It’s an empirical fact that Cowboy Bebop is one of the greatest anime series ever made. It’s also an empirical fact that one of its greatest episodes has essentially nothing to do with the show’s emphasis on its protagonists’ futile attempts to escape their dark pasts, nor of its core of existential loneliness: I’m speaking, of course, about “Mushroom Samba.” It’s an impossibly slight episode, where the show’s main cast – Spike, Jet and Faye – are incapacitated by a batch of hallucinogenic ‘shrooms, the reins handed over to prepubescent hacker Ed and Ein, an incredibly intelligent corgi. It has essentially nothing to do with the show’s larger plotlines and has very little in terms of meaningful character development but it is, critically, fun.
I don’t mean to impugn Bebop’s central melancholy – and it’s not like fun and sadness can’t co-exist – but I’d always kinda hoped for a version of the show that shrugged off its character’s miserable backstories to just luxuriate in “Mushroom Samba” style silliness, emphasising the show’s real strengths – musicality, creativity, a rich, varied universe. Thankfully, Cowboy Bebop head honcho Shinichirō Watanabe’s new series, Space Dandy, grants that wish with a first season that delivers thirteen episodes of “Mushroom Samba” to gorge on.
Space Dandy at least superficially resembles Cowboy Bebop, centring its stories on a trio of intergalactic alien hunters (searching for uncatalogued aliens, as opposed to Bebop’s more traditional bounty hunters). They are:
- Dandy (Junichi Suwabe/Ian Sinclair), an extravagantly-coiffed lothario who combines an obsession with a “breastaurant” named BooBies with a complete lack of self-awareness. He’s like a much (much, much) dumber Spike.
- Meow (Hiroyuki Yoshino/Joel McDonald), a “Betelgeusian” (basically: cat person) who shares both Jet’s nonchalant disinterest and Ed’s obliviousness. Like Dandy, he’s very stupid.
- QT (Uki Satake/Alison Viktorin), a vacuum cleaner-slash-robot who, like Ed, is ambiguously gendered and, like Faye, views his/her shipmates’ antics with barely disguised contempt.
The series shares quite a bit with Cowboy Bebop, but diverges sharply when it comes to tone and narrative. Tonally, it’s far more comedic than Watanabe’s first series (and it’s not like Bebop wasn’t funny), but the narrative structure is where the real difference between the two shows becomes apparent. You see, Bebop by-and-large stuck to the same format as American drama series of the 1990s: a series of mostly one-off episodes tied together with an overarching narrative that bobbed in and out of prominence over the course of its twenty-six episodes. Space Dandy, however, essentially abandons a serialised approach altogether: made apparent from its very first episode, where an ill-advised activation of a self-destruct mechanism ends the episode with the main cast exterminated.
So it goes throughout, with the series flipping the rest button with the conclusion of each episode (I gather there’s an explanation for this in season two, but it carries on without comment in the first thirteen episodes). This limits any kind of substantial serialisation or character development, and thankfully the tone suggests that the creators are entirely cognisant of this, with humour and entertainment the main goals. Any time a sense of importance or grandeur mounts, it’s sure to be punctured by a well-timed deadpan quip.
This isn’t to say that Space Dandy lacks any kind of real emotion – in the course of its first season, it scurries through an assortment of absurd scenarios – zombie apocalypses, ramen quests, boob monsters, a riff on The Thing as interpreted by a twelve year old, pod races that become gay romances and an ancient war that could have been lifted from Paul Kinsey’s Star Trek script – but it also finds time for vignettes that approach poignancy. Dandy captures a body-switching alien-girl in an early episode only to develop a touching surrogate father relationship with the girl, and the final episode of the first season stages a romance that, weirdly, reminded me of Eric Rohmer (along with The Iron Giant, Brave Little Toaster, Perdido Street Station and Neon Genesis Evangelion).
The series highlight for me was probably episode ten, “There’s Always Tomorrow, Baby”, which begins with a very Arrested Development-esque introduction (The narrator solemnly tells us: “Previously on Space Dandy, I may or may not have mentioned that the Gogol Empire and the Jaicro Empire are at war for control of the galaxy. But they are. It’s…kind of a big deal.”) but pivots into a Groundhog Day riff. Trapped on Meow’s home planet in a never-ending time loop, it’s the best demonstration of how the show can pair its contempt for its characters with surprising sensitivity.
The best reason to recommend Space Dandy, though, is how it looks and sounds. The show’s gloriously dense art design draws heavily from the 1970s – its concoction of blacklight posters and funky music and disco lighting gave me vivid flashbacks to the cover of the Star Wars disco cassette my parents used to own. But there’s a bit of everything here – much like the show itself – and even in the occasional dud episode, it’s a joy to watch (another empirical fact!).