Inevitably, Space Dandy was the victim of its own hype. The show marks director Shinichirô Watanabe’s big return to science fiction 15 years after his work on the seminal Cowboy Bebop, which remains an acknowledged gold standard for the anime form in both Japan and the United States. In keeping with the international appeal of Watanabe’s work, Space Dandy is the rare anime series that premieres its episodes in the United States mere hours before they premiere in Japan. That makes every new episode of Space Dandy a de facto global event, and so the series would have to be the next great, groundbreaking anime show to justify such attention and anticipation.
Space Dandy is none of those things. This is a proudly frivolous show, one that delights in its juvenile sense of humor and sneers at the very idea of an ongoing storyline. The show is a surreal throwback to a bygone era of science fiction, like an old Flash Gordon serial or a wacky Superman comic from the Silver Age—if the heroic protagonist were obsessed with butts and breasts. That doesn’t mean Space Dandy is a disappointment. Five episodes into its run, Space Dandy has proven itself to be plenty ambitious, just in a very different way from big brother Cowboy Bebop.
The series premiere of Space Dandy goes out of it way to announce the show’s anarchic, irreverent tone. The show’s titular, pompadour-sporting hero is a freelance hunter for exotic, unregistered aliens in some far-flung future; he travels the galaxy in his broken-down starship, the Aloha Oe, with only a similarly broken-down robot and a useless, feline alien for company. A pre-credits introduction helpfully explains that these are the adventures of “Space Dandy and his brave space crew… in space.” The show’s belief that the word “space” is enough to make anything awesome teeters between earnest and ironic, as the over-the-top vocal performances and character animation are juxtaposed with eye-popping cosmic panoramas.
The premiere in general represents Space Dandy at its absolute silliest, featuring Space Dandy’s lengthy paeans to the finer points of the female anatomy and self-aware gags that shatter the fourth wall in the first five minutes. The whole thing feels like a big joke, one that may well be at the audience’s expense. But the crucial achievement of this first episode is that it demonstrates the limitless potential of Space Dandy’s format. Between Cowboy Bebop and the hip-hop-infused historical series Samurai Champloo, Shinichirô Watanabe has long demonstrated a fascination with mixing styles and genres, and Space Dandy takes that impulse to its logical extreme. The default version of this show may be an intentionally ludicrous space adventure, but most of the episodes aired thus far lose interest in that premise and explore other narrative possibilities.
One episode depicts a solemn, philosophical encounter with an extra-dimensional ramen chef, while another spends half its running length considering whether the universe would be a better place if everyone in it was a zombie. The fifth episode, “A Merry Companion Is A Wagon In Space, Baby” marks an early highlight for the series: It finds Space Dandy begrudgingly leaving his usual immaturity behind to care for an orphaned alien girl. The episode is still a comedy—Dandy wouldn’t spend such a high percentage of the story in the body of a toy penguin if it weren’t—but the underlying emotional beats are played straight, and are genuinely affecting. Both Space Dandy and Space Dandy have heart, even if both prefer to hide it under normal circumstances.
Such one-off adventures reveal the benefits of the show’s cavalier attitude toward inter-episode continuity. Space Dandy sometimes pushes the narrative reset button for the sake of laughs, casually killing off and resurrecting supporting characters on multiple occasions. The fourth episode, “Sometimes You Can’t Live Without Dying, Baby” is so much more compelling because no time is wasted by attempting to cure a sudden-onset zombification. Instead of following those expected story beats, the episode develops its absurd premise of a zombie-based society as far as it can. That’s the kind of unhinged flight of creative fancy that could not easily fit on a show with a more rigid narrative structure—or one with any consistent sense of storytelling whatsoever.
The one constant amid this narrative mayhem is the animation; Space Dandy could be considered a success simply as a showcase for its gorgeous visuals. Its galaxy is depicted as a bright, colorful, and chaotic place; Watanabe enlists a different creature designer for every new alien planet that the Aloha Oe crew visits. This approach has created an astoundingly diverse, visually arresting universe of creatures. The animation is strong enough to sustain the show’s more dramatic, atmospheric moments without overwhelming the shifts back to surreal comedy. Even when the narrative experiments don’t work, the show is always fun to look at.
Space Dandy is far from perfect, and not all of its cacophonous, anarchic elements work. In particular, the evil Gogol Empire’s hapless efforts to capture an oblivious Dandy could soon become tedious if no explanation is offered for their antics. But this initial handful of wildly inventive, constantly surprising episodes has proven the value of Space Dandy’s freeform structure. This might just be the next groundbreaking anime series after all, though not in the way that anybody would have predicted.
Created by: Shinichirô Watanabe
Starring: Ian Sinclair, Alison Viktorin, Joel McDonald, J. Michael Tatum, Alexis Tipton
Airs: Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. Eastern on Cartoon Network
Five episodes watched for review