Dandy works as an "alien hunter", searching the galaxy for rare lifeforms and bringing them to the "Alien Registration Center" for cash; in practice, however, he spends most of his time womanizing at "Boobies", his favorite restaurant, while aggravating Scarlet, the Registration Center's clerk, with his lame or fraudulent excuses for "rare aliens." With his cat-like Beeteljusian friend "Meow" and robot companion QT in tow, our pompadoured protagonist traverses the galaxy in search of two things: rare aliens and attractive women.
But, that isn't exactly what this series' directors really have in mind....
It may be futile to review Space Dandy, for it is a marvelously diverse series, one whose talented lineups of directors, animators, and scriptwriters vary as much each episode as does the actual genre of the show. It is, indeed, a difficult show to summarize an opinion of: though nominally unified by Shinichiro Watanabe's oversight, the changing lineup of guest directors gives Space Dandy the feeling of an anthology, and I find it highly likely that just as I have my own favorite set of episodes, others who watch this show will find their own list to sport. Overall, however, I view it as a worthwhile showcase of creative energy, and while not every entry is successful, the ultimate result is a pleasure.
There are certainly a few unifying factors to Space Dandy, but the nominal "tales of these alien hunters" promised by an intro reel in the first few episodes isn't necessarily one of them. Indeed, while Dandy's job forms the focus of a few episodes, it's a mistake to view this as the "premise," making my synopsis a bit misleading. It's certainly no coincidence that our main character's role resembles that of the Bebop crew in Watanabe's debut series (indeed, the currency of this universe is the woolong), but Space Dandy isn't much of a successor to Cowboy Bebop in any form; its otherwise fairly weak first episode strikes me as a bit of a trick played on those hoping for such. What does unify the series, however, is the semi-parodic lens through which it views American pop culture and its excesses, with a special focus on the silliness of 50's science fiction movies. Dandy's nominal "nemesis," for example, is a King Kong-esque gorilla decked in an Uncle Sam tophat, whose spaceship is basically what the Statue of Liberty would look like if dressed in bondage gear. I recall one of Justin Sevakis' "Answerman" columns at ANN referring to Space Dandy as something that could only have been made with American audiences at least somewhat in mind, and while I haven't read any interviews with the show's creators, I'd be inclined to believe that. While sometimes over-the-top, this does give the show a silly, surreal, and sometimes just downright bizarre brand of comedy that works well overall; Dandy's favorite restaurant, "Boobies," gave me a good laugh because it honestly isn't terribly far from a certain real-life restaurant chain.
If Space Dandy were just a silly genre-hopping comedy hoping to mock American pop culture, it might quickly get old; thankfully, however, I found that there was a bit more to the show than that. Space Dandy looks fabulous throughout, for one thing, with several of the sequences being imagery porn at its best: in an episode otherwise devoted to a humorous, Seussian sendup of petty Cold War politics, the ending sequence consists of the hauntingly and heartbreakingly beautiful collapse of a planet riven by this war, and Dandy's essentially "space surfing" across the waves generated by the collapse, set to a beautifully warm and shimmering piece of psychedelica. Indeed, the music, performed by a hodge-podge of musicians credited under the moniker of "The Space Dandy Band," is almost uniformly strong. The opening and ending themes are an absolute joy, with the former consisting of a delightfully funky, almost rapped number set to a colorful montage of the show's aliens, and the latter, courtesy of the always fantastic Etsuko Yakushimaru, being an eerie piece of space-pop overlying images of tesseracts (rendered beautifully by Sayo Yamamoto).
Perhaps most importantly, though, I found that the characters did ultimately carry the show through its entire run, which sets Space Dandy apart from some other ventures into the realm of genre-hopping. In Excel Saga, for example, I always felt a bit of distance from the show in that I couldn't care much about Excel herself; in Space Dandy, the title character had grown on me immensely by the end of the series, which incrementally improved my experience as I went along. To be sure, Dandy is something of a difficult-to-like protagonist due to his womanizing and his immaturity, and he sometimes seems like a parody himself, perhaps what Spike Spiegel would look like if crossed with Lupin III's perverted tendencies. I was surprised as the show went along, however, by how much I'd started to care about him: he comes to be defined by an air of taking in this show's myriad of strange worlds, his womanizing being used for comedy when appropriate and relegated to his own self-deprecating sense of humor when the show needs to be serious. Though crass to a fault, he's full of potential in many ways; to say more would spoil too much of the series' ending, which is surprisingly cohesive given the show's structure and gloriously explosive, energetic, and powerful in a manner that would make Hiroyuki Imaishi of Gurren Lagann fame proud.
It's a shame that the other characters don't get as much screen time. Meow gets a rather nice centric episode that focuses on his family and consists of a surprisingly good sendup of the film Groundhog Day, but he doesn't do much besides gawk at Dandy's antics and lounge around otherwise. QT gets pigeonholed into the "straight man" role, with his lone centric episode, centered around a sort of robot counterculture and featuring a rather half-baked romantic subplot, seeming rather flat to me. The show has two recurring female characters, Scarlet and a waitress at Boobies named "Honey;" in spite of their seemingly being pigeonholed, they have a few nice episodes centered around them, with Honey being much sharper than her role as a waitress at this show's version of Hooters would suggest. Still, I came away wishing that they'd been featured more; the two really only begin to appear regularly during the second half of the series, by which time it's a bit too late for them to be established to the necessary degree. Indeed, if there's a weakness to Space Dandy, it's that it can come across as a one-man show around which the show's variety of styles and plots center. Frankly, if you find yourself not liking Dandy after a few episodes, I think that you'll have a hard time getting through the series.
And now I move onto the vast variety of talents involved in this series and its myriad of styles and genres. Among the series' highlights, for me, is a surprise guest appearance by Masaaki Yuasa, director of The Tatami Galaxy and several other fabulous shows; in a style similar to the cartoonish psychedelica of Kaiba, he depicts a dying water-world inhabited by sentient fish, with Dandy's head (by itself) being comically stuck on this planet as an observer. His protege, Eunyoung Choi, similarly appears to direct a rather moving episode about a race of sentient plants. Another one of my favorites, an episode centered around Dandy becoming involved with an old man and his adorable granddaughter in their quixotic search for a mythical fish, comes from a virtual unknown, Kiyotaka Oshiyama, whose art style reminds me somewhat of that of Studio Ghibli, but with a distorted, experimental touch. Another virtual unknown, Akemi Hayashi, directs the fifth episode, a Michiko and Hatchin-esque story centered around Dandy's helping a penguin-like alien (whom he'd initially targeted for registration) to find her grandfather; it's perhaps the first entry that suggests that the show, normally delightfully absurd, is capable of being serious, and features an absolutely gorgeous montage of an interstellar space voyage set to what I'd describe as meticulously crafted space funk. That's not to say that the series' more absurd episodes aren't ever its highlights: I cringed when I heard that the show was going to parody American high school life, but it turned out to be satirically hilarious, and the second episode, Sayo Yamamoto's tale of Dandy and co searching for "the perfect ramen", before finally having it be served by an E.T.-esque alien in a parallel universe, played a large role in convincing me to stick with this series.
Certainly, not every episode hits the mark. In addition to the show's rather weak opening entry, I had a hard time with several episodes near the end of the first season, which included QT's aforementioned episode, as well as the opener to the second season, which essentially ends with Dandies from various universes getting stuck in the same ship and screws itself over by failing to pull the blend of comedy and tragedy off. If Space Dandy has a weakness in regards to its genre-hopping nature, meanwhile, it's that many episodes end on absolute non-sequiters. This is not always one of the show's failings, as a rather amusing episode in which the entire cast is zombified shows, but it can contribute to a sense that the show's staff don't know what they're doing; one particularly weak episode, a rather boring parody of car racing, ends with Dandy having driven so fast that he ascends to a higher plane of existence (!??). I suppose that this became less of a problem for me as the series progressed, due in part to my increasingly liking Dandy and the cast and due in part to the decreased percentage of weak episodes and the increased percentage of episodes like that centered around the world of sentient fish. It does help, I think, to look at Space Dandy as something of a sampler, and as a sampler of talents, it's in fact wonderful: it gives several fantastic directors, some of them unknown and many of them women, the chance to showcase their animation prowess. To Watanabe's credit, I'm inclined to applaud him for using his name recognition to promote lesser-known talents.
In the end, Space Dandy may be a baffling show, and one that will be difficult to watch if you can't warm to its main character, but it's one I highly recommend trying. I came away from it feeling like I'd just spent several hours sampling animation techniques, and it works wonderfully on that front. I highly doubt that you'll love every single episode, but I found that the overall preponderance of the good, both the serious and the silly, made the show a worthwhile endeavor. Don't expect the next coming of Cowboy Bebop; instead, follow our pompadoured friend through a galaxy of warped animation, spacey music, parody, and sci-fi.
Just don't let him choose the restaurant.
Overall a really enjoyable showcase of animation styles and different talents; disparate and not always successful, but fantastic often enough to be worthwhile. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: Not for kids. Dandy is very much a womanizer, whether this is fundamental to his personality or not, and there's enough fan service to make me discourage parents from showing this to children; several episodes are fairly violent, and while this often is slapstick, several episodes (Masaaki Yuasa's among them) feature highly disturbing cartoonish destruction.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of FUNImation (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (26/26)
Space Dandy © 2014 BONES/Project SPACE DANDY
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