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On a lonely planet somewhere, an old war has raged for centuries. Down to only one on each side, they battle on, even though they can't even remember the reason why the war started. Dandy tries to bring peace, but it's in vain - their ideological differences prove too great. Dandy surfs off into the sunset on a space wave as the planet explodes into a million pieces.
This is easily the most offbeat episode the show has given us so far. Previous episodes fell generally within the norm in terms of character behavior and storytelling styles, but this episode is more out there, more indie, more handmade. Darkly humorous, deadpan but goofy, with weird drawings and a weirder story, it's a classic Michio Mihara episode.
It's almost a tradition for there to be a Michio Mihara episode in each Masaaki Yuasa's TV shows - Kemonozume #12 (2006), Kaiba #4 (2008), Tatami Galaxy #10 (2010) - but this episode breaks the tradition by coming in a non-Yuasa show. All of those shows were produced by Madhouse, and I mentioned before how ex-Madhouse people were heavily involved here, so perhaps it makes sense that Mihara's next solo show would come in Space Dandy. Yuasa himself will be doing an episode later on.
Mihara didn't actually animate the whole thing, but he did do most of it. The only other animator credited is the talented Hironori Tanaka, who obviously animated the surfing at the end. It's an odd pairing - they have totally different styles - but the surfing bit is really beautiful, even if it doesn't really match Mihara's style. Mihara storyboarded, directed, was sakkan (which doesn't mean anything since he was the only animator and he obviously didn't correct Tanaka's part), came up with the story, and did the concept art for the episode, not to mention designing the two guest aliens. He didn't inbetween this time. Dai Sato wrote the script based on Mihara's idea. Mihara is a self-admitted idol singer fanatic, and I'm assuming it was his idea to get two girls from LinQ to supervise the lyrics of the song that plays over the surfing bit at the end of the episode. So all in all, definitely another big job from Mihara, even if he didn't technically animate everything. It's got his fingerprints on everything and feels like a wonderfully high-proof Mihara short.
This is a weird episode in every sense, matching Mihara's weird sensibility. The underwear zealot aliens, the space surfing. Borderline unsettling was the part where Dandy and the alien lie in bed in their underwear - not too sure what to make of that. It's not entertaining in a conventional sense, but that's what makes it appealing - it's more quirky and cult.
The neighbor feud setup is classic and simple, and universal. It doesn't lampoon any specific conflict, but it captures the absurdity of many of them, especially the prominent religious-fueled ones. The moment where the two aliens can barely contain their revulsion as they're struggling to put on the other's item of clothing, while Dandy looks on bemused, was particularly well observed. Entire nations wage wars against one another for things that, to the rest of the world, seem utterly trivial and meaningless. The two aliens waging war over whether they should wear underwear or vests is a ridiculous and silly concept, until you think about the real world and realize that people kill one another every day over absurd things that would make two aliens fighting over underwear seem utterly banal. In that sense this episode has a nice satirical bite to it that makes the episode feel a little more beefy and three-dimensional and relevant. That's something the other episodes have been lacking. I also like that this episode isn't afraid to have a bit more of a dark and cynical edge while still being funny about it and not taking itself seriously.
Mihara's drawings aren't quite as distinctive here as they sometimes are, so he was obviously keeping things toned down a bit. Dandy looks surprisingly on-model if you don't scrutinize the lines too closely, although you can still identify Mihara's touch in the characteristic crooked gape and thick lips his characters always have. His characters feel more three-dimensional and meaty, with all sorts of bulges and crevices that shift as a character moves around, all done using a minimum of lines. Dandy is in nothing but shorts the whole episode, which reminds of his episode of Kemonozume, where he showed off his skill at animating the naked (male) physical form in all sorts of configurations.
Mihara's characters act out their emotions like actors in silent movies, pulling all sorts of faces, tilting their head back when taken aback, puckering their lips when perplexed. It's a very fun and melodramatic kind of character animation so different from any other animator in Japan or elsewhere. It's an odd combination of realism in the drawing/movement and theatricality in the acting. The movement is recognizable as Mihara - using few drawings, but moving the body more creative and humorously flexible manner than the usual animator. He's got quirks in his acting, such as this way of tilting of the head back while talking, that identify him even when his drawings don't as much. The backgrounds had a very hand-drawn feeling to them, but Mihara isn't credited with actual background art, only for "bijutsu settei", so I'm not sure how it was done. They definitely look like his drawings.
The alien designs remind slightly of the alien he designed in the ramen episode. They're typical Mihara in that they're a bizarre combination of cute and ugly. They're sinewy, like bodies with the skin removed, but with these big lobster eyes and batty eyelashes. They hate each other, but they look like nothing more than an alien Abbott and Costello, so right up until the point that they bludgeon one another to death, it's hard to take them seriously. The design isn't that creative per se - they're basically bipedal beings, like us, rather than some weird new kind of creature - but the tentacle arms and the rest of the details that make the designs alien and unique are actually depicted at some length in animation, so the creatures come away feeling more alive and believable. Not many of the aliens in the show have benefited from such generous animated treatment.
The ending with Dandy surfing away from the exploding planet was downright cartoonish in its complete abandonment of even a facade of realism. Nerds who nitpicked Gravity would surely have an aneurysm. It doesn't make any sense, but it sure as hell looks cool. Now that is the kind of sublime idiocy I expect of the great Dai Sato.
If they can do a Michio Mihara episode and it still feels like Space Dandy, it would be nice to see an equally raw and unfiltered episode by Osamu Kobayashi, but he wasn't announced, so that's probably not in the cards.
I was expecting a more unabashed departure from the show’s usual look from a solo Mihara episode, but it was still quite nice indeed. The ‘climactic’ fight between the aliens was bizarre and amusing, and I like the concept on paper -good for satire, and offbeat in the good way, like you say-, but if anything I was disappointed by Sato’s actual script. The story structure is so simple and basic, with the action going back and forth between the groups, the dialogues of the aliens essentially being identical copies, and that’s pretty much the whole episode up until the climax. It came off as played out and trite writing, and it was off in the context of everything else on display.
It was indeed pretty simple, and didn’t have as much of the patented Dai Sato craziness as his best Champloo episodes. I think he was basically trying to work with Mihara’s idea here and didn’t have completely free rein, so maybe that wound up cramping his style. I chalk it up to going for a fable-like feeling, but I agree that the episode feels a little less than what it could have been, a little underdeveloped. There really isn’t much more to it than the synopsis.
Love Mihara. Like you say, he has a strong sense of dimension and anatomy, and I love how his characters have both a sense of heftiness and spindly movement. There’s a goofy elegance to how they behave, like they’re gesturing and shaping these invisible spaces around their bodies. There’s also a few backgrounds that stood out rather nicely.
The highlight of the episode where Dandy surfs away on the planet’s explosion is the perfect indicator as to what the show is about. Aside from setting up the surfboards in an earlier scene, there is no indication in the events prior, that Dandy would ever have to use them like that. It comes out of nowhere, and feels like it’s just there so that they can animate a sequence of a man surfing on the cel-shaded detritus of an exploding planet. And yet, why not? There’s a purity to that inane image, since it encapsulates the mixture of physicality, fluidity, and grace that makes surfing so… well, awesome. If dicking around the universe with half-purposes and unexpected bits of glory is what this show wants to do, then make it so.
There’s also a tiny scene at the beginning, where they show Meow’s room, that feels like a shout-out to Lain. Probably the darkened wire-laden, monitor-covered decor.
Did anyone else think the backgrounds of the moon in this episode looked like something the late Jean “Moebius” Giraud would draw? I totally was getting flashbacks to his work in Arzach: http://www.ankaris.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Old_Arzach_final.jpg
Really been enjoying these write ups Ben, it’s good to follow a show along with your commentary on each episode. Just like old times!
I think you nailed the appeal of this show - ‘Sublime Idiocy’. I loved that surfing scene, where the catchy music kicked in, and its complete lack of respect for the laws of physics. The episode reminded me of that Norman McLaren short, ‘Neighbours’ - A classic anti-war parable set in a weird, self-contained little world.
Personally I hope that they don’t give some needless literal explanation for the constant resets (or the apparent lack of a need for oxygen in space) - I’d rather see them explore the characters or focus on capturing that feeling of euphoric stupidity. This is a fun cartoon for adult children! Not hard sci-fi.
Great to know you’re still there reading, Huw. Even I can’t believe I’m still doing episode reviews again after all these years…
I feel like I’m having a little harder time getting down to the essence of this particular show than I did in the past, because so far there just doesn’t seem like there’s that much there to dig up. Yuasa’s shows were so easy to blog because the unique distinguishing quirks were so many and so obvious, and there were so many unusual ideas and styles on display in each episode. This is such a different beast, although each episode is different enough that it’s somewhat worth it to blog episodically.
Strangely enough, Neighbors also sprang to mind for me. Interesting (and sad) how that parable can be retold in such a different context, and different age, and still be relevant.