Last night, Cartoon Network’s late-night action cartoon block Toonami aired the world-premiere episode of Space Dandy, a sci-fi comedy action series produced by Studio Bones and overseen by acclaimed anime director Shinichiro Watanabe of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo fame. Can Space Dandy really be as great as fans expect? Potentially, yes. But is it the anime you really hoped for? Nope, and that’s okay.
Toonami’s been making some serious strides forward these past couple of months. The block kicked off the end of the year with an entire month dedicated to high-profile anime movies, among them Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark film AKIRA and Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars. Just before this, Toonami announced that they had secured the rights to premiere the english dub of Shinichiro Watanabe’s latest anime series Space Dandy at the start of 2014, one day before the Japanese premiere no less.
Anime aficionados and sci-fi fans were, quite understandably, really f*cking excited. After all, the respective name and reputations of both the studio and the director speak to a near unchallenged pedigree of excellence. Bones is responsible for two of the most critically acclaimed animes of the past decade, Full-metal Alchemist: Brotherhood and Soul Eater. And Watanabe’s name nearly speaks for itself, with a reputation synonymous with the standard-bearing quality of his aforementioned series’ Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo; the former famously known for being one of the first “mature” animes aired by Adult Swim’s earliest incarnation and the latter for the exposing the world to the blissful hip-hop musicality of Nujabes (rip).
So why so much outrage, so much detached cynicism? The damn show wasn’t on for more than one episode and people were already calling for it to literally be taken out behind the barn and shot. Well for one thing, it’s the Internet. Most discussions resemble a race to the top to come off as the smarmiest, most passive-aggressively pithy smartass in the entire thread. Take away that, and we’d be absent of a good majority of the people who regularly comment on the Internet.
But it’s more than just the typical knee-jerk vitriol of an invisible online audience. People want to be excited about this series, so why not? The reason is a simple and succinct one.
Space Dandy is not Cowboy Bebop. It’s not trying to be and it never could be. And that’s okay.
Let me explain. Since it first aired on Adult swim way back in 1998, Cowboy Bebop has gone on to be touted as one of the most critically acclaimed animes of all-time and remains a recurring staple of the block’s late-night lineup. And for good reason! Bebop is a sophisticated sci-fi noir action series inspired by the musical motif of turn-of-the-century jazz and American rock. It follows a rag-tag misfit group of bounty hunters with abandonment and/or trust issues, each trying to either reconcile or erase their respective pasts. The crux of Cowboy Bebop’s appeal is its slow-burning subtlety, a pained sobering whisper of existentialism veiled behind a wisping curtain of cigarette smoke.
In the first minute of the show, Space Dandy and his robot compatriot QT travel to an intergalactic “breastaurant” called Boobies on the hunt for booty, both female and extraterrestrial. There they abduct/recruit a cat-like alien they nickname “Meow” who promises to help them discover new alien races in their quest as alien hunters for hire, all the while being pursued by a mysterious “Professor Gel” who travels around in a space ship that resembles the Statue of Liberty wearing a ball-gag. If you didn’t already guess it, Space Dandy is anything but subtle.
Do you see the problem here? No, it’s not that Space Dandy is banal or immature. It’s not because it’s crass or stupid or lacking in any self-awareness. It’s skewed expectations. It’s the unfortunate weight of one director’s legacy and the hopes of one vocal portion of a fan base blown so wildly out of proportion that a tepid 3-minute preview clip is sufficient to move them from starry-eyed euphoria to outright bloodlust.
It’s not Watanabe’s or frankly for that matter Space Dandy’s job to make more people “take anime seriously.” You want people to take anime seriously? Go watch Grave of the Fireflies. Or Barefoot Gen. Or Perfect Blue or 5 Centimeters Per Second or Tokyo Godfathers or hell, why not Ghost in the Shell? If you’re looking for series, try Attack on Titan or Stand-Alone Complex or Baccano or Kaiba or Blue Gender or Alien Nine. That’s not even mentioning the anthologies or one-off shorts or other interesting experimental stuff in between. The artistic maturation or cultural assimilation of anime is not predicated on the output of one director, no matter what he’s made in the past. And if it did, the art-form has a lot more problems than we thought.
Watanabe is not the Orson Welles of anime (that would be Katsuhiro Otomo). It’s time to allow other director to step up to the plate, like Take shi Koike or Mamoru Hosoda. Just because those aren’t household names doesn’t invalidate their contributions to the medium as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong. You can not like Space Dandy. That’s totally fine. I’ll admit, some of the jokes just fall flat and one brand of so-called “fan-service” does not appeal to all audiences or all fans. I might look at you sideways for judging the entirety of a series on strength of one episode alone, let alone an expository premiere, but that’s your prerogative and I respect it as one media-consuming creature to another. But don’t hate Space Dandy because it failed to live up to your rose-tinted and frankly, unfair expectations built on a false estimation of a director. Nostalgia is the glaucoma that blinds us to both the past and the present.
Shinichiro Watanabe is a director known for his affinity for genre pastiche and musical accompaniment. For Bebop, it was sci-fi noir and jazz. For Samurai Champloo, it was a feudal samurai road-trip set to hip-hop. For Space Dandy, it’s a parodic sci-fi comedy with a heavy dose of psychedelic disco funk improv. Watanabe didn’t change or get worse, he’s just jamming with a different band to a different tune. To that I say, jam on. And to his dissenters, I leave you with the wise words of DJ Shadow,
“Keep repeating Endtroducing [Shadow’s critically acclaimed first album] over and over again? That was never, ever in the game plan. Fuck that. So I think it’s time for certain fans to decide if they are fans of the album, or the artist.”