Space Dandy Retrospective: Shinichiro Watanabe's Successful Failure

Space Dandy Retrospective: Shinichiro Watanabe’s Successful Failure

Eight words are all you need to be introduced to the main character of Shinichiro Watanabe’s 2013 anime Space Dandy.

‘Space Dandy is a dandy guy in space.’

While this gives us a good idea about what to expect from their personality, if we’re being honest, he’s a pretty terrible person. He’s a pervert with an eye for the finer things in life (boobs, apparently), on the hunt for undiscovered aliens across the galaxy in order to make a living, often cutting corners as he does so. While this may be true, he does still look out for his friends, a robot named QT and a Betelgeusian (a cat) named Meow, alongside many of the one-off characters encountered throughout the show.

Space Dandy, from a commercial standpoint, was a failure; not only that, the anime faded from public memory in a way that’s admittedly unusual for a show from a director like Shinichiro Watanabe, known for works like Cowboy Bebop and, most recently, Carole and Tuesday. Upon its announcement excitement for the anime was astronomical, and the anime was seemingly destined for greatness.

The anime was a wonderfully-animated anthology of stories that brought together talent old and new from across the industry to put their own episodic spin on this basic premise. The Space Dandy project masterminded by Shinichiro Watanabe, Studio Bones and others aimed to replicate the international success of some of the director’s previous work, however, this, unfortunately, didn’t happen.

While it may be gone, it certainly hasn’t been forgotten. At least, not exactly. The anime fandom may have largely moved on, but Space Dandy was a revolution for anime upon its release, and its legacy can be felt in many of the biggest anime airing today. From the animators it elevated to success to its impact on the international anime industry in the years which followed, Shinichiro Watanabe’s Space Dandy is perhaps one of the decade’s most influential anime productions.

A Major First Impression

Space Dandy Retrospective: Shinichiro Watanabe's Successful Failure

First, let’s cast our minds back to 2013, to an anime landscape in many ways unrecognizable to the industry today. While many anime, including the majority of Shinichiro Watanabe’s previous anime productions, had found success internationally, the market was still a secondary priority for Japanese animation companies due to its relatively smaller size in comparison to the domestic market. Figures from the Association of Japanese Animators place 2012 overseas revenue from anime at around 240 million yen, a notable yet small amount when considered within the context of an industry whose revenue topped 1.3 billion yen in that exact same year. Almost every production at this time still heavily relied on domestic revenue in order to turn a profit, and with the era of simulcasting through services such as Crunchyroll only just beginning to take off, it was understandable that Japanese companies would turn a blind eye to international audiences. Aside from the occasional international premiere, guest appearance at anime conventions around the world and a delayed home video release, the international market was mostly shunned.

It was against this backdrop that Shinichiro Watanabe used a panel at 2013’s Otakon to announce a brand new anime production predominantly targeted at international anime fans known as Space Dandy. Not only was the initial announcement geared more towards fans in the US than it was for fans back in Japan, it was also revealed that the anime would receive a simultaneous television broadcast within the United States on the then-recently revived Toonami block on Cartoon Network not long after this event. An English dubbed version of the anime would air at midnight every week on Toonami, before the initial broadcast in Japan, pioneering the now-common process of simul-dubbing.

The excitement that surrounded this reveal was immense. When considering the beloved names collaborating on this project, from the likes of Dai Sato to Masaaki Yuasa and Yoko Kanno, it’s no wonder people were salivating over the prospect of what this anime could potentially deliver.

What Went Wrong?

Space Dandy, for all its positive aspects, suffered from poor communication in the build-up to its release which impacted audience reactions to the show after expecting something different. Without the momentum of the word of mouth as those fans fell away from the anime, the show then suffered in the long run, in spite of a strong critical reception. Just a few years later, the anime and its characters were all but forgotten. With lackluster success in Japan as well, the anime was recognized as failing to receive the audience reaction they had initially hoped for in a later interview conducted by Anime News Network with Studio Bones president Masahiko Minami.

Which is incredibly disappointing! However, it is understandable. Before Space Dandy’s premiere, Shinichiro Watanabe made sure to note how he wanted this show to act as an anthology that could offer a unique experience every week. ‘Every week the main characters will go to different stars, but from star to star, entirely different themes will be explored… there will be different art styles, different moods, different directing styles, all completely unique for each episode.’. While the idea here is clear, and the anime always set itself out as more of a comedic piece, this message never seemed to reach general audiences who expected something rather different from the final product.

Personally, I don’t feel Space Dandy’s opening episode succeeds at the crucial job of introducing new audiences into the anime and into Shinichiro Watanabe’s world for the very first time. While each episode of the anime featured a huge array of one-off characters, I feel this opening episode tries to introduce too many ideas and characters at once for many people to process. The ending of the episode as well, which faked a series-ending death scene which was to be completely erased the following episode as though nothing had happened, may have also been a mistaken concept to introduce in the opening episode when a formula for the show hasn’t been established.

A Creative Masterclass

The anime itself was not only enjoyable but oozed creativity, taking risks with wildly varying thematic ideas being experimented upon on an almost weekly basis. Not only that, Shinichiro Watanabe’s decision to give free rein to creatives old and new to put their own spin on the characters and world allowed for some jaw-dropping pieces of artistic expression throughout the show’s production. For some of these creatives, Space Dandy shows them at their creative peak, while it allowed others a big break that helped establish them as the biggest names in the industry today.

Episode 18, the 5th episode of the anime’s second cour, was the directorial debut of prolific key animator Kiyotaka Oshiyama. Within this episode, Dandy tasks himself to catch a legendary fish known as the Munagi, seeking assistance from an old man living on the planet where it was rumored to live. Although they are unwilling to assist Dandy, their young grandchild Erssime is happy to help out and play. Far from the bombast of some of the episodes that came before it, this episode has a far more mysterious atmosphere, serene scenic vistas where Dandy is either absent or nothing but a spec of dust among a wide vat of water dominating the visual makeup of this unique episode. The planet lacks visual landmarks, with unusual rock formations and disparate groups of people being the only thing visible for miles around. It helps to give the episode an aura both calm and tense, the visuals and storytelling projecting an otherworldly atmosphere both welcoming and intimidating.

In place of high-octane humor and action, the pacing is slowed to give the characters a chance to express themselves. Oshiyama was able to take charge of the script, direction and animation on the episode, his fingerprints readily apparent in all aspects of the episode, with the final attempt to catch the fish showcasing his animation talents in a visual spectacle unmatched across both cours of this show.

While it would be difficult to class Oshiyama as an unknown creative before Shinichiro Watanabe and production assistant Yuki Nagano gave him the chance to earn his first episode director credit, this episode of Space Dandy allowed him the ability to expand his abilities and opened new doors for him. From here, they went on to earn their first series director credit with Flip Flappers, another anime memorable for its distinct visual language, settings and animation. Nowadays, the talented creator is in charge of their own newly-founded studio, working on a short film named Shishigari where he will take charge of the story and screenplay while serving as director and helping with animation. It would be easy to argue that, considering the name he built for himself through his work on shows such as Dennou Coil, Oshiyama would eventually have received his big break regardless, although whether he would have been allowed the creative freedom Space Dandy given to him under the series directorial supervision of Shinichiro Watanabe is uncertain.

Space Dandy Retrospective: Shinichiro Watanabe's Successful Failure

They weren’t the only creative voice who was given a voice through Space Dandy, either. While not for episode director credits, Kensuke Ushio received his first anime credit through Space Dandy before later going on to create the beautiful soundtrack to arguably one of the best anime films of recent memory, A Silent Voice. Austrian-born Bahi JD, having previously been given a chance to contribute to episode 7 of Watanabe’s previous work, Kids on the Slope, firmly established himself as a name to keep an eye on with his role doing key animation on the series. Following this production, Bahi JD has gone on to work on some of the most creative projects in the industry such as Promare and One Punch Man, establishing a large following in the process.

Content-wise, Space Dandy is almost impossible to fault. Creators were given free rein to express themselves, with stories featuring anything from musicals set in schools to robotic romance, cosmic dimension-warping shenanigans, emotional stories about lonely dogs and so many more being told within this grand experiment. Even when an episode failed to land, you knew the next episode promised something entirely new to draw you back in. With Space Dandy, Shinichiro Watanabe nurtured a show oozing to the brim with creativity.

Space Dandy’s America-First Gamble

Space Dandy Retrospective: Shinichiro Watanabe's Successful Failure

Space Dandy released at the very beginning of a period of explosive growth for the anime industry internationally which has yet to slow down. This year’s Anime Expo was host to a slew of new anime announcements, from a new movie project from Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo to a new anime series from WIT Studio called Great Pretender, and that’s not all. World premieres for TV anime occurred at the event, Polygon Pictures’ new film ‘Human Lost’ premiered alongside an announcement it would release in US cinemas before its general Japanese release, and so much more. Anime Expo has arguably become more of a home for anime announcements than even major Tokyo-based events such as Anime Japan. In 2013, however, American events being home to such announcements were a lot more unusual. Space Dandy’s announcement made a splash not just because it was a new Shinichiro Watanabe anime production but because of the nature of the reveal itself.

This was compounded by the news that Space Dandy would be shown on TV in the United States at the same time as it’s Japanese broadcast. While international subtitled simulcasts and the internet boosted international growth, with Attack on Titan and Sword Art Online examples of how worldwide simultaneous access can help an anime’s popularity, what set Space Dandy apart was simul-dubbing. Now a standard in the industry with anime from My Hero Academia to Africa Salaryman receiving dubs either alongside or within a few weeks of its Japanese premiere, this was unheard of at the time. A few other anime productions had dabbled in such ideas in the past (Bandai at the time were releasing their home video releases of Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn in Japan alongside a specially-produced English dub), yet this would be the first instance where a TV anime production would be released with an English dub at the same time as it was broadcast in Japan.

While there’s a worthwhile discussion to be had on the merits and drawbacks of simul-dubbing on the quality of the dub itself, it’s hard to deny how it changed the industry. It’s not unusual to see simul-dubs or anime primarily targeting international audiences (just look at Neo Yokio or the majority of Netflix’s anime output, or the anime exports to the booming Chinese market), yet Space Dandy was attempting something relatively new and unique back in 2013.

There were flaws with this idea, however. The decision to partner with Toonami feels like one which lacked forward-thinking and hindered the anime’s success. It narrowed the audience internationally as, although the subtitled version of the show was made available on streaming services around the world, the TV broadcast took a lot of attention away from these streams despite being only accessible to those living in the US. Considering the growing success of streaming as a medium as more and more anime fans were turning their backs on TV for services like Crunchyroll, it felt like a mistake to continue to invest in a platform that was no longer all that important to anime fans.

With the benefit of hindsight and without the sky-high expectations it once held, its easier to appreciate and understand what Shinichiro Watanabe, Studio Bones, and all the staff were attempting to achieve with Space Dandy. At the time, however, these ideas were muddled and mishandled in a way that hurt its chances of being remembered beyond its initial airing, a problem the show’s release schedule didn’t help with.

Space Dandy: Shinichiro Watanabe’s Successful Failure

It’s not all bad news, though. With Space Dandy, Shinichiro Watanabe and his staff were able to create a fun, inventive and indeed timeless piece of animation that will only be looked upon more fondly and with more recognition for what it achieved as time goes on. Even ignoring its impact through simul-dubbing, an ultimately successful experiment against the otherwise-underperformance of the show at large, it managed to bring creators from across the industry together for a creative masterclass that stands as one of the best anime of the entire decade.

Veterans and new talents alike were able to create vastly different products from this same initial starting point. The heartstring-pulling story of episode 5, A Merry Companion Is a Wagon in Space, Baby, which featured an alien named Adélie befriending Dandy while he attempted to take her to the Alien Registration Centre, was an episode that stood out as an early highlight by showing the range of what the anime was capable of. At the same time, episodes like A Race in Space Is Dangerous, Baby lived on their high-stakes energy, delivering an action-packed space race reminiscent of Redline.

Commercially, Space Dandy failed to meet expectations. Had it released a few years later, with a streaming-focused approach, better marketing and a streaming simul-dub process, the fate of Space Dandy may be substantially different. Although the anime may have failed, it lives on in the creators it platformed and the industry changes it helped to pioneer.

While Space Dandy may be gone, he is far from forgotten.

©2014 BONES / Project SPACE DANDY
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