Animé director Shinichiro Watanabe has been father to a couple of the most timeless shows in the genre. His debut series Cowboy Bebop in 1998 was met with international praise and numerous awards, and is credited by critics with helping to bring animé to the West. His feudal-Japan period-piece follow up Samurai Champloo only furthered Watanabe’s reputation as a master of the art.
After nine years spent doing who-knows-what, Watanabe returned to his throne to direct the spectacular, eccentric Space Dandy. While unmistakably a brainchild of the same mind that conceived Bebop, this show is a vast stylistic departure from his past works. All of the sobriety of the first two series is swept away in waves of sci-fi, nonsense, psychedelia, aliens, humor, smart-phones, and boobs.
One episode sees our three unwitting protagonists on an epic quest across space to find the best ramen-stand in the galaxy, and Instagram all their dishes as they go. Another episode turns our heroes into zombies ten minutes in, and spends the rest of the show expounding upon the pros and cons of a completely zombified society. The characters frequently wind up deceased by the time the credits roll, which doesn’t interfere in the slightest with their taking part in the next part of the story.
To be sure, there is a certain glue of a plot attempting to hold it all together, but the chosen story elements are so garishly cliché as to be a joke in and of themselves. Our three protagonists (a space cowboy, a cat-alien, and a robot) search the galaxy for new species of alien to hunt, capture, and register at the galactic census for a small buck. Little do they know, a sinister villain dubbed “Dr. Gel” is hunting the cowboy Dandy everywhere he goes, believing Dandy to hold a secret power that could rule the universe. Dr. Gel reports to an even evil-er villain—some kind of flaming skull thing. The creators’ intentional irreverence is shown even here, by insisting that their sci-fi version of Hooters (called Boobies) takes up more screentime and provides more action than the actual story.
If you’re wondering about the purpose of such a silly-sounding show, you obviously haven’t seen it with your own eyes yet. The opening credits sequence alone is an award-worthy achievement of animation, bursting with a psychedelic mastery of color and line. Every shape here is boldly drawn and brilliantly colored; all limits of visual art seem to have been thrown to the wayside in order to have as much fun as possible.
Space Dandy is striking, arresting, and beautiful. Hordes of strange, unique aliens are present in every episode, made all the more remarkable by the fact that they’ll be forgotten within minutes. The show doesn’t hesitate at all to incorporate very different styles of animation into single episodes; they even go so far as to use a different creature designer for every alien planet the characters visit—and they visit a LOT of planets.
Bound to be underrated at first because of its unwillingness to take itself seriously for more than five minutes, Watanabe’s new series is still a masterpiece that all lovers of visual art will benefit from