The dirty secret of this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas is that I could make a series of Twelve Days posts out of Space Dandy episodes alone. The show wasn’t always consistent, taking at least half of its first season to warm up properly. But when it was on its A-game (particularly in the stellar second season) I don’t think any other series this year had as much to offer viewers open to new creators and experiences.
For example: the airing of the eleventh episode of the show made a big splash, from its black and white color palette to its trippy story and uniquely baroque dialogue. It was hearing stories of that episode (plus the other two in the 9-11 trifecta that are arguably the very best of Space Dandy Season 1) that made me decide to catch up with the show. When I did there was a writing credit that stood out: Toh Enjoe? Who was he? Author of Self-Reference Engine, scientist, short story writer, and a man of exceptional ability who Shinichiro Watanabe had somehow finagled into writing an episode of anime. I immediately looked up a story he had written, available online, titled Harlequin’s Butterfly (you can read it here) and it was just as good as I was hoping it would be. I bought a copy of his short story collection/novel/space-time object Self Reference Engine at Kinokuniya over the summer in New York, blasted through it over the course of a month and there you go, a new favorite writer found in a wholly unexpected place. If Borges was Japanese and a physicist, he would be a little like Toh Enjoe, building excellent bits of fiction around high-concept ideas that would make your head spin.
Then came episode 8 of the second season, in which Dandy finds himself stranded in a purgatorial realm called Limbo. Uncharacteristic even for the show’s anything-goes spirit, it was not just one of the best–if not the best–episodes in the series but maybe even one of the best one-off anime episodes of all time. And directed by Yasuhiro Nakura, who was he? Animation director of arthouse classic Angel’s Egg, character designer of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, a spectacular artist who had yet to technically direct an episode of anime himself. Watanabe gave him that chance, and the results were predictably stunning. Nakura even contributed to Sayo Yamamoto’s work on the Rage of Bahamut: Genesis ED, though it’s tough to say whether his brief resurgence indicates more work from him in the future or if this is only a temporary thing, buoyed by industry connections.
These episodes represent Space Dandy at its best: perfect little marriages of talent we’ll likely never see again. Other examples include Eunyoung Choi animating an episode with a whole vibrant ecosystem of talking plants; a massive crossover of universes featuring call-outs to everything from Dragon Ball to Attack on Titan; a High School Musical episode penned by a writer more known for j-drama than anime; and, a real stand-out, a nearly perfect episode about fishing that was written, directed and storyboarded by one man. There’s something almost tragic about the fact that we will likely never see another episode of anime written by Toe Enjoe, or Yasuhiro Nakura given the chance to do whatever he wanted. But the truth is that without this transience, the freewheeling creativity of Dandy could likely never be possible. It’s the one-off nature of these episodes that grants the most unlikely talents imaginable the freedom to do as they wish.
Space Dandy is a Christmas tree littered with amazing gifts that self-destruct after opening; it’s a parallel universe of anime that’s much, much cooler than our own. It’s the equivalent of those panels of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman where the guy populates the bookshelves of the Dreaming with sequels to obscure fantasy classics that will never be written. But Watanabe and co. are kinder than Gaiman: for twenty-four minutes apiece, they give us a brief look into this shadow world of risk-taking and exuberant creativity, and if these glimpses are almost too brief they’re enough to light a fire in your gut and remind you why you gave a damn about this medium in the first place. And if the fire dies, and you forget, there will always be a copy of Self-Reference Engine on your shelf.