Hey poppers, let’s kick off the first post of 2014! Today I’m looking at the newly debuted anime series by Watanabe Shinichiro, who has quickly become one of my favorite showrunners: Space☆Dandy! I will say up front though that this review is somewhat secondary to what I really want to talk about today: the mixing of style and genre in entertainment media, particularly the story-driven kind. Luckily for us, Watanabe has done that for the better part of his career. Alright, let’s do it!
(Photo Credit: BONES / [Adult Swim] / AWN.com)
Space☆Dandy is about a dandy in space, traveling with his space crew in space. Yes, redundancy
seems to be one of the main tools of the trade in this outing, not that that’s a bad thing. So far, the show seems to be about the titular alien hunter who travels the empty void with his useless robot buddy QT, usually broke and with their ship breaking down in some manner. Sounds a bit like Watanabe’s famed Cowboy Bebop, right? Well their favorite activities include bagging aliens (at which Dandy is horribly incompetent, more than Spiegel was with his bounties if you’d believe it), going to their favorite breastaurant called Boobies, and avoiding capture by the mysterious Dr. Gel (which they do surprisingly easily, but only due to sheer luck). There also seems to be an intergalactic war going on, but who cares about that?
Dandy fits together Raygun Gothic and music in a style similar to that in the American 1960s and ’70s. I was going to call it disco, but the soundtrack seems to be more diverse than that, including some sort of horns-heavy genre that I recognize but can’t figure out what its name is (it’s not funk, and I don’t think it’s jazz). But what a combo, right? We may associate the ’70s with one of the most significant periods of national malaise, but the over-the-top nature of each of these elements fit with the show’s intended goal: ridiculous, over-the-top situational comedy. The style of the humor actually reminds me a bit of Robert Moran’s from Unforgotten Realms, except a bit more perverted. And I don’t know about the Japanese version, but there are a bunch of nice pop culture references, such as to Agnes Lum (the inspiration for Urusei Yatsura’s Oni babe, Lum Invader) and “to infinity and beyond.”
But is it funny? There aren’t many laugh out loud moments, but it doesn’t fall flat either. I was discussing this with my brother, and I think the deciding factor will be seeing the same episode in Japanese. At least twice during my viewing of the English dub, I said to myself, “This is probably funnier in Japanese.” Not for any reason that inheres in the language; just because oftentimes in anime, things get lost in translation (especially humor), or a voice actor in one language delivers a line or two (or maybe the entire character) better than in another language. Anyway, in the interest of getting to the next topic, I’m going to wrap this up. Space☆Dandy has a lot of potential, and may not end up being the next Bebop, but I’m sure it’ll be fine for what it is: a lighthearted comedy where nothing make sense so I should just relax. There’s only been one episode, so I’m going to just wait and see (granted, last time I said that was with Golden Time which I got tired of pretty quickly, but I’m keeping an open mind).
So anyway, how about that mixing of styles and genres? I use Shinichiro Watanabe as a model for it because he does a lot of it, but he’s far from the only one. Off the top of my head, I can think of a whole slew of great mix-’n’-match books, movies, TV shows (such as Lost or Twin Peaks), and video games, and I’m sure you can too. The question is, why do we like these mash-ups (or when we don’t, why not)?
I’ve already talked in the past about how Cowboy Bebop feels like a cyberpunk show even though it doesn’t exactly hit all the marks for a cyberpunk outing. It’s a hodgepodge of American and Spaghetti Westerns, jazz music, and detective noir in a sci-fi setting, and this together is enough to make it feel like it’s cyberpunk. Samurai Champloo, depicted in the video above, is a combination of samurai cinema and hip-hop. But to me, Champloo (which means a mix or mash-up) is the result I would imagine if Quentin Tarantino made anime (arguably Afro Samurai already fits that bill, but I think it’s too dark even for Tarantino; it misses out on the flare in Tarantino’s work that I think Champloo reflects much better).
But are mash-up series good for the sake of their being mash-ups? Is mixing really worth that much more to us than playing a genre straight, or simply playing with elements within that genre (such as by deconstruction)? Plenty of works play their own genres straight and do just fine – I recently began watching Tengen Tappa Gurren Lagann for instance, and what I would bill as Gainax “reclaiming” the shonen genre by playing to its strengths rather than trying to be un-shonen. But then Adventure Time does the same for American cartoons targeted at young boys (of course the fandom reaches all four quadrants, but that’s beside the point), and that is arguably a mishmash of Dungeons & Dragons, Legend of Zelda, post-apocalyptic fare, Miyazaki films, and a whole slew of other influences.
Does the fact that Adventure Time manages to cram all those disparate influences into one package make it “better” than TTGL somehow? That seems much too easy, and wouldn’t explain how an original series with mixtures can start a trend and do amazingly well (such as the Matrix, blending Eastern and Western sci-fi, religion, and philosophy into a cyberpunk package), but copycats that use similar ingredients (or make a totally new mix) tend to sputter and die (such as one of my favorite dystopian films, Equilibrium, which flopped but thankfully has since become a cult hit). Is it simply that the first time it’s done it’s new, and the second time it’s passé? That seems too convenient an explanation as well, and tendencies aren’t rules; sometimes a follow-up to a trendsetter can outstrip the original’s success.
Fortunately, I’m not the first guy with a podium to speak about this phenom. And as it happens, the guy who did – Dan Floyd – is the one who inspired me to start Hopped on Pop in the first place. See his thoughts in Extra Credits below:
It’s not that the combinations and wild mixtures “make” Samurai Champloo or Samurai Jack good series (Dragonball and Dragonball Z also come to mind). But creators Watanabe Shinichiro and Genndy Tartakovsky (or so I would assume) looked at their samurai heroes and asked, “What element or elements of ronin stories tend to be a constant barrier to the enjoyment of modern audiences?” If they did ask themselves that question while devising their pitch, I would assume the answer both came to would be about the same: the relative difficulty for a modern viewer to connect with a warrior living in a feudal setting. And even if the modern viewer can connect as they do with fantasy heroes, what can this samurai’s journey show that hasn’t been done and done over for decades, even outside the ronin genre (such as in medieval knighthood tales)? As much as audiences love fantasies and historical dramas (and I love classic Japanese cinema, especially Kurosawa), those genres are so done – pretty much every nook and cranny has been explored by those that played the genre straight. To reach audiences in a way those other works from the genre did or continue to do, you may need to do something really crazy. And what’s crazier than adding to that wandering ronin’s journey a hip-hop soundtrack and graffiti artists, or rave parties and talking dogs?
But as mentioned, not just any crazy mix will do it. As Extra Credits posits, the mix not only has to be original, but ought to serve the work in some area where playing it straight might otherwise constitute a handicap. This is no mean feat, and of course a creator can do everything right and still end up finishing average or last. But the works that do it right, like Cowboy Bebop, succeed because they know what extra or alternative ingredients this particular stew needs to stand out.
Awesome, glad I was able to finally hash that out. Well, this has been swell, but it’s time to get back to work. I’ll see you again on January 21st. Later everyone!