Friday, March 7, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Space Dandy, "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby"

It's hard out here for a plant.
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.

In the preview for this week's Space Dandy episode that followed last week's episode, Dr. Gel (Unshou Ishizuka), the gorilla scientist from the Gogol Empire who's obsessed with capturing the titular alien hunter, complained off-screen about having to die at the end of every story and wasn't too thrilled to learn from his assistant Bea (Kosuke Hatakeyama) that he wouldn't appear at all in the next one. During "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby," I didn't miss Dr. Gel at all.

Easily the most visually stunning Space Dandy episode so far, "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby" proves once again that where Space Dandy excels is not in its slapstick or its running gags like Dr. Gel's incompetence as a villain (Dandy never notices his presence, and if the parallel universes theory regarding Space Dandy's self-contained continuity each week is true, neither do Dandy's parallel counterparts). The blundering villain who's continually unable to catch or kill the person he hates the most is a gag that's been done before, and with much funnier and cleverer results in shows like The Venture Bros. Where Space Dandy excels the most is in its willingness to experiment each week, either story-wise or visually, like general director Shinichiro Watanabe's previous shows Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo often did. As I've said before, Space Dandy has the feel of an anthology, with the only constant being Dandy, QT the robot, Meow and their ship, and with a different animator taking a stab at directing each week (not to mention a different artist being assigned to design each alien world that's visited by the Aloha Oe crew).

Those of the show's haters who wrote off Space Dandy right after its premiere (because of either the fan service during the Boobies breastaurant scene or the mostly forced attempts at humor in that first episode) are missing out on some intriguing excursions into different sci-fi subgenres, whether it's the space race genre a la Redline or zombie comedy. They're also missing out on some just plain good short story writing, like in last week's uneven but enjoyable "The Lonely Pooch Planet, Baby"--which came up with a nifty explanation for the whereabouts of Laika, the ill-fated dog inside Sputnik 2 during its 1957 orbit around Earth--and in this week's episode, the first one Watanabe has written since the premiere.

And now, some examples of why this episode is a great one to get blunted to.
(Photo source: Space Dandy News)
"Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby" finds Dandy and Meow on a search for the latest alien they want to register, a rare creature known as "Code D" who's located on Planta, a planet where the surface's upper half looks as if it's covered in continent-sized Jelly Bellys. Dandy and Meow are forced to rely on the Aloha Oe's transporter to get to Planta because the planet's magnetic field blocks ships from entering the atmosphere. But the transporter, which is as broken-down as QT, accidentally separates Dandy and Meow and sends Dandy into Planta's northern hemisphere and Meow into the southern hemisphere.

Dandy and Meow each discover that Planta is inhabited by giant sentient plants (QT reminds Dandy that he can't register any of them because the Alien Registration Center doesn't reward anyone for registering plants). The plant citizens of Planta are divided into two groups that co-exist peacefully in an 18-state republic: the cerebral Vegims of the north and the Movies of the south, who are more tribal in nature and like to ply their guests with tons of food.

'Shinichiro Watanabe presents Fantasia!'
A kindly Vegim scientist named Dr. H (Mugihito) and his preschooler-ish daughter 033H (Tomoko Kaneda) both become taken with Dandy, the first human they've ever encountered. Like Dandy, Dr. H wants to track down Code D, but for research reasons. He believes Code D is the key to understanding--and perhaps being able to stabilize--the evolution of plant life on Planta, so Dr. H, 033H and Dandy venture off together to the planet's North Pole to find Code D, but with Dandy to stand in for Dr. H and come into direct contact with Code D because prolonged exposure to the energy that it emits doesn't affect humans, while it's dangerous for sentient plants.

Nothing much really happens adventure-wise or comedy-wise during "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby," aside from Dandy and 033H getting briefly chased around by saucer-shaped "federal microbes," Dr. H getting arrested Jor-El-style (along with Dandy and 033H) for defying scientific authorities by attemping to cross the forbidden zone of the North Pole and Meow being fattened up because he himself is to become dinner for the Movies (but he's become too fat and tired to escape). The surreal "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby" is largely a visual tone poem about the beauty of this weird plant world that puzzles and astounds Dandy and reduces him to open-mouthed silence, but fortunately, this episode that's mostly told through visuals and score (and what a delightfully offbeat and Pee-wee's Playhouse-ish score the Space Dandy Band came up with this week) is never boring. Like most great sci-fi, "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby" is about "How and why did we get here?" as opposed to "Shoot dat piece o' chit!," so it reminds me of what Star Trek: The Motion Picture was striving to be, except it's got much more satisfying action and better-looking clothes.

The psychedelic imagery and clever plant/microbe species designs are the work of guest director Eunyoung Choi, who, according to Random Curiosity's review of "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby," is "two things very rare among anime directors--a woman and of Korean descent." Choi is apparently becoming a big deal in Japanese animation, but I'm not familiar with any of her previous work.

Poor QT, turning into Jiminy Glick while sitting on his stool.
After Choi's outstanding visuals and great little bits of character business (my favorite of these is QT trying not to fall off his ill-fitting stool while enthusiastically discussing the transporter) during "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby," I'm now interested in whatever her next project will be. "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby" is the latest example of how Space Dandy's quasi-auteurist approach to each episode--and the range of its material, so that not every story has to involve the formulaic, Inspector Gadget-style villainy of Dr. Gel--are really paying off.

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