In 1998 Shinichiro Watanabe created what turned out to be a very accessible anime series for American audiences when he developed Cowboy Bebop. Bebop was a big hit in the United States, even for people who weren’t devotes of the artform in general. It was an easy to watch, action-packed show with a soundtrack that was “cool” in the way “cool” is supposed to be used. It was flashy, but not bright like Dragonball Z or Pokemon. It was soaked in booze and smothered in cigarette smoke and it was a perfect introduction in style and content to a world that a lot of Americans had never given much thought.
The show ran on the very first night of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block of shows in 2001 and continued to rerun through the end of last year. It would be a mistake to say that Watanabe took America by storm and became a household name just as much as it would be a mistake to blindly assume everyone knows the first damn thing about Cowboy Bebop. It’s just more likely that you’ve heard of the show that was supposedly going to be adapted to a live-action version with Keanu Reeves than you have heard of, say, His and Her Circumstances.
You don’t need to know everything about the world of anime to understand Watanabe’s new show that runs on Adult Swim on Saturday nights, but it’ll certainly help. Space Dandy is the story of a man named Dandy who travels the outer reaches of space in search of new species of aliens. He needs to report them to a more-than-global database to make a living and to fuel his real purpose in life: visiting every location of a Hooters-parody restaurant called, well, “Boobies.”
Stay with me.
Bebop isn’t super-serious all the time. The series begins its 26-episode run with episodes about chasing a dog through busy street markets and cheating dealers in casinos. As the story develops the emotional core of the show grows darker and darker until it’s so gritty it gets almost maudlin. Around the sixth flash of a character dropping wrapped roses to the far-away tune of a music box, it brushes against the line between sad and sappy. It doesn’t cross it, though, and in that line lies the ability to make an animated show feel more real than a live-action one.
It’s assuredly unfair to compare Dandy and Bebop. For one thing, Bebop is done. It became much more than the sum of its episodes by the end. Dandy has only had one episode air so far (“Live With the Flow, Baby” which you can watch here) and has a long way to go to develop into whatever it’s going to be. Should you watch it develop? That all depends.
The New York Times praises the animation and calls the worst of the humor “cringe-inducing.” There’s two important things to mention here:
- The New York Times is talking about what is essentially a style parody running at almost midnight on Adult Swim.
- They (for the most part) are doing so correctly.
Dandy (the show and the character) is ridiculous. It’s designed as a parody of traditional anime, which the Times gets right and you can read their piece to read about influences. The first half of the first episode is some of the broadest television that’s ever been broadcast. Dandy’s sidekick (an android vacuum cleaner…kinda) shrieks and worries that they are “breaking the fourth wall” too early. The characters are all ridiculous and if you don’t constantly remind yourself that they’re ridiculous to mock an existing style then they might feel too slapstick to handle.
The parody is so direct that it reminded me of a terrible movie I saw as a kid. Mafia! was ahead of its time in a bad way. It’s also a genre parody that’s the same joke as the Scary Movie franchise. You know mob movies? Here’s every mob movie. That’s the joke! If you don’t know the source material it can feel like it’s just bad jokes.
You should stick around for the second half, though. Dandy captures what he thinks is a rare breed of cat alien, but it’s just a cat. The cat takes Dandy to where the real weird creatures are and the episode picks up from there. There’s no need to ruin the ending, but the variety of creatures and inventive art style are worth the price of admission that the weird opening charges you.
If it sounds like I’m wavering it’s because I am. The bad jokes in the first half are really bad at times and I’m hesitant to recommend this to people as it stands right now. I can do so only because the final animation sequence got an audible “wow” out of me, and it’s really not that often that animation does that anymore. If the show strikes a better balance between the goofs and the interesting universe itself, it will probably find an audience on Adult Swim. For now, though, it’s odd territory on American television that you should still see to believe.
Space Dandy airs Saturday nights on Adult Swim.
Image source: awn.com