Shinichiro Watanabe and the power of creative diversity | Space Dandy: Just plain fun, or “Who cares, baby?”

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For the next ten years after Samurai Champloo, Watanabe would work on a number of various projects, many of which also saw both major and minor involvements from the staff members of his two original shows. Perhaps his most recognized work during this period was as the director for a 2012 adaptation of the jazz-oriented manga Sakamichi no Apollon, to which Yoko Kanno provided the music. But he also worked as a storyboard artist for the 2006 show Ergo Proxy – which both Dai Sato and Sayo Yamamoto were involved in – as well as the music producer for Yamamoto’s two directorial works Michiko to Hatchin (2008) and Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine (2012), among many others. It wasn’t until 2014 though that Watanabe would get together with studio Bones alongside Sato, Yamamoto, Kanno and Nobumoto – all of which at this point were more or less collaborating veterans – for the creation of Space Dandy.

If Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo were two different variations on the blending concept, then Space Dandy can be seen as the utmost peak of it. During its conception, it had one primary purpose: to utilize the many creative talents present within contemporary Japanese animation, but who remain hidden by the frameworks of the industry. So what Watanabe and his buddies essentially did with this project was grabbing a bunch of people working in the industry, and letting them use Space Dandy as their own creative playground. By using a very simple, episodic “planet of the week”-format, in which the main cast for each episode travel to a new unknown planet, there were essentially no restrictions to be held as to what the episodes could contain. As Watanabe expressed it in an interview:

[A]s a concept for Space Dandy, I wanted everyone to be able to have the freedom to create what they wanted without being tied down by lots of rules. I felt that with anime recently there’s a lot of awfully similar work out there, and without even realizing it people are getting stuck in boxes and losing their freedom. So I didn’t want to get stuck in a small box, but to make something that gave the opportunity for more freedom and more imagination. So I created this concept in which in each episode they go to a completely different unknown planet, which means that you can have a completely different style of animation and that still fits in with the idea. I also wanted to collaborate with different creators in each episode. There are an awful lot of talented creators in Japan, but I felt that they didn’t have enough of an opportunity to use their imaginations. This concept would allow me to collaborate with these creators and allow them to use their imaginations, and this way of working in itself is a new style, different to anything that I’ve done in the past.

All in all, there were for both seasons of Space Dandy combined no less than 10 scriptwriters, 20 episode directors, 20 storyboard artists, and 23 animation supervisors involved, including both veterans such as Hiroshi Hamasaki, Masaaki Yuasa, Yasuhiro Nakura and Toshio Hirata, and newcomers such as Kimiko Ueno and So Toyama. Moreover, the show’s production was organized in the manner that for each individual episode there was to be a completely unique set of a writer, director, storyboard artist and animation supervisor working together. It thus contains severe variations in both writing, directing and even visual presentation, as no two episodes have the exact same four main people behind it. The result is a, more so than ever, vast mixture of different stories all told in their own unique way; some episodes are mindlessly comedic, some are grandiose and elegant, some are sincere and down to earth, and some are just downright trippy. Even the visual design shows radical differences from episode to episode, making the show look like everything from this:

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…to this:

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…to this:

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…to this:

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And this is not to mention the huge amount of stylistically distinct sakuga moments that packs up the show (which might have something to do with the involvement of co-director Shingo Natsume, whose only main directorial work outside of Space Dandy is the more recent One-Punch Man, which similarly saw an extensive amount of skillful key animators coming together and showing off their capabilities).

A similar method was also done for the music. Instead of having any one composer or ensemble providing the score, Watanabe asked 20 different artists – all of which he was a fan of beforehand – to each submit three to four songs for the show. These artists include not least Yoko Kanno herself, but also anime score newcomer Kensuke Ushio (whom I felt the need to mention because of his phenomenal work for Ping Pong The Animation), score composing veteran Hiroyuki Namba, DJ Taku Takahashi of the famed hip-hop group M-Flo, guitarist Seiichi Nagai from the rock band Sōtaisei Riron, DJ Hiroshi Kawanabe from the pop trio Tokyo No.1 Soul Set, the funk sextet Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro, indie rock band Ogre You Asshole, rap artist Zen-La-Rock, British band Latin Quarter, and many more. The only rule these artists had at hand was not to use any instrument invented after 1984, in order to give the score a retro-esque vibe to it. Other than that, complete creative freedom was given, resulting in an extremely wide musical catalogue containing everything from jazz-infused funk jams by Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro…

…to a comedically spectacular disco banger by Zen-La-Rock…

…to a relaxed synth pop track by Shutoku Mukai…

…to a bombastic prog rock symphony by Hiroyuki Namba…

…to a laid back Hawaiian tune by Tucker…

…to a low-key hip-hop song by Izumi Macra x Mabanua…

…to a grandiose funk ballad by Junk Fujiyama.

So as is evident in all of its staff departments, the creative diversity is here taken to its maximum level. Much of this is due to the freedom that the production’s lack of unity provides. Whereas the extensive amount of various staff members being involved in its two predecessors still worked together to form a cohesive entity, in Space Dandy such a cohesion is next to nonexistent. This production team is not a holistic ensemble creating a show together as much as it’s a pool of individuals each showcasing their own creative capabilities, to which the show works as a mere template.

This loose form of production is further enhanced by the lack of cohesion within the show itself, both on a thematic and a narrative level. While both Bebop and Champloo had a particular theme serving as the main ingredient that all other pieces ultimately were added onto – Bebop with its space western and jazz theme, and Champloo with its samurais and hip-hop culture – Space Dandy is almost entirely lacking of such a thematic thread. I write ”almost”, because the series does undoubtedly have an overarching stylistic flavor of Daft Punk-induced retro sci-fi (which is, just like with Bebop and Champloo, highly reflected in the score), but unlike its two predecessors, this style completely lacks the same thematic relevance. The show frequently delves into territories where the style’s presence is nowhere to be found, neither is it related to either the blending concept or any of the show’s subject matters. It is just one ingredient among many others; none of which have any thematic purpose.

Narratively, this non-cohesion is just as present. The episodic format that is one of the common denominators throughout this entire trilogy is only in this final installment utilized to its fullest potential. Because among all their uniquely flavored individual episodes, both previous shows still had a main storyline that always hanged in the background and needed resolution in the end; in Bebop it was Spike’s relationship with the Red Dragon Syndicate, and in Champloo it was Fuu’s search for the sunflower samurai. In Space Dandy however, such a storyline doesn’t exist, and the only ”rule” the creators have to cling to is the basic setting and the recurrence of the main cast.

But the show goes even further than that with its embodiment of the episodic format, as it neither has any concerns about general plot continuity. This we saw in Champloo as well, but Space Dandy pushes it to the utmost extreme, not least by killing off the main cast at the end of the very first episode, and then having them naturally reappear in the next. While similar instances actually did occur in both Bebop and Champloo (episodes 11 and 22 respectively), it was in those cases shrouded in ambiguity, and not done with nearly the same blatancy or contextual significance as in Space Dandy. Not only does the show make it clear as day that that the characters does in fact die by the end of episode 1 – with the narrator himself stating: “And here our story ends. Tales of Dandy’s bravery and sacrifice will echo through space for all time. Or not.”, followed by a big title card spelling “The End” – but also the fact that it occurs in the very first episode serves as a statement to both the audience and the individual episode creators, saying that all the reins have been loosened and that everything is allowed from this point on.

Thus, we can see that what makes Space Dandy‘s approach to the blending concept one step above its peers is its non-cohesion, and the lack of restraint that comes with that. Unlike Cowboy Bebop and Samurai ChamplooSpace Dandy doesn’t have any thematic thread that needs to be followed, or any overarching story that needs to be told; it’s simply a bunch of people in the anime industry having fun and showing off their creative talents through a very basic set of characters and setting. Because of its uniquely individualistic production arrangement, its (consequently) severe stylistic distinctions for each episode, as well as its lack of any overall central focus, I’d argue that Space Dandy is as possibly close to an anthology series without actually being one.

However, as creatively loose and free-spirited as Space Dandy is in nature, it nonetheless has all its feet steadily placed on a main cast and an established setting. It centers around its titular protagonist Dandy, an easygoing, self-important and forgetful young man mainly described as “a dandy guy in space”, who together with his two companions – a cheap vacuum cleaner robot named QT and a cat-looking alien otaku named Meow – travel across the galaxy in their spaceship Aloha Oe hunting for unregistered alien species who can give them enough money for the day, more often than not with failed results. Here, we instantly see a strong similarity to Cowboy Bebop‘s setting, but with its four strong yet troubled main characters replaced by a trio of sad yet charming losers, and with its bounty hunting setting replaced with that of hunting down alien species. Space Dandy can even more concretely almost be seen as the chronological continuation of its cowboy predecessor, where humanity has regained its stability as a civilization and is now out to explore the galaxy. The integration between cultures that embodied Bebop has thus been replaced by an integration between alien species; we have extended from our own solar system and its human cultures towards outer space and all the strange life forms and phenomenons that it contains.

With this also comes an extension of the existential themes that subsequently surrounded Bebop‘s setting. If that show was about a lack of identity and belonging in a culturally diverse and unstable society, then this show is about the same thing but in relation to the universe at large. During their travels across the galaxy, our trio constantly stumble upon the strangest of things, much of which is completely beyond human comprehension, and time and time again they are confronted with their own insignificance within the universe. Space Dandy thus showcases a typical exercise in absurdism. Within the philosophical realm, the Absurd refers to the conflicting relationship between two things; the human tendency to seek inherent meaning in life, and her ultimate inability to find any. It centers around our wish to picture ourselves as special snowflakes whose lives have a significant value and purpose in relation to the rest of existence, when in reality we are just one tiny dot among billions of others. This is a fact that our main trio are constantly confronted with on their daily adventures across the galaxy’s obscurities.

What is especially interesting about Space Dandy though is how it tackles this confrontation, which unlike Bebop is done with quirkiness rather than seriousness. In a typical Rick and Morty-fashion, the absurdist incomprehensibility of universe’s vastness is approached with a humorous and nonchalant attitude instead of any sincere concern. Rather than trying to find a sense of belonging among all the galaxy’s weirdness, the show instead comes to terms with the nonexistence of such a belonging and chooses to laugh the Absurd in its face. Lovecraftian horror becomes Lovecraftian comedy.

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Nowhere is this greater showcased than in the personification of Dandy himself. Watanabe has stated that the main idea they had in the creation of this titular character was to make a protagonist with no worries, and see what kind of stories that could come out of that. Thus, Dandy is as far from deep and introspective as one possibly can get, taking one day at a time in a typical Dudeist lifestyle. His biggest concerns in life lies in the most trivial things like spending his time on the Boobies restaurant, and he shows more care in a stray dog and a girl looking for her grandfather than any of the species, civilizations and phenomenons that he frequently faces, whom he mostly has a rather apathetic attitude towards.

Through this carefree character, we time and time again get to face inconceivably strange beings and situations that remind us of how insignificant we are, but are at the same time told how pointless it is to ponder over this fact. Upon realizing life’s inherent meaninglessness, there are essentially two ways to go: either you sit and contemplate about it in despair until the day you die, or you contrarily take it as a positive thing, seeing how it means that you have the freedom to take complete control over your own life and do whatever you want with it. Perhaps Dandy has throughout his many journeys come to this realization and willfully chosen the second option. Or perhaps he was too airheaded to begin with to care. Either way, he is now as we see him living life as he wants, with no concerns whatsoever for philosophical meanderings, existential dilemmas, or anything else outside of his personal interests. Just to give an example of the negation of existential confrontations that this personality entails, here is an excellent scene from episode 12:

As Dandy falls into this intense spiral of identity crisis, trying to figure out if he’s the real him or not, he ultimately reaches the conclusion that it doesn’t matter; what matters is that he’s still the same carefree, Boobies-loving dandy guy. Whereas the Bebop crew tried to find their identities by connecting and settling with their pasts, Dandy sees – in the vein of Champloo – the pointlessness in pondering over past and origin and instead constructs his own identity. It doesn’t matter how or why he came into the world, the only thing that matters is who he chooses to be and what he does with his life. It’s a carefreeness that ultimately comes with a lot of luxury; in situations where others would normally find themselves in an utmost existential crisis, Dandy is completely oblivious. In one sense, he thus manages to ‘solve’ the dilemma that is the Absurd, by straight up erasing its second factor. Instead of bothering with seeking any meaning among all the existentially troubling situations, he just goes along for the ride and tries to maintain his simple image as “a dandy guy in space”.

This nonchalant form of optimistic nihilism is what I’d say encapsulates the attitude of not just Space Dandy the character, but also Space Dandy the show. Just like its protagonist doesn’t even remotely try to find any inherent meaning or purpose to his life, neither does the show itself try to seek or uphold any form of purpose. Space Dandy has no thematic thread, no narrative coherence, and no inherent message. Even the majority of the episodes themselves bear a significant lack of closure in the sense that nothing in particular gets accomplished in the end. In a typical The Big Lebowski fashion, most of them are just a string of events that don’t lead up to any significant or meaningful conclusion, and we are left with nothing to take away from our experience. Space Dandy makes it clear that it is not meant to accomplish anything; there is no overall theme to which the show’s elements are purposefully connected, no message to be taken away, no greater lesson to be learned. If anything, it simply embodies an attitude about letting go of anything that spells seriousness, meaning or coherence and to just have fun. By applying nihilism to its thematic as well as narrative structure and turning it into a liberating force, Space Dandy is able to achieve true greatness.

This third and final show thus presents the very culmination of Watanabe’s episodic trilogy in several ways. Firstly in the sense that the blending concept that has progressed throughout all three shows is taken to its utmost edge, or perhaps more accurately its final form; if Cowboy Bebop provided the foundational basis by introducing the concept, and Samurai Champloo opened up its possibilities more with its anachronistic approach, then Space Dandy unlocked its fullest potential with its nihilistic pointlessness. In a second sense, this final installment also sees the trilogy’s central subject matters come together into a grand finale; we see an extension of the existentialism surrounding Cowboy Bebop, which is tackled with an unconcern similar to that of Samurai Champloo‘s rebellious attitude. But more than anything, Space Dandy showcases what creative freedom is truly capable of; by bringing together numerous talents from all over the artistic spectrum and allowing them to do whatever they want without any restrictions, this show illustrates the very beauty of creative diversity.

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