Review for Space Dandy: Season One
When it was announced a while back that Shinichiro Watanabe would once again make an anime series set in space, I couldn’t have been alone in keeping my fingers crossed for a Cowboy Bebop Season 2. And I can’t have been alone in having my heart sink just a little when it was also announced that this series, Space Dandy would be an out and out comedy. Let’s face it; we all want more Cowboy Bebop, despite repeated examples that revisiting classic shows is never advisable. As I said, my heart sank a little, but just a little, as this is Shinichiro Watanabe we’re talking about, who is yet to make a major misstep with the anime that he has been associated with. It also turns out that there are one or two points of similarity between Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy.
For one thing, they’re both about a crew of reprobates travelling through space in a beat up ship, constantly trying to make enough money to keep their stomachs filled. Space Dandy isn’t a bounty hunter though, he’s an alien hunter, specifically an unregistered alien hunter; he makes his living by finding the rarest of aliens and bringing them in for registration. Just as you might expect from a Watanabe joint, Space Dandy has exquisite animation and the coolest soundtrack in the galaxy. What you might not expect, is that he took a hands off approach on this one, setting up the characters and the overall arc maybe, but handing each episode off to a different director and letting their creativity run riot. Which is why everyone dies at the end of episode one. The variety of stories, of animation styles, and the quality of the writing made me tune in week after week when the show was first streamed, and I have been looking forward to this home video release with uncommon eagerness.
Space Dandy is the coolest alien hunter around, baby, and on his spaceship the Aloha Oe, with his trusty (read sarcastic) robot QT, he scours the universe for unregistered, rare aliens to register and make a living. That money goes to fulfilling his obsession with the Boobies Breastaurant chain. That is where the delectable Honey works as a waitress, and it’s where he finds Meow, a Betelgeusian who claims to know where some unregistered aliens are, and becomes a trusty (read deadbeat moocher) member of the Aloha Oe crew thereafter. All of Dandy’s efforts are in service of the strict civil servant Scarlet, who judges the rareness of unregistered aliens, and who takes a dim view of the specimens that Dandy usually brings in. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the universe, the Gogol Empire is at war with the Jaicro Empire. Admiral Perry of the Gogol Empire directs the evolved simian Dr Gel, and his minion Bea to hunt down and capture the one man who can guarantee the Gogol Empire’s dominion over the universe, a man named Space Dandy.
And most of that is just salad dressing, as with each new mission that the crew of Aloha Oe take on, you never know just what you’re going to get...
The Collector’s Edition coming out now has rigid packaging, these discs in an Amaray, and a 200 page collector’s book. There will be a standard edition release with just the discs in early 2015. The thirteen episodes of Space Dandy Season 1 (there is a Season 2), are presented across two dual layer Blu-ray discs as follows by Anime Limited.
1. Live with the Flow, Baby
2. The Search for the Phantom Space Ramen, Baby
3. Occasionally Even the Deceiver is Deceived, Baby
4. Sometimes You Can’t Live With Dying, Baby
5. A Merry Companion is a Wagon in Space, Baby
6. The War of the Undies and Vests, Baby
7. A Race in Space is Dangerous, Baby
8. The Lonely Pooch Planet, Baby
9. Plants are Living Things, Too, Baby
10. There’s Always a Tomorrow, Baby
11. I’m Never Remembering You, Baby
12. Nobody Knows the Chameleon Alien, Baby
13. Even Vacuum Cleaners Fall in Love, Baby
Space Dandy gets a 1.78:1 widescreen transfer at 1080p. Spreading the episodes evenly across two dual layer Blu-rays have worked wonders, delivering crisp, colourful, smooth and fluid animation, with no visible artefacts or compression. Given the pop-art complexity of the opening sequence, and the sheer energy in the episode animation (episode 7 has a psychedelic conclusion that echoes a certain Kubrick space epic), Space Dandy certainly gets a worthy transfer here. That’s all the more fitting given the imagination and variety of design that goes into the episodes, from the infinity of alien characters, to the fantastic world designs. One nitpick might be a few moments of digital banding in episode 5 and in episode 13, mostly in darker scenes, and standing out due to the absence of digital banding elsewhere in the release.
The images used in this review have been kindly supplied by Anime Limited.
You have the choice between DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo English and Japanese, with subtitles and signs locked to the appropriate audio track. These are the check discs I received, but it seems that the retail release will also offer French audio and subtitle options. Whether the extra audio track has an effect on the image quality, re compression is something I cannot guess at. I went with the original Japanese audio with subtitles, and was very happy with the experience. The actors really do create vivid and memorable characters, while the subtitle translation really does flow well, capturing the style and quirkiness of the show. The show does make the best of the stereo (check out the Double Dandy Quiz in episode 12), and of course one of the big selling points of the show is the music, really the star of this release.
I had my concerns about the English dub, after all unlike other dubs; this one was fast-tracked to get a simultaneous streaming release for the English version. I gave half an episode a try, and was surprisingly pleased with the quality of the translation, flowing well, witty, and genuinely funny, with solid performances from the cast. I do have my doubts about Dandy’s voice actor, who seems to lack the appropriate levels of cool, while QT’s voice has had a weird vocoder effect applied which I found distracting.
The subtitles are accurately timed and free of typographical error, but I did note that not all of the screen text was translated, most notably the ramen restaurants in episode 2. However given that Meow reads the names out loud anyway, it may have been considered a redundancy. Another, more significant problem is that none of the songs are subtitled, which is a disappointment for the opening and closing themes, but is more worrying for the insert songs as they are story specific. This is a problem that will have to be rectified for Season 2, as that’s the one with the musical episode, the one where Dandy joins a Galactic school of the performing arts.
As mentioned, the check discs I received aren’t the retail release discs, as they lack the French audio and subtitles. Consequently the menus are slightly different, in that you get a French and English menu option when you insert the discs, as well as the audio options.
However, the animated menu appears to be the same, as do the credits pages on both discs, and the extras on disc 2.
The Digital Gallery is one those slideshow galleries that you find on many anime discs, except that this one lasts 17:11, has a quick turnover rate, and offers line art, concept drawings, production artwork and key art, literally hundreds of images in HD, and might be small consolation for those who buy the Standard Edition and miss out on the cool physical book that comes with the Collector’s Edition.
You also get the Broadcast Opening, the Textless Closing, and 2½ minutes worth of trailers, all in HD.
Space Dandy might just be my favourite anime in recent years, even though it’s patently not the best anime. It’s just that it does things completely differently. 99% of anime shows released these days are serialised stories, all ‘tune in next week for the next exciting instalment’ running for 13, 26 or even hundreds of episodes. The anthology shows are the exception to the rule, but I have a soft spot for shows where you can just stick an episode on, enjoy, and feel no commitment to the rest of the series, except through the sheer quality of the show. I can always count on an episode of Mushishi to help me relax and unwind, and not be committed to being tense and uptight, once a week every week for 13 weeks. I have very few anime shows like that on my shelves, but now I have one more, although Space Dandy is more an anime pick-me-up than a show to relax to.
Shinichiro Watanabe certainly created something special for this show, if not altogether removed from Cowboy Bebop. We have Unregistered Alien Hunters instead of Bounty Hunters, the Aloha Oe instead of the Bebop, the universe to play in instead of just the solar system, but the key difference is that Space Dandy is played wholly for laughs. The characters he created are so vivid and likeable, the uber-cool and stylish (in his head) Space Dandy, the sarcastic and fickle robot vacuum cleaner QT, and the mooching alien ‘not a cat, but a Betelgeusian’ Meow. Throw in the vaguely related war between the Gogol and Jaicro empires, with Dr Gel required to capture Dandy, but always missing out. You have Scarlet who works in the Alien Registration Office, who Dandy is always trying to please with the aliens that he captures, and is always falling short, and you have Honey, Dandy’s favourite waitress in his favourite restaurant, Boobies. And of course you have the whole universe to explore. The show’s irreverent style is established from the off, with the quality animation, the music, and most importantly the humour making their presence felt.
And then Watanabe takes these toys and gives them to a different director, a different creative team each week to play with to see what they can come up with, and so we get a wide variety of standalone episodes, where continuity isn’t an issue, indeed given the way some of the episodes end, especially the first one, continuity doesn’t matter at all. With the sheer level of creativity on offer, the episodes can vary wildly in style, story, content and execution, from out and out laugh-fests to something quite melancholy, from high concept sci-fi to lowbrow humour, and as you would expect, not every episode will hit the spot for every viewer. Space Dandy can be a hit and miss experience, but thankfully, as long as you can engage with the characters, there are always more hits than misses.
The misses for me are few indeed. I’m not too fond of the Zombie episode, although many cite it as the show’s high point. It hits its peak at the halfway point, but thereafter it’s really just punishing the one joke that it has. I’m Never Remembering You, Baby has a really awkward visual style that I find hard to watch, with the colours de-saturated for much of the episode, and it even has for a sci-fi, something of an esoteric concept behind it. Speaking of esoteric, I’m in two minds about Plants are Living Things Too, Baby, as of all the wacky ideas this show has, its concept is the most breathtaking in its ambition, while the visual style here is astounding and freewheeling. After all, it’s a planet where plants are the dominant intelligences, and the world they inhabit is being warped by an external force. It is the most ambitious of the Space Dandy episodes in this first season, but it’s hampered by a very simplistic storyline, and it has a rhythmic slow pace to it that is almost somnolent. I really don’t know if this episode is a miss, or if it’s the best show in the collection.
No such confusion for the other ten episodes, which are all consistently entertaining, if not consistent in style and story. The first three episodes are really about setting up the universe and characters, although the second episode skips the alien hunting, and opts for hunting for ramen instead. Episode 3 mixes food shortages, hunting aliens, and Dandy’s love of breasts all in one episode. It’s with the fourth episode that the show really starts subverting its premise, its characters, and varying the stories, although as it’s the zombie episode, I don’t really get to appreciate this until episode 5, a very heart-warming adventure where Dandy goes looking for a rare alien, and finds an orphan girl with bizarre powers instead. The War of Undies and Vests, Baby borrows heavily from Let This Be Your Last Battlefield, a Star Trek episode that featured the last survivors of a pointless conflict, although of course this one plays the allegory for laughs.
Space Dandy also does Redline, with Dandy entering a no-holds-barred space race, which goes full on Wacky Races crossed with the Episode 1 Podrace at times. There’s an episode of Groundhog Day when Dandy visits Betelgeuse and we get to meet Meow’s family. It turns out that it is possible to do Endless Eight in just one episode. The hunt for the Chameleon Alien is a whole lot of fun, with QT learning the wonders of fishing, and Dandy finally pushing Scarlet over the edge. The series ends on another heart-warming touch with an episode that sees QT fall in love with an Espresso Machine.
What’s so special about Space Dandy is the care, attention, and imagination that go into each episode. They are all visually rich expressions of a textured and dimensioned story universe, and they’re all full of wonderful touches and moments of humour. I love that Dr Gel and Bea fly around the universe in a Statue of Liberty head in bondage gear. I love the slightly dopey expression that’s always on Meow’s father’s face. I love the wholly daft humour in the Chameleon Alien episode, I love the Pyonium energy maguffin that fuels so many of the episodes’ twists. Space Dandy is very much a series where you can just randomly stick an episode on and lose yourself for twenty minutes.
So is this the perfect release? You’re certainly getting your money’s worth if you opt for the Collector’s Edition and the 200-page book, while this Standard Edition is priced very attractively. But you might want 5.1 Surround audio for the English track. You might want those theme and insert songs subtitled. Funimation (who recorded Space Dandy’s dub) are releasing their version with 5.1 English audio, and they are apt to subtitle the songs on everything they release. With their extras, the opening is textless, they have the usual Funimation commentaries, and they have one of those Funimation studio featurettes they’ve been doing for high profile releases. They don’t offer a 200 page booklet though, and they do the usual dual and single disc episode split, which will no doubt result in noticeably greater compression than on this release. The odd thing though, given that this release is an Anime Limited/Madman joint, is that the US release appears to be Region A/B.