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Dandy et al. get caught up with a rare alien that erases memories, while Professer Gel discovers the secret of the universe, and pays the price...
This series will remain interesting to me as long as it keeps switching directions like it has been lately. This episode is devoid of the silly humor of the previous episodes, going in a completely different direction - more intellectual and sophisticated, exploring the hinted-at metaphysical laws that govern Dandy's universe. What remains the same is that it has its own unique character in terms of the drawings and story, and you can satisfyingly identify the work of the staff that are responsible.
This was easily the most interesting script of the series thus far. A person named Enjo Toh writes for the first time in the show. I wasn't familiar with him, but after watching the episode I was almost positive he had to be a sci-fi writer rather than a typical anime writer due to the decidedly more intellectual and literary bent of the script, and that turned out to be on the mark. The episode wasn't just mind-bending in a facile way, it was perplexing and opaque in a way that reminds of a writer like Yasutaka Tsutsui, who was a master of combining science fiction speculation with metafiction experiments. The episode also share's Tsutsui's peculiar combination of sophisticated literary experimentation with lowbrow humor. The story here leaves you scratching your head but feeling there's a vast depth there if you know how to read between the lines.
At the heart of the episode is a mysterious red box that, when opened, erases the memory of those around it. This seems to suggest that something akin to the Schrodinger's cat paradox lies at the heart of the show's conundrums - Dandy & co are either alive or dead at the end of an episode depending on different courses of events, all repeating in an endless loop set off by some quantum physics mishap. Much was left satisfyingly unexplained, leaving the viewer to piece things together.
Professor Gel, we find out for the first time, is a genius scientist befitting his name, and not merely an ape in a pimp costume. He spends the episode amusingly ignoring the chaos around him, wrapped up in working out formulas in an attempt to discover the dark matter-like substance that explains the universe.
Literary devices literally govern Dandy's universe - a sentient book metaphorically possesses Dandy and guides his actions, after first convincing Dr. Gel that he needed to check it out. All to what end? Because the sentient book wanted to have an adventure. The books guided Dandy, but he still had free will, and they enjoyed watching The Adventures of Space Dandy, like an author who enjoys watching his characters "write themselves".
Narrative artifacts like Dr. Gel's handwriting and the writing on the card move around as if to change the course of events. It's as if Dandy & everyone in his universe were nothing more than living words written and altered arbitrarily by some master librarian, in this case a scriptwriter named Toh Enjo. When Admiral Perry resists the library planet's overdue notices, the omnipotent power of the literary creator devises a narrative twist where Dandy teleports in and destroys the fleet with a whirlwind beam in a turn of events reminding of the deus ex machina climax of Ideon: Be Invoked. This is somewhat bolstered by the names of the head librarians: different pronunciations of Idea.
Dandy is the only one who resists his literary enclosure. Bemoaning the lack of physical food on the literary planet, he turns a well-known saying on its head in a manner befitting his impulsive and straightforwardly carnal nature: "Man cannot live on data alone".
The storyboard is by Atsushi Takahashi, while Hiroyuki Okuno directs and acts as character sakkan. He is the lead animator and the only other animator listed is Hisashi Mori, who is also credited as mecha sakkan. Apart from Atsushi Takahashi, this is the same pairing as in the legendary episode 7 of Samurai Seven, which is where I first discovered Hisashi Mori (here and here - I even wrote a post about him) some ten years ago now.
Okuno's characters have not changed that much in ten years. It's Mori's work, as usual, that is the main attractor. Mori has changed stylistically a bit, but overall his style and spirit are the same. He has the same uncompromising approach that sets Shinya Ohira apart - he somehow manages to animate things entirely in the way he wants in commercial productions, despite a style that goes against the grain of industry popularity with its brutal, raw, organic line. It was exactly what set that episode of Samurai Seven apart, and in the intervening 10 years he has built a body of animation that continued to build on that. He recently even acted as character design/sakkan on a movie, and for a studio as major as Toei Animation, which is a real surprise.
The episode has a nice texture overall. The character drawings are unremarkable, but the mecha scenes scintillate excitingly in typical Mori fashion, and the backgrounds are uniformly drawn with what appears to be pencil lines. I thought at first the backgrounds were also drawn by Mori, but he is not credited with the backgrounds. In places like the alien planet, the background drawings have an extremely sketch-like quality, with every wanton pencil stroke clearly visible in the final product. The backgrounds are beautiful, and it adds a strangely evocative layer to an already fascinating episode, as if emphasizing that Dandy's world is a creation both literary and graphic. This background style was perhaps adopted to match Mori's animation.
The great illustrator Katsuya Terada returns to design the librarian creatures, while animator Shintaro Doge designs the drone box. Background artist Kevin Aymeric meanwhile provides the concept art for the library planet, although his drawings are far more intricate than the final sketchy product. In the voice-actor department, the great Kappei Yamaguchi made a guest appearance, although his voice was unrecognizable (to me) as the library robot.
I feel like even the intellectual-ness of the episode was a parody of cerebral SF writing. The dialogue is often circular, the equation that Dr. Gel is working on is solved when Dandy draws a pair of boobies in it, and the episode ends with the narrator bringing up a heretofore unmentioned (though not unfitting) war involving obsolete forms of data storage; a footnote that could have been ripped straight out of a Douglas Adams novel.
For an episode where the writing was the showcase, on various levels, I’m pleased that it also managed to remain visually interesting. The SFX animation was kinetic and lively, but I like that up until the end, it’s also used very subtly. The bold, heavy shadows are also a wise choice, giving everything a moody tone. Reminds me of old pulp illustrations. I also love the edgy, crazy looking drawings of the masked Aloha Oe crew stealing the book.
All in all, a very smartly planned out episode. Always a pleasure reading, Ben!
Thanks for the regular feedback, melchizedek!
The ending was definitely perplexing and out of the blue but fascinating. Mori’s animation of the mecha, effects and backgrounds in the second half definitely helped give the episode a visual edge to back up the writing. (and I’m pretty sure those BGs had to have been drawn by him though he’s not credited) Those CCTV drawings were really cool. The joke is obviously that the only characters Hisash Mori was allowed to touch in the episode was the crew in those shots because they’re masked, so model is less of an issue. Wouldn’t want a repeat of the hullaballoo of Samurai Seven ep 7.
I also thought about Hitchhiker’s Guide during the footnote about the war (the visual style even evokes the BBC TV serial), as well as earlier when Gel speculates about luck manipulation (similar to the Infinite Improbability Drive).
On top of that, a library planet and an alien you forget immediately after you stop looking at it are also both concepts Steven Moffat contributed to Doctor Who in recent years.
I’m not familiar with Enjo Toh or Japanese SF in general but watching the episode I got a general feeling that the writer had a specific interest in British science fiction.