Review by Gino Vega
Anime director Shinichiro Watanabe is probably best known to Western audiences for his work on the series Cowboy Bebop, but in the years since Bebop he’s also been directorially responsible for the shows Samurai Champloo, Kids and the Slope, and most recently Space Dandy.
All of these shows are linked by a common theme: in each, a group of troubled individuals find themselves drawn together into an unlikely alliance, and–as a team–achieve a fuller, more real sense of themselves than they ever could have reached on their own. We saw this process occur against a hipster, futuristic-noir background in Cowboy Bebop, as a pseudo-historical hip-hop/samurai mashup in Samurai Champloo, through the soap operatic realism of Kids on the Slope and, in Space Dandy…well, Space Dandy is a different beast altogether.
Let me preface my review of Space Dandy by saying that, while I enjoyed the show, it’s beyond “not for everyone.” It’s not that Space Dandy is an acquired taste, but rather a taste than one will either “get” or reject immediately, and either response seems perfectly reasonable. Space Dandy is, as the opening segment tells us, a dandy in space. And that sums up the show nicely. Dandy is a well-coiffed male airhead with a sweet pompadour, a Luau-themed spacecraft (the Aloha-Oe), and an obsession with “Boobies” (an intergalactic, Hooters-esque theme restaurant) and females in general.
Space Dandy makes his living (though in the tradition of most Watanabe fare, not a reliable or good one) discovering/coercing/subduing/capturing rare aliens and bringing them to a space station for registration. He does so with the aid of QT, a short, squat, egg-shaped robot/vacuum cleaner with outdated firmware who compensates by consulting print books for information on their quarry, and a Betelgeusian alien named Me#$%* who Dandy and QT mistake at first for a rare bounty. When it turns out that Betelgeusians are quite ordinary, Me#$%* is absorbed into the crew and dubbed “Meow” due to Dandy and QT’s inability to pronounce his name, as well as the fact that he strongly resembles an Earth house-cat.
From there the trio is off, searching for rare aliens with lots of stops in between at both the registration center (where their attempts to collect bounties rarely go well) and Boobies, where they drown their sorrows with the vivacious wait staff. In the meantime, the Gogol Empire is at war with the Jaicro Empire for control of the universe. Admiral Perry, leader of the Gogol Empire, has commanded Dr. Gel–an ape-like scientist operating out of a spaceship shaped like a ball-gagged Statue of Liberty head–to capture Dandy, as Dandy is “the key to the future of the universe.” Dr. Gel and his small, green assistant Bea (a pairing that brings to mind shades of Robotech’s Breetai and Exedore) trail the unwitting Dandy who remains elusive, largely due to a series of flukes and dumb luck.
The catch to all of this–as viewers learn early on in Space Dandy–is that the whole series is a riff on Hugh Everett’s “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum physics. Space Dandy has an extremely loose continuity, many of the episodes being self-contained with some or all of the characters dying at the end, as any given episode of Space Dandy takes place in one of many, if not an infinite number of parallel realities. This is presented to absurd/comedic/intentionally frivolous effect at the beginning of the series, though–without veering into spoiler territory–develops more depth by series’ end.
To some, this is the kiss of death for Space Dandy. What’s the point of sitting through the relatively mundane misadventures of a not-particularly-likeable cast of characters when any dramatic circumstances they find themselves in, including their own deaths, can simply be ignored in the next episode? Still, for viewers like myself, there’s a sort of gloriousness in Space Dandy’s deliberately obtuse continuity: the icing on top of a series that is consistently self-referential, irreverent, absurd, and at almost all points more concerned with style than substance.
And that’s the key to Space Dandy: it’s an intensely stylized show that seems to revel in its own superficiality. Sometimes this is the show’s greatest weakness, as Space Dandy never reaches the emotionally or intellectually compelling heights of Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, or Kids on the Slope, but when Space Dandy is firing on all cylinders it functions as a psychedelic meta-easter egg for fans of anime and science fiction. It’s a chance for those of us inclined toward such things to have a laugh at our own expense, and sometimes that’s just what’s needed in a subcultural world that can take itself far too seriously.
Because of Space Dandy’s disjointed continuity, the relatively self-contained nature of many of its episodes, and the “throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” approach to its writing, it’s no surprise that certain episodes end up being much more memorable/successful than others. Included among Space Dandy’s must-see episodes in my opinion are “The Search for the Phantom Space Ramen, Baby” (a simultaneously hilarious and poignant meditation on aging, lost youth, and ramen), “Sometimes You Can’t Live With Dying, Baby” (possibly the best take on the zombie genre, ever), “The Lonely Pooch Planet, Baby” (a nod to Laika, the Soviet Space Dog that predates the nod given in Guardians of the Galaxy), “There’s Always Tomorrow, Baby” (a Groundhog Day-esque episode about returning home to a small town), and “The Transfer Student is Dandy, Baby” (the definitive word on the high school experience).
Still, even though some episodes aren’t quite as stellar as the ones mentioned above, most of them have their moments, or at least pull things together with an “ah-ha!” moment or gag at the end.
One final note: if Space Dandy sounds like something that might interest you and you haven’t checked it out yet, I implore you to PLEASE seek out a subtitled version as opposed to the English dub. While some anime series work for me in English, I’ve seen Space Dandy both in Japanese and English language format and the show loses a lot without the Japanese voice acting. Subtitled Japanese episodes are available at hulu.com, while Adult Swim has shown the series in English.