Before the first episode of Space Dandy even aired, it had crossed the line between hyped and overhyped.
Space Dandy is the first major anime series to air simultaneously in Japan and the U.S., rather than taking the traditional route of percolating through pirated, subtitled versions online before finding its way onto American TV with a professional English-language dub. It’s also the brainchild of Shinichiro Watanabe’s BONES studio, the critically acclaimed creators of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, two of the most successful adult anime series to reach audiences outside of Japan.
Publicity-wise, Space Dandy has received the best of both worlds: feverish anticipation from anime fans, and optimistic curiosity from casual viewers who are suddenly being offered easy access to a show that may be the next big thing in anime.
The first episode aired this weekend, to mixed reactions. Cowboy Bebop, this ain’t. Most viewers seemed to like the animation style and character designs, but opinions were divided on the actual content. The episode opens with a monologue on “boobies,” before the main characters travel to a space “breastaurant” (think Hooters), and accidentally become embroiled in an extended chase sequence across an alien planet. It’s lightweight in tone, thin on plot, and has the feel of a retro Saturday morning cartoon plus a bunch of boob jokes. In other words, it’s probably not the sophisticated adult series many people were hoping for.
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Thanks to the fact that each new episode will immediately be available to American audiences via Adult Swim, Space Dandy is being hailed as the crossover show that will finally bring anime “into the mainstream”—a sentiment that’s about 10 years out of date, because Studio Ghibli movies consistently make bank in the U.S., and most Millennials at least have a passing familiarity with Pokemon or Sailor Moon, but oh well. A big-name Japanese anime series being aired on American TV can only be a good thing, right?
The most common discussion topic among anime fans has always been whether to go for the dubbed or subtitled versions of any given series. Because Space Dandy is the first anime to release the original Japanese version and English dub at the same time, you’d think this would eliminate part of the problem: English-language viewers no longer have to rely on potentially dodgy fan dubs or subtitles. Not so much, it turns out.
Even without watching the Japanese version to compare the two, it’s immediately obvious that some changes were made during the translation process, since the Adult Swim version includes English puns and a direct riff on Toy Story’s decidedly un-Japanese “To infinity... and beyond!” catchphrase. Hundreds of redditors are already arguing about the English dub, which apparently alters some key elements of the story.
The "subs vs. dubs" debate may be a sign that the American version of the show has already fallen at the first hurdle by failing to cater to anime purists (who, despite all that commentary about Space Dandy signalling the mainstreaming of anime culture, probably still make up the bulk of the current audience). Space Dandy’s high-profile release has even led to a review in the New York Times, which echoes the sentiments of the audience: that the animation is mesmerising, but the humor is either “cringe-making” or, at best, lost in translation.
The real test will be how Space Dandy fares in future episodes. The pilot’s overabundance of sophomoric boob jokes and lack of female characters who aren’t dressed like Hooters waitresses may be offputting to the more feminist viewers, while the absence of a serious storyline or deeper emotional message will disappoint fans of Shinichiro Watanabe’s previous work.
Still, there’s no chance of anime fans dropping Space Dandy after just one episode. The animation and soundtrack are almost enough to sell the show on their own, and Watanabe’s track record suggests that Space Dandy won’t be sticking to this frenetic burst of breasts and plotless chase sequences for long. Some character development and a real storyline are sure to show up sooner or later, and if they don’t, well, there’s definitely still an audience on Adult Swim for Space Dandy.
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