Monday, January 26, 2015

Space Dandy and Taoism

This is just a reposting from the Space Dandy thread over at Something Awful of some thoughts I had after viewing the series. The response was really positive so I intend to continue it with some individual write-ups on particular episodes later when I can find the time:

I'm really late to the party but I just finally saw the ending of the show. It was absolutely perfect in every way.

I love that ultimately the entire show is basically about Taoist philosophy, which Dandy follows perfectly, and the individual episodes each explicitly explore various aspects of it. Seriously, if you're not familiar then just start reading the wikipedia page on Taoism and it'll become quickly clear how many ways there are in which the show is made to reflect it:

“Tao (Chinese: ; pinyin: dào) literally means "way", but can also be interpreted as road, channel, path, doctrine, or line.[45] In Taoism, it is "the One, which is natural, spontaneous, eternal, nameless, and indescribable. It is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course."[46] It has variously been denoted as the "flow of the universe",[47] a "conceptually necessary ontological ground",[48] or a demonstration of nature.[49] The Tao also is something that individuals can find immanent in themselves.[50] 
 The ambiguous term wu-wei (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: 無爲; pinyin: wú wéi) constitutes the leading ethical concept in Taoism.[53] Wei refers to any intentional or deliberated action, while wu carries the meaning of "there is no ..." or "lacking, without". Common translations are "nonaction", "effortless action" or "action without intent".[53] The meaning is sometimes emphasized by using the paradoxical expression "wei wu wei": "action without action".[54] 
 In ancient Taoist texts, wu-wei is associated with water through its yielding nature.[55] Taoist philosophy proposes that the universe works harmoniously according to its own ways. When someone exerts their will against the world, they disrupt that harmony. Taoism does not identify one's will as the root problem. Rather, it asserts that one must place their will in harmony with the natural universe.[56] Thus, a potentially harmful interference must be avoided, and in this way, goals can be achieved effortlessly.[57][58] "By wu-wei, the sage seeks to come into harmony with the great Tao, which itself accomplishes by nonaction."[53]
Naturalness (Chinese: 自然; pinyin: zìrán; Wade–Giles: tzu-jan; lit. "self-such") is regarded as a central value in Taoism.[59] It describes the "primordial state" of all things[60] as well as a basic character of the Tao,[61] and is usually associated with spontaneity and creativity.[62][61] To attain naturalness, one has to identify with the Tao;[61] this involves freeing oneself from selfishness and desire, and appreciating simplicity.[59] 
 An often cited metaphor for naturalness is pu (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: pǔ, pú; Wade–Giles: p'u; lit. "uncut wood"), the "uncarved block", which represents the "original nature... prior to the imprint of culture" of an individual.[63] It is usually referred to as a state one returns to.[64]”

I mean these ones are fairly obvious; Dandy constantly espouses his philosophy of going with the flow and trusting that things will just work out and he exercises it in pretty much every episode. He also very strongly follows a doctrine of "action without intent" and explicitly chooses not to think before acting, and Dandy is shown to value simplicity and, above all, the simple things in life. There's a huge recurring motif of strings, lines, and paths throughout the series, as well as a major water and "flow" motif (surfing, boats, fishing, etc). Commonly the episode plots revolve around something in the world that is throwing things out of a balance that needs to be restored, and often the solution to their problems involves a regression back to a natural state (a particularly good example is the plant episode, for instance).

“Taoist cosmology is based on the School of Yin Yang[25] which was headed by Zou Yan (305 BCE – 240 BCE). The school's tenets harmonized the concepts of the Wu Xing (Five Phases) and yin and yang. In this spirit, the universe is seen as being in a constant process of re-creating itself, as everything that exists is a mere aspect of qi, which, "condensed, becomes life; diluted, it is indefinite potential".[67] Qi is in a perpetual transformation between its condensed and diluted state.[68] These two different states of qi, on the other hand, are embodiments of the abstract entities of yin and yang,[68] two complementary extremes that constantly play against and with each other and cannot exist without the other.[69]”
Yin and yang is everywhere in the series; on top of the places where the symbol appears pretty explicitly like in the two dragons that appear at the end, you see a constant recurring motif of two forces locked in a struggle/balance. For instance, the two warring empires that hold each other in check, or the two alien races fighting over vests and undies, or the two brothers who kept their machine planet from breaking apart, or the episodes where Dandy is pitted directly against a foil (like in the racing, rock band, and dancing episodes). And, of course, in the eternal struggle between boobs and asses (would it maybe be stretching it a bit far to note that a single bare breast almost has the appearance of one half of a yin yang?). It's also obvious that the concept of death and rebirth is a huge theme of the show, as is the concept of condensing and expanding (singularities, black holes, etc).

I'll preface this by saying that I'm definitely not any kind of expert on Taoism: I've just read The Tao of Pooh and a little of the Tao Te Ching. The parallels are so strong, though, that I think it was intended to be obvious to someone with a light cultural familiarity with these things that Dandy is more or less living his life by them. I actually also ought to point out that Dandy's tag (the one he always wears and holds up in the end when he rejects becoming God) is from Naritasan, which is actually a Buddhist temple, so it's possible that I'm misreading his personal philosophy as Taoist when it's actually intended to be Buddhist. It's also possible that maybe the things I'm picking up on are areas where Taoism and the Buddhism practiced at Naritasan intersect? (It's also possible that Dandy's tag is just meant to be more of a Japanese cultural thing than to indicate anything specific about his philosophy).

At any rate, I think it's pretty easy to tell that Taoist symbolism is huge in the series, and in Watanabe's other works (Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo particularly) Taoism actually shows up quite a lot; the most blatant example off the top of my head is the CB episode Boogie Woogie Feng Shui, which is explicitly about it. Watanabe's works are also often very focused on the intersection of different cultures (a large part of why his works go over so well with Western audiences), and there's a significant intersection between the philosophy of Taoism and of Hawaiian surfer culture, which is referenced heavily throughout the show (the Aloha Oe, Dandy's surfing, hula girls and floral prints, etc).

Anyway, to explain how Dandy's attitude is fundamentally Taoist, this is an excerpt from Tao of Pooh that explains the concept of Wu Wei pretty succinctly:

“When we learn to work with our own Inner Nature, and with the natural laws operating around us, we reach the level of Wu Wei. Then we work with the natural order of things and operate on the principle of minimal effort. Since the natural world follows that principle, it does not make mistakes. Mistakes are made–or imagined–by man, the creature with the overloaded Brain who separates himself from the supporting network of natural laws by interfering and trying too hard. 
 When you work with Wu Wei, you put the round peg in the round hole and the square peg in the square hole. No stress, no struggle. Egotistical Desire tries to force the round peg into the square hole and the square peg into the round hole. Cleverness tries to devise craftier ways of making pegs fit where they don’t belong. Knowledge tries to figure out why round pegs fit into round holes, but not square holes. Wu Wei doesn’t try. It doesn’t think about it. It just does it. And when it does, it doesn’t appear to do much of anything. But Things Get Done. 
 When you work with Wu Wei, you have no real accidents. Things may get a little Odd at times, but they work out. You don’t have to try very hard to make them work out; you just let them. [...] If you’re in tune with The Way Things Work, then they work the way they need to, no matter what you may think about it at the time. Later on you can look back and say, "Oh, now I understand. That had to happen so that those could happen, and those had to happen in order for this to happen…" Then you realize that even if you’d tried to make it all turn out perfectly, you couldn’t have done better, and if you’d really tried, you would have made a mess of the whole thing. 
 Using Wu Wei, you go by circumstances and listen to your own intuition. "This isn’t the best time to do this. I’d better go that way." Like that. When you do that sort of thing, people may say you have a Sixth Sense or something. All it really is, though, is being Sensitive to Circumstances. That’s just natural. It’s only strange when you don’t listen.”

If you look at what Dandy says and does throughout the series, he pretty explicitly espouses this philosophy over and over again. Just look at his speech in the first episode: "When you're swimming against a raging current, what's the point? What good is it to swim fruitlessly against the flow? If you try to do it, you'll just end up drowning. Everything about it is pointless! Living by going with the flow- that's what I'm all about, baby!". The show presents it in an ironic manner as though Dandy is full of hot air, but the larger point of the series is to show you that Dandy was essentially right the entire time; when he "goes with the flow" things ultimately work out the way that they were supposed to, not always to his own personal benefit but on a cosmic scale that he can't even understand. Repeatedly we see that whenever the crew attempts to explicitly search for a rare alien they never find one (or, at least, they never get them back to the registration center), but when they're trying to do something else rare aliens just fall into their laps. Dandy's best strategy to get what he wants is to simply live his life and trust the universe to provide for him, and if it doesn't then he knows that it was just simply never meant to be.

As an explicit example of this philosophy working out for Dandy, take the episode Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Baby: the episode opens with them going to a market full of food, and ends with them eating a delicious roast fish, but the way they arrived at it was an incredibly circuitous path through which it was unclear how they could possibly end up with the ultimate outcome. And yet, by just going with the flow Dandy ends up with a way better meal than he could have outright bought, and as such he proves to Meow that "slow and steady wins the race", and that if you just follow your intuition and live your life instead of worrying about how quickly your goals are being accomplished you will ultimately find that they come to you.

We ultimately find out that Dandy follows Wu Wei so effectively that he has actually reached true enlightenment. There's a concept in Taoism called Pu, "the Uncarved Block", that is meant to represent a pure, natural state of infinite potential: the uncarved block can conceivably be made into anything, but once you begin carving away at it then you limit the possibilities of what it can be made into with every removed splinter. You want to make yourself as Pu-like as possible, because it means you can more easily go with the flow and adapt yourself to whatever the universe throws at you. Dandy has reached this state: as a person, Dandy is the same and reacts the same way in every possible universe because no matter what life throws at him he always returns to his fundamental Dandy state. As is demonstrated in Nobody Knows the Chameleonian, Baby, the actual truth of Dandy's past doesn't matter to Dandy, because whatever he was before he is Dandy now, and being Dandy isn't predicated on some background or life history; Dandy is a state of being. We also see in I Can't be the Only One, Baby that despite all of the different universe's Dandys being massively different in many ways, they all had the same philosophy and reacted in the exact same ways to the world; they all wanted to go to Boobies, they were all disturbed and upset by emo Dandy's crew, and they all thought it was a good idea to burn the dimensional string and just hope things worked out for the best. As one Dandy is interchangeable with infinite other Dandys, it means that Dandy has infinite potential.

For Dandy, asses represent the simple, basic pleasures of life, and his fixation on them is representative of living for the joy of each moment individually rather than for some grand ambition that he would have to force upon the universe. When Laika questions the purpose of her life Dandy responds with "a good ass should be felt, not seen", and what he's saying is that the pleasures of life should be experienced, not thought about. You should find what makes you happy and live for that, rather than basing your happiness on assigning meaning to a universe that is vastly more complex than you could ever understand (in the same way a dog could never understand why humans would do something like launch her into space). Don't worry about fulfilling some grand plan; if you simply go with the flow, act on your intuition, and enjoy your life things will turn out how they were meant to be.

In the finale, Dandy's last words to his friends are "It will all work out." It seems ironic, because Dandy's final struggle only succeeds in disintegrating all possible universes, but in the end he was right: this was just a part of an eternal cycle of rebirth and everything worked out how it needed to; even if no one, including Dandy, understood that at the time. And then, when Dandy is given the option to become God, he rejects it. To become God would be fundamentally inimical to everything Dandy stands for; it would be the most un-Dandy thing he could possibly do. It would be forcing his will upon the universe in the most direct and comprehensive way. However Dandy doesn't even have to think that deeply about it, all he has to realize is that being God would get in the way of enjoying asses; of enjoying life the Dandy way, and that's enough to justify rejecting the offer.

And then, in the end, when in this new universe Dandy has replaced his ass fixation with a leg fixation, it's meant to show that the object of your pleasure in life is arbitrary. There's nothing fundamentally important about asses. What really matters is that you find something to take pleasure in. What makes Dandy Dandy is not reliant on asses, or legs, or boobs; what makes Dandy Dandy is how much pleasure he takes in simply living. And that's the Dandy way, baby.


  1. I enjoyed the write up. I just finished the series and immediately took to Google to see if I cold find discussion on the correlation. Thanks to you I wasn't dissapointed.

  2. This article is beautiful and life changing.