saying about never setting foot in the same river twice. Over the course of the first season I discussed the positives and negatives (mostly positives) of this at-length, but this episode was a prime example, quite unlike any that’s come before.
The central guest characters this time are Ukeleleman (Furukawa Toshio) and Capybarian (Hisakwa Aya) continuing another Watanabe Space Dandy tradition, that of using seiyuu legends of long standing for guest roles. Ukeleleman is something quite different from what we’re used to with this series, something close to a true big bad – and he’s a genuinely creepy dude. Looking like something that should be hanging from a voodoo priest’s rafters, he “collects smiles” – something that sounds sinister only in a vague and ill-defined way until we find out just what it really means. Somehow he’s gotten a photo of Dandy in happy times, and decided it’s his favorite smile ever – and he invites Dandy to a party, referring to himself (in non gender-specific terms) as Dandy’s biggest fan.
As for Dandy, he’s had a petty spat with Meow and QT and stormed out of Boobies before his Hawaiian pancake tower arrives (damn, those looked good) and gone off on his own when he receives Ukeleleman’s invitation. Meanwhile QT has searched his databanks and come up with a “Mister Misunderstanding” contest he and Meow enter Dandy in – the prize being a year’s supply of delicious food (which does indeed sound pretty sketchy). That gag is pretty high-concept and abstract to say the least, but it’s not a major focus of the episode – though it does prompt QT and Meow to chase after Dandy when they find out he’s won the prize and has to claim it in person.
Things start getting quite unsettling and even macabre from this point on. Ukeleleman’s planet (he lives in a lovely old house) is adjacent to the River of Time – which is exactly what it sounds like. And when the planet or its moons’ gravitational tug is just right the river flows backwards – known (truthfully) as the Pororoca Effect. Dandy finds this out from a helpful native, the aforementioned Capybarian. Meanwhile Meow and QT are having less pleasant interactions with other locals, the Mantisians and the Wigians (along with the Capybarian addressing the Narrator directly when he starts to get a little sexist, the funniest thing in an episode without much comedy) and Dr. Gel and Bea are headed for the planet, planning to capture a past Dandy from the River of Time, as Dr. Gel dreams of seeing his Maman one more time.
Just what is the deal with Ukeleleman? He really is like something from a horror film. Perhaps he is driven by loneliness, but he’s lonely for a good reason – his ukelele casts a fatal spell which turns his victims to stone. He has a veritable grisly garden of them, one which includes Meow and QT after they cross paths with him. Dandy gets as serious and competent as you’ll see him when he sees that – he flees with the stone corpses of his friends and flees towards the River before Ukeleleman can calcify him, proclaiming that he’ll “never smile again”. It’s always cool to see Dandy surf – clearly this is one story he tells of himself that’s not BS – but what happens in the River of Time is some dark stuff. And it seems to leave us with Meow and QT genuinely dead (and of course Dr. Gel and Bea too, but we’re used to that) and a “Tsuzuku” that feels quite different than any we’ve had before.
There’s no question that Space Dandy can get pretty serious when it wants to – much of the second half of the first cour was serious to some degree or another – but this episode had quite a distinct feel to it for me. Those last ten minutes were really somber, alternately very creepy and very sad – and it’s hard to know just how to feel about Ukeleleman and his final moments. In terms of pure entertainment value I wouldn’t rank this among Space Dandy’s top echelon (like I would last week’s ep) but it was among the most effecting, in ways that are hard to put into words. This is a show that never fails to take me to new places, week after week.