This is one of those occasional anime episodes that’s no perfect and profound and beautiful that I instinctively don’t want to diminish it by analyzing it. Thank goodness for Space Dandy – that’s really about all I got. Thank goodness for a show that relentlessly takes chances and redefines itself, and for a studio and show-runner who’ve brought in a truly staggering assortment of talent in every aspect of the creative process. Space Dandy itself and the people making it never even dipped a toe in all that “save anime” nonsense, but if somehow this series could provide a model for a way imagination and risk-taking can survive in the medium, it could just do it anyway if anyone is paying attention.
Credit must be given to the staff behind this masterpiece, starting of course with the man who wrote it, Watanabe Shinichirou (whose writing skills I haven’t always praised of late). Watanabe hasn’t had a lot of obvious involvement with Dandy this season, so his writing an episode probably meant it was going to be a milestone – and damn, was it ever. Also of great import is the music by OGRE YOU ASSHOLE (I couldn’t make up these Japanese band names). They contributed the soundtrack and the ED, and both are gorgeous and thematically perfect – from the acoustic Spanish guitar to the dreamy prog rock in the B-Part that was more Pink Floyd than Pink Floyd (after the fact I read an interview with
OYA singer/guitarist Deto Manabu, and he named Pink Floyd as the one band he wished he could jam with). It could not possibly have suited the moment better.
Most critical to all this, however, is Nakura Yasuhiro – who did the episode direction, storyboard, character design and art direction this week (that’s all). Nakura-sensei has been making beautiful anime for three decades, and he has connections to Ghibli and Madhouse among others. He’s been in charge of visuals for Metropolis, the Moomin films, and Nakamura Kenji’s Ayakashi among other projects, so you had to figure this week’s Space Dandy was going to be something special. But if you saw this coming, you’re a prophet.
BONES has set a high bar with Dandy in terms of production right from the start – the show has consistently delivered fantastic visuals, and completed episodes far in advance of airing. But this wasn’t just the most stunning episode of Space Dandy – it might just have been the most impressive anime episode visually since Seirei no Moribito (imagine if The Wall had been produced by Ghibli, and that’s the approximate look). My reaction, honestly, is that it’s quite difficult to believe so much quality could have gone into one 22-minute TV episode – it seems literally impossible. Background after background flashing stunning detail and imagination, sakuga animation everywhere, fabulously weird characters in every corner of the screen – the artistic talent alone is staggering, but it must surely have cost a fortune.
There’s a hell of a story here, too – a dreamlike, psychedelic musing on the meaning of life and death which may very well have important implications for the series’ final arc. The episode starts with a kind of trippy viking funeral, with Dandy (reimagined by Nakura) as the guest of honor. There’s a mysterious girl who always seems to be watching him, Poe (Nazuka Kaori) and a somewhat frightening “tour guide” named Ferdinand (Tsuda Kenjiro). There are creatures who spin “talk to the hand” in an entirely new way and guitarists on sagging power lines and the ghostly landscape of a ruined civilisation. There are fabulous conversations about what it means to live, and to live in fear of death, and of the “little death” of sleep, and food that makes Dandy barf rainbows. There are cable cars that pull themselves along hand-over-hand,
and a chorale of fatalistic penises. And all the while that beautiful music.
It doesn’t take a genius – or long – to figure out that this is a planet of the dead, where the souls arrive with a “black box” containing information about their death. Eventually QT reveals to us that it’s the planet Limbo (fittingly) and Poe explains to Dandy that it once supported a great civilisation that destroyed itself in warfare, and that the souls of the dead acted as a magnet and drew other souls to the planet. Poe is, in fact, the planet itself – the only “living” thing. Dandy’s instinctive reaction to Ferdinand’s description of a “world with no sadness” is horror, as that would surely mean there’s no joy as well, and he determines that he wants to live at any cost – to eat real food and sleep real sleep and, ultimately, to die again. But Poe tells him that he can’t go back to the world of the living – the only thing he can do is go to another dimension (continuity!) where he survived the encounter with the “dark nebula” that killed him, but that would require all the energy of the planet to accomplish. And lastly, Poe tells Dandy that she’s fallen in love with him.
So what happens in the end? As in most dream-like stories of this nature, it appear to be up to us to decide. It seems to me that Dandy makes a conscious choice to return to Limbo and stay with Poe rather than go to the dimension where he lives – which is why we see him “sleeping” on-board the now safe Aloha Oe. Why did the planet itself survive, when we seemed to see it destroyed to send Dandy back? Perhaps that was two different fates for Limbo itself in two different dimensions, I don’t know – but I do love the fact that the nature of Space Dandy eliminates the notion of plot armor and allows the series to end every episode in whatever way makes the most sense for the story itself.
I’m close to giddy about this episode, really, because it’s such a profound triumph of imagination and sheer artistic genius and a reminder of just what TV anime is capable of when it’s in the hands of a great studio, show-runner and visual artist. This is why, while its very structure leads to a certain inconsistency from week to week, Space Dandy is a truly important series and capable of heights of brilliance that few other shows can match. It’s my opinion that a willingness to take risks and to trust the audience is as fundamental as anything to making great anime, and that while these qualities are rarer than they’ve ever been, they’re personified by Space Dandy. Don’t take it for granted, because it’s going to be sorely missed when it’s gone, and there are no guarantees we’ll see its like again.
ED: “White House” by OGRE YOU ASSHOLE