「幻の宇宙ラーメンを探すじゃんよ」 (Maboroshi no Uchū Rāmen o Sagasu jan yo)
“The Search for the Phantom Space Ramen, Baby”
It finally feels as if the anime season has started, thanks to this week’s Space Dandy.
We finally have the “wow” premiere that I’ve been waiting for since this carbuncle of an anime season started – except it wasn’t a premiere. I’ll reiterate what a shame it was that BONES chose the first half of the first episode as the teaser for Space Dandy, because so far it’s been the only segment that hasn’t been very funny. It was my hope that the second half of the premiere was going to be representative of what the series will be, but so far it’s not – this episode was way better even than that.
Here’s the weird thing though – there was probably just as much “Japan specific” humor in this episode as there was in the premiere of Hoozuki no Reitetsu. Ironic, considering the scorn being heaped on BONES for pandering to an American audience with this series. I mean, the entire joke with the old alien with the “other-dimensional flavor” ramen was built around the fact that it was actually Ramen Jiro. In fact that old dude’s whole story was pretty much an affectionate satire on Japanese TV do-ramas about “ronin” in the 60’s and 70’s. How in the world does all that play on Cartoon Network?
Well… Fortunately, this episode had plenty of stuff that should appeal in any language, to anyone who loves animation. Animation, to start with – sakuga animation out the ying-yang, in fact, from the glorious alien ramen porn to the fight scenes in the ramen-ya to being sucked into other dimensions. It also had a red-hot femme fatale, Scarlett (the legendary Kuwashima Houko). She’s the broad from the alien registration office who blasts Dandy and Meow into space when they prove uninteresting, and she shows up later when Dr. Gel’s stormtroopers arrive at the “Ramen Galaxy” – itself a parody of Ramen Street at Tokyo Station – to kick some alien ass in glorious fashion. I’m certain we’ll be seeing more of her.
The whole ramen setup was pure win for me, because I fully understand the quasi-religious quest for the “other-dimensional” bowl. The sorts of ramen collectives that Tokyo Ramen Street pioneered are starting to show up around Japan now, as ramen has become hip among more than college students and drunk salarymen. Nominally Dandy and the gang are searching ramen-ya (including the hilariously-named “-men in Black”) because Meow has dangled the prospect of an unregistered alien being behind the unusual flavor, but it’s really just an excuse to portray the ramen experience and keep our heroes on the move as Dr. Gel chases them down.
The notion of Dandy being chased by a gorilla space-pimp who travels the universe in a bondage-gear Statue of Liberty who works for “Admiral Perry” is wild enough as is, but you have to love the fact that Gel uses “Gogol Street View” to try and find him – and fails utterly. It’s Bee who actually tracks the trio down, because Meow is using his smartphone to tag all the locations of the selfies he’s tweeting his followers. All this eventually leads to the aforementioned Ramen Jiro – though it’s renamed Ramen Saboru for legal reasons – and the old alien (Nagai Ichirou, Netero himself) who’s the secret behind it all.
As I said, a little – well a lot – of insider knowledge would seem to really give this sequence more firepower. Jiro is legendary here, a love/hate iconclast in the world of ramen (true devotees like to say “It’s not ramen – it’s Jiro!”). The “stale noodles, garlic, grease and heaps of vegetables” Dandy describes is very much the experience in a nutshell – I call it the “waterfall purification ramen” because I feel like I need to go to a Buddhist retreat to cleanse myself after eating it. And yes, there is an original – in the hinterlands of Mita at the southern tip of Tokyo, where the old gent who started it all still runs the original Jiro ramen-ya (complete with the yellow awning, which all his knock-offs – licensed and otherwise – also sport). The alien ojii-san’s story is actually almost emotional, and right down to his tears being the secret ingredient, it’s as if taken from a story about a delinquent in the Shouwa Era who got on the wrong side of the law and now lives a lonely life, carrying the weight of his past on his back. But how the heck anyone watching this on Adult Swim is supposed to know that, I’m not sure – hopefully all of this is universal enough that it works anyway.
As to why everyone is alive after the ending of the premiere? I guess it’s just Watanabe’s way of telling us this isn’t the sort of show that cares about stuff like that – clearly, we’re in for an episodic ride here, with the reset button being hit more or less every time. Frankly if Space Dandy is as wildly entertaining as it was this week I couldn’t care a whit – this episode (Yamamoto Sayo directed and Satou Dai wrote) fired on all cylinders, delivering the visually stunning and hilarious overload of insanity I hoped we’d get when the first previews started airing. It’s taken a little longer than I hoped it would, but I finally have a new series to be excited about this season, and it was the one I expected all along – and it’s damn straight better late than never.