Friday, February 14, 2014
"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Space Dandy, "The War of the Undies and Vests, Baby"
Every Friday in "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week," I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.
The premiere of the slapstick anime show Space Dandy generated a considerable amount of buzz at the start of the new year. Space Dandy follows the interstellar adventures of Dandy (Junichi Suwabe), a pompadoured free spirit and captain of the spaceship Aloha Oe who makes a living out of tracking down new alien species and registering them at the Alien Registration Center--which, on the spectrum of outer-space heroics, is equivalent to stripping copper wire and selling it. It's animation director Shinichiro Watanabe's first sci-fi show since Cowboy Bebop, a beloved classic both in and outside Japan, and the new show involves creative talent from both that landmark 1998 work and the beautifully animated Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. Adding to Space Dandy's buzz is the fact that it's actually airing first on Adult Swim in America, as part of Adult Swim's Toonami block, before it airs the following day in Japan. Even the New York Times, which rarely does pieces on anime, devoted a few paragraphs to the Space Dandy premiere, "Live with the Flow, Baby" (the Gray Lady reviewer gave the episode, the only one scripted by Watanabe so far, a mixed review and disliked the amount of lady flesh on display at the Hooters-inspired Boobies, Dandy's favorite "breastaurant").
Now that the hype has died down a bit, how does Space Dandy hold up so far as a Watanabe show? Unsurprisingly, Space Dandy is another visual knockout like Bebop, Watanabe's Bebop follow-up Samurai Champloo and Watanabe's last show, the coming-of-age '60s period piece Kids on the Slope. While Spike Spiegel, Jet Black and Faye Valentine never encountered alien life during their travels on the Bebop (other than one notable exception in the Alien parody "Toys in the Attic"), aliens are everywhere in Space Dandy's much less grounded and much more fanciful sci-fi universe. Perhaps to avoid the sameness in alien character design that made viewers of the '90s Star Trek spinoffs think, "Wow, is everyone who's neither human nor Vulcan born with an Ore-Ida Golden Crinkle fry on their face?," Watanabe has assigned a different creature designer to work on each new alien world that's depicted on the show. You want to hang around forever in this inventively realized and sumptuous-looking universe that's been crafted by the animators at BONES Inc. (the same studio that collaborated with Bebop's Sunrise studio on the Bebop feature film), even though that means putting up with Space Dandy's pompadoured anti-hero, who looks a little too much like Jeffrey Wells, so he has a face that's as punchable as that of either Shia LaBeouf, Ted Cruz or the How I Met Your Mother head writers.
Writing-wise, Space Dandy, which is Watanabe's first largely comedic show, has had a rough start. For a couple of episodes, it looked like Watanabe and his crew were being afflicted with the same ailment that hobbled Steven Spielberg when he made 1941: they're better at creating action or drama with comedic elements than creating an out-and-out comedy. It wasn't until Space Dandy's fourth episode, "Sometimes You Can't Live with Dying, Baby" (which was scripted by Kimiko Ueno), when the humor started to really click and Space Dandy proved it's got more to offer comedically than just Benny Hill-style horny slapstick. It also made better use of the rather forgettable and nondescript villains from the Gogol Empire, represented by the powdered-wig-wearing Dr. Gel (Unsho Ishizuka) and his skull-faced superior Admiral Perry (a reference to Commodore Perry?), whom the continually oblivious Dandy doesn't know are targeting him and his ship for reasons that have yet to be explained.
Zombie genre parodies may be as tired as Her parody videos, but "Sometimes You Can't Live with Dying, Baby" brought a clever spin to zombie comedy, first by killing off Dandy, his robot pal QT (Uki Satake) and their catlike Betelgeusian sidekick Meow (Hiroyuki Yoshino) in the first act--as part of Space Dandy's disregard for continuity, it's the third episode that's ended with either one or all of the three principal characters dead--and then by transforming in the brilliant second act into a bizarre mockumentary about the newly undead Aloha Oe crew's adjustment to zombie life while the zombie epidemic Dandy and QT failed to stop spreads to the rest of the universe. Zombie life turns out to be not all that different from the mundane lives Dandy, QT and Meow led before they were turned. My favorite gag in "SYCLWDB" is the revelation that zombie groans and expressions aren't meaningless. "At first glance, it may seem like zombies just groan, but it has been discovered that zombies actually communicate with their own language," says the show's regular narrator. "Their senior zombie said, 'It's not that bad being a zombie. First of all, you don't have to spend much on food... While it may not be true for all zombies, I eat yogurt every day, and it makes me feel healthier.'"
The equally good episode that followed the zombie story, "A Merry Companion Is a Wagon in Space, Baby," was a complete departure from the Dawn of the Dead-inspired black comedy of "SYCLWDB." It centered on Dandy's reluctant friendship with Adelie, a lonely orphan girl who hates adults like Dandy and possesses unusual mind-swapping powers, and it brought some heart to Space Dandy without unconvincingly changing Dandy's jerky, self-centered and misogynist self (the show has started mocking his misogyny like what Johnny Bravo used to do with its title character, instead of further glorifying Dandy's frequent objectification of women, which was the Gray Lady's biggest beef with "Live with the Flow, Baby"). This week's Space Dandy episode, "The War of the Undies and Vests, Baby," in which Dandy gets teased by his friends for being a poser--he's brought along surfboards with him but has never used them because he's waiting to trot them out for some "out-of-this-world big wave"--while they stumble into a senseless, 10,000-year-old space war, lacks the cleverness of the zombie episode and the energy of the road-movie-ish orphan episode. But in a week when almost all the animated shows are in reruns due to the Winter Olympics, "The War of the Undies and Vests, Baby" is the only entertaining game in town, baby.
With its genre shifts from creature feature to road movie and now to anti-war satire in "The War of the Undies and Vests, Baby" (story by Michio Mihara; teleplay by Dai Sato), Space Dandy is essentially an anthology show, with Dandy, QT, Meow and the Aloha Oe as the only constant. Like last week, the trio's search for unregistered aliens to make some quick cash is disrupted by having to be separated from their ship, which, this time, has been damaged by warfare raging above the last remaining moon of Eden, a desolate planet torn apart by the 10,000-year conflict. Only two survivors of the war remain: an old alien soldier who favors undies over vests and his enemy from the side that prefers vests, who have both been fighting since birth over which garment is better. Dandy, QT and Meow attempt to broker a peace treaty between the Undie and the Vestian partly because it's a stupid conflict that needs to end ("If the war were over, you could do all sorts of fun things... You can go to the restaurant Boobies," says Meow to the Vestian), but in keeping with their previous jerky behavior and their desperation for cash, they're brokering the treaty mainly because uniting these aliens would be their ticket to getting them registered.
Star Trek has done this kind of war allegory dozens of times before, with results that have varied from gripping ("Balance of Terror," DS9's "Duet") to unintentionally silly ("Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"). Fortunately, "The War of the Undies and Vests, Baby" opts to be intentionally silly. I just wish it were as genuinely funny as "SYCLWDB" or as interesting as "A Merry Companion." While I like how the soldiers' simple-mindedness is conveyed by having their dialogue written in broken English for the subtitled version of the show, I find it difficult to be as invested in this one-note pair of warriors as I was in the character of Adelie during "A Merry Companion."
What actually makes "The War of the Undies and Vests, Baby" worthwhile are, once again, the epic visuals, particularly during the episode's last two minutes, my favorite bit of animation on the show so far. The Undie and the Vestian, two old dogs who are unwilling to learn new tricks like compromise and peace, wind up accidentally killing themselves at their badly botched peace conference and have rigged the moon to explode. Dandy and Meow's only way of escaping the destruction is one of the surfboards that Dandy was being needled about earlier, which QT jettisons from the Aloha Oe to help them return to the ship. The force of the moon explosion results in the out-of-this-world big wave Dandy's been waiting for, and the ensuing space debris-surfing sequence is spectacularly animated by BONES and accompanied by a Japanese disco ballad about "walking towards the future in search of the selves we'll become." In those two dazzling and dialogue-less minutes, the conclusion does a better job of conveying the episode's message of "Don't waste your life" than any of the prior scenes with the Undie and the Vestian.
The disco music on the show, which defines Space Dandy like how jazz defined both Bebop and Kids on the Slope and instrumental hip-hop defined Samurai Champloo, is why I prefer watching the subtitled version of Space Dandy that's on FUNimation and Hulu instead of Toonami's dubbed version. The FUNimation-produced dub omits both Yasuyuki Okamura's Gloria Gaynor-inspired opening title theme, "Viva Namida" ("Viva Teardrops"), and Etsuko Yakushimaru's even more charming end title theme, "Welcome to the X Dimension." The theme tunes are replaced by forgettable lite-funk instrumentals (Toonami viewers are also deprived of the awesome visuals that the animators created to accompany "Viva Namida" and "Welcome to the X Dimension"). But don't count out the Space Dandy dub. It's better-voiced than most dubs, and my favorite touch in the English version is the Auto-Tuning of cast member Alison Viktorin's voice as the bumbling, technologically outdated QT. Like Hov said about the scourge of Auto-Tune four years ago, good riddance to Auto-Tune, but it works wonderfully here for such a technologically outdated robot character.
Whether subbed or dubbed, Space Dandy has started to live up to its hype in the last three weeks. Space Dandy began as a bit of a disappointment because its first few episodes were more juvenile than Watanabe's previous works, but ever since the zombie episode and the orphan episode, the material has started exhibiting the same kind of range that distinguished Bebop but without becoming a retread of Bebop. What remains to be seen is whether the rest of the series can--to borrow Dandy's own words--go with the flow of those two standout episodes and lead to Space Dandy emerging as another Watanabe classic.