Space Dandy – Just go with the flow, baby

Believe it or not, it’s actually been about 4 weeks since I started writing this post. Every time I get a sliver of free time coinciding with a surge in self-motivation, I’ve been trying to get it finished. The problem is, everytime a new episode comes out, I have to go back to the drawing board and totally rethink my feelings toward the show. But I’m finally starting to get it – there’s no point in trying to form an overall opinion. Space Dandy is that kind of series.

In the same way that Dandy himself is aimlessly and nonchalantly drifting through space, the show has a free-spirited approach that isn’t hampered by things like character development, overarching plot or even basic continuity. It’s looser than your average standalone episode series; in Space Dandy, the episode creators have the freedom to completely change the tone, style and character of the series week-to-week. As a result, we’ve gone from the hyperactive, frivolous stupidity of episode 1, to the more subdued, sentimental notes of the fifth installment, and then bouncing straight into the good old-fashioned episodic fun in episode 6. Space Dandy is all over the place, and there’s no point trying to pin down its fluid nature.

I was disappointed in the first two episodes, because I felt like the show had set itself up as purely silly, hamfisted comedy series. The first episode was a freefalling mess of unrelenting flamboyant nonsense that was more annoying than entertaining. But I’ve enjoyed every episode since then for different reasons, and now I’ve decided to just embrace the unpredictability of the show and take each episode as it comes. It’s like a lucky dip – part of the fun is not knowing what kind of episode you’re going to get!

There is one form of consistency in this series, and that’s the quality of the production. Of course, we would expect no less given that its overseen by one of the arch good-guys of the anime industry, Shinichiro Watanabe. Watanabe pushed Sunrise to their limit with the astounding Cowboy Bebop, whipped up the top-shelf Samurai Champloo with the help of studio Manglobe, and more recently oversaw the nuanced high-school jazz anime, Kids on the Slope. Prior to these large projects, he’s had his hand in a lot of excellent anime work (including co-director of Macross Plus). It’s so nice to see him actively back in the directors role for TV anime again, after being mostly AWOL since Champloo, other than a few collaborative efforts and production assistance.

Combine his presence with the premium talent at Studio BONES, and you have a recipe for sure-fire quality! While I definitely don’t rate Space Dandy among his other greats in these terms, it definitely excels in many ways, and in a different kind of way.

In my mind, there’s an uncommon creative vision behind this series, spearheaded by Shinichiro Watanabe – instead of gathering the staff he’s needed to tell a particular story, he’s assembled a whole bunch of quite passionate creators and given them a loose canvas to showcase their skills. While this certainly isn’t unheard of, it’s cool to see it happen in the context of a big-budget commercial series!

The Animation

The animation is awesome at times. The first episode alone set the bar well above where most studios or directors could hope to reach, putting aside a good few minutes to showcase some truly jaw-dropping action animation.

With the clout Shinichiro brings to a project, I imagine pulling sponsorship is a lot easier, as his anime always have the privilege to push the limits of TV-anime budget. This is nothing to speak of his talents in pulling together some of the best animators in the business and then getting them to produce some of their best work. The list of names involved has been really strong so far, and I’m thrilled to see what we’ll see further down the track. Some notables so far:

As Ben from anipages discusses at length, BahiJD’s sequence from the first episode is just awesome, and was the saving grace of episode 1 for me. BahiJD worked on Shinichiro’s last anime, Kids on the Slope, and raised eyebrows with the individuality he poured into his cut (arguably too much in that case). But he proved his animating abilities and was bought back for this high-profile segment (which goes from when they are launched into space by an alien through to them being zapped while inside the water alien).

I loved his use of effects lines and many layers to convey speed and a fun kind of arbitrary three-dimensional space through which the characters were flung. The scene brings a smile to my face because of the over-the-top, extraneous movements of Meow and Dandy as the flail through space. It has a rough , cartoony charm while still feeling like real human movement and momentum at its core. It’s truly unique and exhilarating animation. I hope he does more in this anime!

Not to be outdone, Yutaka Nakamura’s following sequence presents the same thrilling speed and action-humour but with a smoother and more polished spin. That BahiJD can work alongside Nakamura in a star-animator capacity, at his young age, as a foreigner, is a testament to his hard work and talent!

Episode 5 is the episode that stands out from the crowd the most, bringing a more serious, and character-focused tone. As a result, the design work and animation was more based on realism than comical exaggeration. High-level animator Takeshi Honda , who usually now only works on movie anime, made an appearance this week and brought some strong, expressive acting animation with him.

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I don’t know a lot about the other animators involved, but these particular cuts caught my eye (as well as others since they made their way onto the sakuga booru)  with its difficult layering and 3D camera movement: [1][2]. While it definitely jumps out as limited animation against the rest of the episode, it definitely added a nice touch of action.

But episode 6 is probably my favourite so far.

Most of the work on the episode was handled by a single person, Michio Mihara. He’s credited with doing the story draft, storyboard, animation direction, direction, and did the bulk of the cuts for key animation himself! He even designed the two featured aliens himself! The actual screenplay is credited to the veteran Dai Satou, and the very tight, focused standalone storytelling must be credited to him, but Mihara did come up with the concept it seems.

Mihara, as far as I see, isn’t so well known, but has many achievements to his name as an animator. He has been working in the industry for some time. He worked on some classics like Jin-Roh, where he apparently impressed Okiura with his handling of some of the difficult crowd shots from the riot sequence. He’s one of few animators able to handle large mob scenes like that. He has also done a few anime shorts.

But probably his biggest claim to fame is that he’s one of very few animators who does solo episodes in recent times, since anime required so much more staff to complete. He is particularly famous for Kaiba episode 4, where he handled storyboarding, directing, writing and did all the animation (every key frame and in-between) by himself. That’s one man doing 5170 drawings for the episode by himself. Also of note is his Kemonozume episode 12.

Usually when we talk about stand-out, sakuga animators, we discuss how they express themselves through the movements and idiosyncrasies they apply to the content they’re given to work with. But Mihara seems to be an animator who is creatively driven at a storytelling level. It’s so rare for an animator in commercial anime to have the opportunity to come up with a plot, plan how it should look and play out, and then actually get to enact it to the most precise personal detail. And he doesn’t let the opportunity go to waste.

In a way, there’s probably a different feeling to an episode that’s directed and storyboarded by someone who is also actively an animator as well because they’ll have a more natural focus for what can and will be expressed via animation, not just camera angles and composition.

Here, his overarching presence gives us a tighter narrative and visual coherency than Space Dandy usually provides. In my view, the episode is the most solid entry in the series so far. Despite the unapologetically silly premise of two dying alien species fighting over whether wearing underwear or vests is better, it was surprisingly entertaining and held my attention throughout. This was definitely attributable to his work all the way through. The backbone of the episode, the storyboard, provided a fun pace, interesting layouts and gave the episode its own unique visual flare. Colours were also important to creating such an attractive episode, with the aqua-blue and brown hues of the asteroid planet set against the sharp black void of space, and the red/blue themes of the opposed aliens. I’m sure Mihara at least had a hand in this, as he also has a separate ‘Set Design’ credit for the episode listed alongside the other core staff roles.

His animation seems to be marked by a strong feel for anatomy and thin, scraggly lines, which was evident here. I actually quite liked how his gas clouds looked due to these lines, despite being simple they have a very natural feel to them. But the episode culminated in a really stunning animation sequence of Dandy surfing the gas eruption of the destroyed planet. The flowing movements were mesmerising and suave, as animated by sakuga fan-favourite Hironori Tanaka. He and Mihara were the only two key animators who worked on the episode.

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The segment is very Tanaka, his movement style is naturally very rhythmic in a wavey kind of way, if that makes any sense. What I mean is his characters kind of lurch smoothly from one pose to another. I used to feel that it was actually a weak point of his because it sometimes made his fight sequences feel like they were fought by puppets. But it’s a rythmn of movement perfectly suited to space surfing and results in a great end to the episode. You can really see the difference between his gas clouds (left) and Mihara’s (right).

Of course the scene still benefits from the vision of Mihara, conveyed well in his storyboards.

There’s actually another interesting point to the credits. Apparently Michio Mihara is a fan of the idol duo LinQ, and it seems as though he actually got their help on the episode. He tweeted a screencap of the credits after it aired,  which showed them as Speech Supervisors, and thanked them.

I wondered exactly what a speech supervisor did, and he later clarified with a photo of the storyboard showing their revisions to his dialogue:

I find it so weird and kind of amusing that an idol duo helped him with his storyboard dialogue! I guess idols have a better idea of how ancient underwear-obsessed aliens would communicate!? What a weird collaboration. I also don’t quite understand how their contributions gel with Dai Satou’s work on the screenplay.

The Music

Watanabe also seems to have a strong affinity with music – all of his anime series have put a heavy emphasis on excellent, grabbing music. His collaboration with Yoko Kanno on Bebop remains one of the best musical efforts put into an anime series, and Samurai Champloo wouldn’t have been the same without its juxtapositional instrumental hip-hop sound. The theme of Space Dandy’s music seems to be to not have a theme, and the show’s soundscape is lit up with an eclectic range of collaborating and featured artists, including Yoko Kanno (who arranged the ED).

The soundtrack has been so fun and playful and is an essential ingredient in Space Dandy’s energy. My favourite music moment so far has to be during the action highlight of episode 1. Overall this has got to be one of the best-sounding anime I’ve heard in a long time and I can’t wait for the OST!

The Future

I look forward to what animation and design work future episodes will give us! In particular, I’m really keen to see Keiko Nobumoto’s episode 8. Although her name isn’t well known, she’s essentially the writer behind the Spike story episodes of Bebop, as well as the creator of Wolfs’ Rain. Her storytelling has been absent from the realm of anime for too long now! I hope she delivers an interesting return!

Following the trend of episode 6, that episode looks like the production of that episode will mainly be handled by one man, Hiroshi Shimizu, who originated from studio Oh Pro and has been doing prominent animation in anime for decades. His largest creative involvements have been on Michiko to Hatchin and Kemonozume. I’m expecting a strongly animated episode for Keiko Nobumoto!

4 responses to “Space Dandy – Just go with the flow, baby

  1. Pingback: WRU #6 Winter 2014 – Ribbon! | Sticky Jellyfish·

  2. just saw the latest episode. though the show appears to be silly at first its clear that greater workings are at play here.[spoiler] today’s laika ark dealt with emotions of loneliness and things left unsaid beautifully.. along with the numerous deaths/zombie phase endured by them till now…i can feel something funky is happening to the timeline

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