A few weeks back, I polled our user-run blog, Talk Amongst Yourselves, about what they thought the best anime of winter 2014 is. Hands down, the answer was the latest anime from the creators of Cowboy Bebop: Space Dandy. Unfortunately, it is an anime I am completely unable to enjoy.
I am aware that I am far from the only person out there not entertained by Space Dandy—though it seems that the most common complaint the series gets is that it isn’t Cowboy Bebop. However, my reasons for not enjoying Space Dandy are different from that. After all, I am apparently the only person on the planet that found Cowboy Bebop so boring I dropped it on the sixth episode. (However, as that was when I was in high school more than a decade ago, I do hope to revisit it one of these days and see if my opinion will change.) No, my reason has to do with the anime’s humor.
But before we get into that, there’s one thing we need to cover first: the end of the first episode of the series. In it, the entire main cast dies. Of course, this is immediately lampshaded in the next episode preview—basically telling the viewer that anything can happen in Space Dandy. Unfortunately, this also means that all avenues for dramatic action with life-threatening dangers are effectively curtailed right out of the gate. If Dandy and his companions are empowered by a magic reset button, there can be no real threats or lasting consequences. Even if they die, they will be fine by the next episode. So with neither drama nor gripping action to work with, Space Dandy is a show that lives or dies on its comedy alone.
Over the two-and-a-half hours of Space Dandy that has aired so far, I have actually laughed only once. This is because the humor of the anime is painfully simplistic. To explain what I mean by that, let’s talk a bit about humor.
When it comes down to it, humor is all about subverting expectations. Take this piece of stand-up from Scottish comedian Daniel Sloss:
Broken down, it’s funny because we expect ministers to give out wise-sounding quotes from the Bible, but we don’t expect random people to give out wise-sounding quotes from Harry Potter. What we expect is overturned and the surprise of it all makes us laugh.
Want a simpler example? Your friend is walking down the street; suddenly he trips and falls flat on his face. You laugh. Why? Because you expected him to be able to walk normally and safely. When he didn’t, your expectations were abruptly subverted. It’s as simple as that.
But of course, subverting expectations is the start of humor, not the be-all and end-all of it. Humor can become quite complex—joke built upon joke, punch line built upon punch line. Unfortunately, the humor of Space Dandy is simple at best as it relies heavily on sight-gags for its humor.
Take Dandy’s favorite hangout in space: “Boobies.” It’s Hooters in space.
(That’s the joke.)
There are monstrous-looking alien girls in skimpy outfits.
(That’s the joke.)
The entire restaurant is shaped like boobs.
(That’s the joke.)
The characters are similarly one-note in their humor. We expect Dandy to be a suave, pulp-fiction space hero based on his character design, but he’s just an incompetent loser who thinks he’s far cooler than he really is. QT is a robot—thus we expect it to be incredibly knowledgeable and intelligent—but due to outdated hardware/software, it’s barely better off than Dandy. We expect Meow—as an alien—to act alien, but instead he acts like your average lazy human. Yes, all of these characters subvert our expectations when they are first introduced, but unfortunately that’s it. Once we know Dandy is incompetent, it’s hardly surprising when he accidentally throws away his gun while trying to holster it; or when he decides that eating at ramen shops across the galaxy is the best way to find an undiscovered alien life form.
Now don’t get me wrong. If you think Space Dandy is hilarious, that’s great. It just means we have different tastes in humor. I just happen to enjoy humor more complex than what Space Dandy has to offer.
Take last season’s My Mental Choices are Completely Interfering with my School Romantic Comedy, for example. In it, the main character is plagued by sudden multiple choice quizzes—often perverted ones—in which none of the answers are desirable. However, if he does not choose and act upon one of the offered choices, he is racked by crippling pain until he does. Thus, much of the comedy in the show follows this pattern of layered humor: The first layer is when the quizzes appear—as they come suddenly and often at the worst possible moment. The second layer displays the choices themselves—i.e., what shocking things he will be forced to choose from. The third layer is his reaction to the choices. The fourth layer is him choosing and acting upon the choice. The final layer is how the people around him react to his outlandish behavior—and this is often by far the funniest bit as it is never the standard anime response we’re conditioned to expect from other anime. In other words, the structure of the humor in My Mental Choices are Completely Interfering with my School Romantic Comedy basically builds to a comedic crescendo over and over again.
And for those wondering, the only time I laughed while watching Space Dandy was in the second episode. In it, Dandy meets an alien who was once in a Japanese style biker gang during his reckless youth. While relating his story, he explains how he quit the gang because his girlfriend died in an accident. This is a common trope in such stories and often either a girlfriend or brother dies in a crash while street racing. Expecting that the joke was simply a sight gag about “an alien in a cliché biker gang story,” I was caught completely off guard when it was revealed that her death came not from a motorcycle crash but from the alien accidentally breathing fire on her. Expectation subverted indeed.
In closing, let me be completely clear once again. There is nothing wrong with enjoying Space Dandy. It is beautifully animated and spectacularly imaginative. And if its style of humor makes you laugh, I am sure it will be one of the best anime the season has to offer you. But as for me, its humor falls continuously flat and without lasting consequences or developing characters, there is nothing to keep me invested and entertained.
Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.