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In philosophy, “the Absurd” refers to the conflict between (a) the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and (b) the human inability to find any.
Narratively, Space Dandy is, perhaps more than anything, a theater of the absurd. Any time it approaches the illusion of meaning, it is quick to break that down. There are maybe two episodes with clear messages to them, and both are mostly about how life is a pointless repetitive cycle of sitting around. In its second-to-last episode, Dandy has an existential crisis at the realization that he may or may not be the original Space Dandy, but he quickly gets over it when he realizes how pointless it is to keep asking himself. As the opening theme puts it “life is five minutes of introspection.”
The grand finale is one big, epic love story about a vacuum cleaner who falls for a coffee maker, turns into a giant robot, fights a giant battle, wins nothing, and ostensibly kills himself by drinking coffee. He’ll be back in season 2. Whether its in the face of an epic, dramatic struggle full of Bones doing the style of animation they do best and Yoko Kanno providing the moving score that she’s known for, or just in the face of Space Dandy’s crew bumming around, nothing really matters and nothing ever changes. There is no inherent meaning to anything, and Space Dandy is entirely aware of this. It has nothing to prove, really–it’s just a fun show about a dandy guy in space. And its well aware of what it is.
I think there’s more that this episode is trying to say than what I was actually able to comprehend, but in the midst of its confusion, I caught some cool ideas about the nature of what a book, or any other work of art, is.
In this episode, a book-type alien is the curator of the universe’s largest library. In a way, every work of art is a curation of the influences that go into making it. This could never be more true than it is of Shinichiro Watanabe adventure shows, which are always an amalgamation of styles and influences from all over the art spectrum. Each of his shows is a curated library of other works.
We also learn that the book-type alien cannot move, think, or act on its own, but actually possesses others to do those things for it. This makes a pretty fascinating sci-fi take on how art happens, especially when you think of how many writers claim that they don’t really create a story so much as allow it to manifest and live on its own. This is a literalization of that idea–the book is seriously writing itself.
Space Dandy is usually far too broad to really be called a parody, and it doesn’t have a ton of direct references, but damn if there weren’t a number of them in episode 10. That is definitely a Guncannon with GaoGaiGar’s head inside of it. That is definitely Galaga. In a really obscure reference, Space Dandy pulling a rocket launcher out from behind his back looks exactly like the insane final scene of the Takashi Miike film Dead or Alive, which kind of blew my mind. There’s also a rap about using Yahoo Answers, which slayed me as someone who regularly seems to find answers to random questions there.
Anyways, this episode is the most blatant yet about its message. Meow’s planet is obviously just modern small-town Japan, and his whole hang-up is over wanting to not stagnate living a normal life in a one-horse town. But, as we’ll have already known before the end of the episode spells it out for us, the Dandy crew really just sit around and do the same old shit anyways. In one scene, Dandy declares that, “if tomorrow won’t come, [he’ll] just have to chase after it!” But he’s only so desperate to escape this planet so he can go to Boobies, which he does all the time. If anything, he’s chasing after yesterday.
Even though Dandy says to Meow in this episode that “the things we don’t want are the things that happen,” I don’t think Space Dandy is a particularly pessimistic show. It recognizes the laziness and lack of ambition of humanity, but it relishes in the minutia of the every day. It’s less about chasing a big goal or trying to do something totally unique and different, and more about appreciating the things that make the everyday an adventure in itself. After all, no matter how ridiculous the scenarios in this show are, the effects that they have on the characters are pretty much the same. This is a show that is always reliving a new version of the same day, and tomorrow never comes.
I’ve always found it funny how human beings show far less interest in or respect towards plants than we do animals. Even though plants are living beings capable of interaction within their species and expressing states of being, they are so incomprehensible to us that we just can’t relate to them. I remember one time when a vegetarian told me that their diet was restricted to “anything without a face,” and I found myself wondering what significance a face had in determining which life forms were worth consuming.
One of the jokes in the background of Space Dandy is how in this insanely complex universe of countless possibilities, most of the aliens Space Dandy talks to speak with typical mannerisms, and almost all of them are equally interested in the breasts of human females. Space Dandy is a space fantasy after all, rather than a hard sci-fi story, but in episode nine it actually dives into presenting one of the most alien scenarios that I’ve seen in a sci-fi series.
It does this through putting Dandy and Meow on a planet inhabited wholly by plants. If not for the fact that two of the plants are capable of speaking Dandy’s language and giving him a basic outline of what’s going on, this episode would be totally incomprehensible. It’s difficult to tell what the plants are doing or expressing or where Dandy is or what’s happening most of the time, because the world is so alien and unrelatable that we just can’t understand it. Even with our basic grasp of what Dandy and the plants are trying to accomplish, i.e. reclaiming this meteorite, all the steps taken to get this done seem like nothing to the viewer. It’s very pretty to look at and all, but you couldn’t possibly ask me to summarize what actually happens in this episode. It’s a totally alien expression.
Shinichiro Watanabe’s three episodic adventure shows–Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, and Space Dandy–are mostly known for their memorable and lovable casts of lead characters. I think what makes Watanabe’s leads work so well is that all of them manage to be at once immensely cool, as well as immensely lame. They’re always guys who do whatever they want, kick tons of ass, and look cool doing it, but they’re also always down on their luck, destitute, and lonely. Watanabe seems to have at once a big appreciation for the masculine ideas of being a cool guy, but also recognizes how stupid and corny it is to want to be that kind of guy. His characters are like the anti-James Bond. As Film Crit Hulk writes in his epic analysis series on the franchise, James Bond represents the macho ideal of just getting everything you want all the time; being every kind of cool without any kind of fault. Watanabe’s characters, meanwhile, get all of the swagger, and none of the benefit. His characters are not glamorous in any way. They get to be cool at the cost of being happy.
With Space Dandy being Watanabe’s first straight-up comedy series, it doesn’t quite allow Dandy himself to hit the badass highs, nor the bottomed-out lows that the likes of Spike Spiegel or Mugen often did. Space Dandy certainly looks cool, and he gets to be cool at times like when he’s surfing a planet explosion–but nothing in his life is massively dramatic. He manages to get killed or go hungry a lot, but none of it seems to faze him all that much. That’s the funny thing about Space Dandy–even though he’s this ridiculous character in this ridiculous world, he also is stunningly normal.
Just look at the things he cares about, or gets invested in. He’s at his most serious when he’s trying to help a cute little girl reunite with her family, and when he experiences the death of an adorable dog. His biggest concern is getting to spend time in the Boobies restaurant. That’s literally the highlight of his life! He goes out to capture aliens and make money just so he can go back to Boobies. He doesn’t have any big goals or aspirations, nor does he have any real drama in his life. He’s just a normal guy.
Space Dandy isn’t really heroic, nor is he really bad. He only wins about half the time, and usually just because his opponents are even more lame than he is. By episode eight, the flaming-skull-headed leader of the enemy forces turns out to be just some cheapskate boss; and the Gorilla man chasing Dandy across the universe is constantly undercut by his nerdy sidekick. They lose to Dandy without Dandy even realizing they exist.
Everything in Space Dandy’s world is at once a colorful, amazing explosion of adventure, and yet also lame, broken, silly, and strange. Even the storylines aren’t written to be dramatically gratifying, but instead usually turn out to be something totally different from what the viewer first expects. Yet somehow, this is exactly what makes Space Dandy so fun to watch. It’s precisely the fact that it’s taken all the coolest things in the universe and made them totally normal, lame, and ridiculous, that it manages to hit the viewer in a more relatable and “real” way.
Nothing in Space Dandy is written with clear enough intentions to be called a “deconstruction,” or anything like that, but the space race in episode seven is obviously playing with tropes. In countless death race stories, there are a bunch of exuberant characters cheating in their own unique ways, or just being imposing. Usually they try to capture the thrill and speed and passion of racing. Redline and Speed Racer are two magnificent examples.
Comparatively, Space Dandy only focuses on the silly aspects, putting it more in line with the likes of Wacky Racers. And in bit of a twist, Dandy himself actually cheats MORE than any of the others, even ostensibly murdering a lot of other racers in his desperation to win. His rival, the Prince, is hardly painted any better, resorting to his own cheats to try and beat Dandy. In the end, no one even wins. Space Dandy is warped into an endless wormhole of the highest-speed travel in existence and becomes the Buddha or something. I’m not sure if this is a bigger subversion of the racing genre, or just of the idea of narrative structure in itself.
Cartoons tend to be pretty well-defined. There’s a series bible full of drawings of how the characters should look from every angle, what the core of their personality is like, what the core of the show is like, and all the important things that have to remain consistent throughout the series.
In this regard, Space Dandy is no different. The characters have one look most of the time, and only really look different when things get weird. The same goes for the general art style and color palette. Even though Dandy gets weird pretty often, there’s a definite sense of what the “core” of Space Dandy is. It’s an amalgamation of comedy and sci-fi tropes and styles, and an experimental fun time for its team of creators.
But at the same time, Space Dandy breaks a lot of rules. It doesn’t try to always have a point, or have a good narrative structure, or make sense–even internally. I always think back to that favorite phrase of college professors–you have to know the rules to break them. At its foundation, Space Dandy is a proper cartoon, yet it also is full with deliberately improper things.
In a way, episode six has two parts. The beginning and the end are about Dandy’s surf boards, while the mid-section is an utterly pointless plot about Dandy and Meow failing to convince two warring aliens to find peace. Leading into the mission, Space Dandy remarks that “the whole thing is indefinite, isn’t it?” I don’t think Space Dandy is indefinite to the core, but it definitely plays with the idea of being undefined. Was this episode funny? Was it action, or comedy, or drama? Really, the whole thing was one big excuse for an awesome scene of Dandy surfing the explosion of a moon to the perfect music. And that, surprisingly, feels pretty okay.