Ever since the start of its second cour two weeks ago, Shinichiro Watanabe's anthology-like Space Dandy has been edging into more surreal and cartoony territory. The show often contains old Hanna-Barbera sound FX--they're the biggest example of how much '60s Hanna-Barbera slapstick shows like Wacky Races appear to be an influence on Watanabe and the other animators during Space Dandy. The vintage Hanna-Barbera noises are at their most abundant during special guest director Masaaki Yuasa's "Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Baby," the most stoner-friendly Space Dandy episode since "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby," which was guest-directed by Yuasa protégé Eunyoung Choi.
The Korean animator's trippy plant world episode was so clever and imaginatively visualized that I wrote, "I'm now interested in whatever her next project will be." That project turned out to be Ping Pong: The Animation, Yuasa's 11-episode, one-cour adaptation of Tekkonkinkreet creator Taiyo Matsumoto's 1996-97 manga about high-schoolers whose lives revolve solely around ping pong (the manga was previously made into a 2002 live-action film I actually rented and watched right before the Yuasa version began airing, as an appetizer to the show).
Ping Pong, which is worth checking out on FUNimation or Hulu, overcame limited animation (done under a really tight, two-to-three-weeks-per-episode schedule) and some patchy earlier episodes to become an enjoyable and occasionally moving sports anime that drew much of its drama from quieter material (the loneliness of the Christmas season; athletes who are so obsessed with winning that they've forgotten about the joy they used to get out of the game) rather than from whether the ultimate victor would be the cocky and outgoing prodigy in a dorky bowl cut or his stoic and introverted best friend/ping pong protégé. Like the first and sixth Rocky movies, the original Bad News Bears, the original Bring It On and the TV version of Friday Night Lights, Ping Pong is the kind of sports story where the outcome of the final match ends up mattering the least. To borrow that old saying derived from sportswriter/poet Grantland Rice's 1908 poem "Alumnus Football," Ping Pong is not about whether its characters win or lose but about how they play the game.
Choi directed an episode of Ping Pong, as well as the show's rotoscoped end credits sequence of a walk and drive through Ping Pong's seaside town setting. Her closing sequence is a good example of Ping Pong's knack for dazzling visuals despite its limited animation and low budget (another good example is the show's opening title sequence, which features perhaps the best opening theme tune on an anime so far this year, Bakudan Johnny's "Tada Hitori (Only One)," a rugged-sounding anthem that suits Ping Pong's equally rugged visuals and perfectly encapsulates the show's emphasis on fighting for self-respect instead of fighting to be at the top). Just as "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby" was, for me, a terrific introduction to Choi's work, the LeRoy Neiman-like Ping Pong was a terrific introduction to the work of Choi's mentor, who, towards the end of Ping Pong's run, received even greater exposure in America than the kind Ping Pong was getting on FUNimation when Adventure Time aired "Food Chain," a standout "Finn and Jake learning about science" episode guest-directed by Yuasa ("Food Chain" was also one of the first projects from Science Saru, a new animation studio founded by Yuasa and Choi).
Between Ping Pong, the Adventure Time episode and now this Hanna-Barbera sound library-reliant episode that's even more offbeat than most of the already offbeat previous episodes of the same show, Yuasa is experiencing quite a year as an animator. I have no idea how Yuasa can function from only a half-hour of sleep per night, which he did while juggling Ping Pong, Adventure Time and Space Dandy. While I don't think the story in "Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Baby" is anything special (if Ping Pong's a gritty but ultimately life-affirming show about plucking the day and not letting the need to win consume you, "Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Baby" is Space Dandy at its most cynical and Emo Dandy-ish), the crazy, stoner-friendly visuals Yuasa directed while operating on an amount of sleep that's too insane to even attempt are imbued with the same panache Yuasa brought to Ping Pong and "Food Chain." There's an early sequence at a crowded space food court that just looks sensational, and the endless amount of culinary delights amusingly amplifies the torment Meow experiences while suffering from an empty stomach.
used his Facebook account to conduct a search for international animators to help him out on the Space Dandy episode. Two of the animators who submitted reels of their work to Yuasa and were chosen to take part in the episode were Ben Li and Jeremy Polgar, both staffers from Titmouse Inc., the American studio behind Superjail, Metalocalypse, the most recent season of The Venture Bros., the animated version of Black Dynamite and Motorcity, a short-lived Disney show I didn't expect to enjoy but wound up being amazed by its visuals and subversive undertones. So this episode doesn't just boast Yuasa as a guest talent. It also has veterans from Motorcity and a bunch of other enjoyable Titmouse shows.
"Yuasa-san was very open to us using Flash to animate our shots," wrote Polgar on Tumblr, referring to the same software that he and his co-workers deployed to bring Motorcity to life and turn it into one of the best-looking shows ever made with that software. The shots that Polgar referred to take place during a dazzling sequence where Dandy, Meow and the latest alien they've befriended attempt to sail by boat to the alien's homeworld using the strange physics of a planet called Pushy Boyfriend, which they've all been marooned on. The bizarre point-of-view shots in the sailing sequence are reminiscent of Yuasa's remarkable-looking ping pong match sequences on Ping Pong. Complain all you want about the limited animation on Ping Pong, but table tennis rarely looks as striking or as fun as it did on Yuasa's show.
On the planet, Dandy's disembodied head encounters Carpaccio, an astronaut who's been marooned on Pushy Boyfriend for 10 years. The little fish is trying to find a way to return to Planet Girlfriend, which has been stuck orbiting Pushy Boyfriend for nearly 100 years due to Pushy Boyfriend's
Carpaccio arrives on Girlfriend to find that his 10-year absence actually lasted 100 years and that Yoko (Fuyumi Shiraishi), the lost love he's been aching to return to, is still alive, but she's now a Botoxed grandmother who doesn't welcome him back with open arms and is happily married to a dickweed of a fish. He returns to also find out that everyone on the planet is a climate change denier who won't listen to his warnings about the planet being burnt to a crisp. As the sun fries up Girlfriend, the depressed Carpaccio leaps right into the sun to kill himself (there goes another opportunity for Dandy to register another alien) and is greeted in Fish Heaven by a much more friendly Yoko. Back on the Aloha Oe, Meow, who gets offended whenever Dandy refers to him as a cat and insinuates that he eats fish, gives in to his feline side and wolfs down the meal he's been dying for: it's in the form of Carpaccio's broiled corpse.
Frank Grimes-ish Carpaccio is supposed to be darkly funny, but instead, I felt awful for Carpaccio. Rejected by his climate change-denying planet and left without a purpose or reason to live, Carpaccio ultimately finds his purpose: as dinner on someone's table. Some viewers might view Carpaccio's unintentional transformation into a remedy for Meow's hunger as a meaningful act that Carpaccio will never realize is meaningful to Meow, but to me, it's just a bummer. The ending falls flat and could use a little more bite, no pun intended. I would have gone in an even darker direction and written it so that Meow gets what he wants, but then he chokes on a piece of Carpaccio and dies too. Like inept Dr. Gel and his assistant Bea, who, along with Planet Girlfriend, receive a fiery demise this week, Meow's no stranger to dying, so why not kill him here as well? But the flat ending doesn't detract from how much of a visual--and aural--treat "Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Baby" is and how, like when "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby" made me want to see more of Eunyoung Choi's projects, this week's Space Dandy episode is another reason to delve further into the work of one of Japan's cleverest current animators.