By Bob Clark
Note– This piece is rerunning on the occasion of this film’s appearing this weekend in the New York International Children’s Film Festival again, this time in an English dub. Anyone with an interest in animation in the New York area can check showtimes and locations for this film and others at– http://gkids.tv/intheaters.cfm
When I was a very young child, there was nothing I liked better than to spend an afternoon at the planetarium. Whether it was the Hayden in Central Park, made famous on film by Woody Allen and Diane Keaton’s escape into its confines from the rain to stare at metorites on display in Manhattan– thus preserving it in pristine black-and-white before its modern conversion into the Museum of Natural History’s Rose space center– or the more humble atmosphere of the local Hudson Planetarium in Yonkers, there was very little in my early childhood that was quite as thrilling as the experience of sitting in the dark and watching wondrous projections of shadow and light upon those huge domed ceilings, and allowing one’s self to be transported into the far-flung reaches of our Solar System’s farthest limits and beyond. In many ways, a planetarium offered the most immersive kind of cinematic experience possible, envoloping one’s total sphere of direct and peripheral vision with a 360 degree panorama of light-shows, especially when I was a small enough to have to stand up in my seat to get a clear vantage of the interstellar display. Even if all that was shown was a series of static starscapes and superimpositions of classical constellations, there was enough magic in all the wondrous presentation of all those magic-lantern marvels to stoke the fires of my budding imagination– I’d cover my eyes and hide whenever the image of Perseus carrying the head of Medusa was projected on the planetarium’s false-sky, for fear that I’d be turned into stone just like Ray Harryhausen’s monsters in Clash of the Titans. Listening to a loudspeaker narration describing the endless void of the vaccum and watching an infinite of stars and planets expanding as far as my little eyes could see, I came far closer to experiencing the religious awe of a holy moment in there than I ever did at Church, made aware of how small I, everyone I knew and everyone on our blue-green ball of surf and turf were in the limitless expanse of space. It could be a frightening idea to wrap your head around at the pre-school age (hell, it’s not too comforting to think about even in maturity), but it was also awfully exciting, too.
Between the bedtime stories of Greek antiquity and the modern-day mythologies of Jedi Knights and the Starship Enterprise, outer-space became a place where I dreamed of more than just the actual exploits of astronauts shuttling back and forth from the Earth to so many tin-can satelites– my imagination was bound by far less gravity than the constraints of mere reality. Space became a place for daring battles of good against evil and intrepid exploration of uncharted territories, a playground for the stuff of so many Saturday morning cartoons. Adventure and excitement may be frowned-upon cravings according to certain sources, but their inevitability in the appetites of so many impressionable minds only lets them foster as that all important forbidden fruit with which we first learn the art of covetting, an essential part of the internal process of creativity. It provides the motor that drives the turning cogs and wheels inside that pull all the metaphorical hydrolics which operate the mind’s eye– without a desire to satisfy, there’s no motivation for all that extraneous mental effort, leaving our souls to rust as we sit still and make do with what we have. Escapism is the original sin of science-fiction, the carrot (or rather, apple) on the stick of imagination’s perspiration, and few movies have managed as cogent and sobering an assessment of that grounding fact than the anime feature Welcome to the Space Show, which recently made its American debut as a part of the International Children’s Film Festival in New York. Created by the Read or Die team of writer Hideyuki Karuta and director Koji Masunari, the film covers much of the same ground that Hayao Miyazaki has all but conquered in the realms of internationally recognized anime, portraying a cute but realistically drawn ensemble of children off on a whirlwind adventure that’s fun while staying safely within the boundaries of family-friendly entertainment.
While their work here is nowhere near as mature or focused as those that have come out of the hallowed halls of Studio Ghibli, it is no less sophisticated and perhaps even more daring in the scale, scope and aim of its imaginative efforts, resulting in a film that impresses with the visual and thematic ambition on display, subversively turning so many well-worn cliches of sci-fi and anime on the way. To be sure, a fair amount of conventions are preserved intact, like so many specimens stored in fromaldahyde-filled jars or dust-covered stuffed animals on the shelves of aging elementary school students like the ones who find themselves hurdled on a headlong adventure into outer-space after rescuing a talkative canine extra-terrestrial while away from their parents on summer vacation. The little squad of grade-school moppets is the usual assortment you’re likely to see in a kid’s movie, and even bears a resemblance to the tykes who were sometimes wont to appear in the friendly-monster kaiju films of the Gamera series. There’s the elder boy, who wrestles with the responsibility of being all of twelve-years old and harbors a secret desire to become a doctor; the self-centered premature diva who is inevitably destined to find her narrative-arc bearing more towards a down-to-earth trajectory; the young UFO-obsessed boy who can’t make friends on his own planet, but finds puppy-love with a rocket-building girl from beyond the stars; and finally, the energetic tomboy who wants nothing more than to be a comic-book superhero, and is therefore destined to keep making near-heart-breaking mistakes everywhere she goes, especially when it comes to her innocent little cousin. It’s a motley assortment of childhood hopes and anxieties as universal as Charlie Brown and Snoopy– easy to identify beyond any kind of cultural boundaries, and even easier to identify with beyond any generational ones. If you you aren’t like one of these children right now, chances are you were not so long ago.
Call them archetypes or stereotypes, they act as an essential emotional anchor for the whole enterprise of the film’s increasingly bizarre narrative and aesthetic gambits. Once catapulted into space, the various locales and close encounters with countless kinds of bright and colorful alien species and architecture make the movie resemble a rather odd mash-up of Dr. Seuss and Jean “Moebius” Giraud– nearly every corner of every frame is animated with all kinds of unusual kinds of imaginative design and execution, as though the filmmakers were leading us on a guided submarine tour through the deepest reaches of their inner subconsciousness, where ages of evolution have lead to the same kinds of underwater mutations that James Cameron has floated in awe of in all the aquatic documentaries he pushed on us before resurfacing with Avatar. The kind of sheer visual creativity seen here is sometimes comparable only to the works of the late Satoshi Kon, and to see this kind of astounding artistic ambition offered to fertile young minds in the form of a true piece of children’s anime is rather refreshing– ordinarily you’d never see a cartoon this cool without having to sit through at least a dozen bloody dismemberments or obscene sexual performances along the way. Yet at the same time, those same wings of inspiration might at times find themselves strapped to a necklaced albatross, even as the movie soars on ever higher altitudes of visual impressions. After all, when nearly ever inch of every shot of the film is occupied with sights that scream loudly for your attention, you’re bound to wind up overlooking something, especially when seeing the film in its subtitled form– few animes have begged for a quality domestic dub as this, just to free your eyes and gobble that much more of the movie’s Wonka-quality eye candy. By turning the entirety of the picture plane into a kaleidoscopic panorama of strange sights, Musanari risks distracting the audience as much as he enchants them.
The same effect can be seen in the overburdened script from Karuta, which slowly but surely turns a seemingly quaint and simple story of kids on a long afternoon’s adventure through the backyard of their own solar system into an exponentially more complicated space opera which aims at nothing less than deconstructing the whole sub-genre’s conventions and laying out the foundations for a philosophical debate that’s almost surely bound to go flying over the heads of both children and their parents like so many pieces of flinty stardust in an asteroid belt. When it stays focused on defining the characters through their actions from planet to planet, the story maintains relatively anchored, finding ways to express its themes of the importance of self-reliance without getting too preachy. When direct access to Earth is shut off, the kids are forced to go out and get part-time jobs to pay for a longer indirect route back to their home (the outer-space equivalent of flying to Canada so you can take a vacation to Cuba), with work that includes delivering goods via hoverboard, babysitting extra-terrestrial infants and selling wasabi-root as an illegal substance (one wonders how much they could’ve gotten for oregano). Before being given passports to roam freely in space, they must answer a robotic interrogator which asks if they would accept help from an alien race or elect to better themselves by themselves. Between their jobs and psychological tests, they pass the time by lounging around in various space-ports and food-courts (the final frontier is populated almost entirely by shopping malls) where they listen to ghost-tale rumors told by veteran pilots and watch “The Space Show”, a popular pirate program that’s half Power Rangers and half Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and might just hold the key for a sinister conspiracy that threatens the children on their roundabout journey back home. In building his master plot piece by piece, Karuta creates an impressive multi-layered look at the ways in which consumerism and escapist entertainment risk to rob audiences of their individuality and free-will, and as long as he makes sure that plot is expressed by his characters’ actions, the movie is an astounding success. Both through long-gestating on-screen works like building rockets and large-scale chases, sword-duels and nearly every other kind of sci-fi set-piece, the script provides plenty of opportunities for the the director to both create one-of-a-kind spectacles while at the very same time offering a commentary on the hollow artifices prevalent in action-adventure entertainment.
At the same time, however, Karuta’s script often falls prey to the popular foible of offering far too much exposition, instead of simply letting the movie’s thrilling visuals mostly speak for themselves. Musanari’s direction of the screenplay implies so much in the way of showcasing the moral weaknesses of heroes who deep down want weak-willed people to save, whether they like it or not (it becomes a cousin to the war-on-terror allegories of Revenge of the Sith, The Incredibles and Nolan’s Batman movies in portraying the ambitions of would-be saviors who turn to the dark side out of so-called benevolence), but whenever the film’s characters begin to flat out explain their philosophies to the audience, the effect is both redundant and condescending. Do we really need to have our villains spout speeches in favor of saving the universe by imprisoning it or our heroes turn into mouthpieces for a kiddie version of Ayn Rand talking points when the action on display is already perfectly illustrating the finer points of its subtle brand of objectivism in a keen, implicit manner? Were it not for the frequent sermons that dominate most of the dialogue in its last act, the film would come close to being that rare piece of action-adventure entertainment that’s able to dissect and closely examine the genre while at the same time indulging in it as a free-wheeling piece of entertainment itself– it could have its cake and eat it too, if only it weren’t for the icing. Still, all these speeches tend to come off just as ridiculously to the characters as they do to audiences (when I saw the film with a huge crowd of kids and their parents, the biggest laugh of the night came after someone exasperatedly screamed to their pontificating foe “What the heck are you talking about?”), so it’s easy to take it all in the stride of good fun. And even with its preachy tone, the movie more than makes up for its faults with the sheer breadth of its imaginative design and conception from start to finish.
At times, it feels like a wondrous pairing of the same sensibilities that can be found separately in the works of Miyazaki and Rintaro’s beautiful, forgotten adaptation of Galaxy Express 999 (a connection that appears literalized in the image of a long, living dragon-train flying through space). That movie could be a little overloaded in terms of its script and pacing, as well, truncating the entirety of Leji Masumoto’s manga series into a brisk 130 minutes. Welcome to the Space Show must then be applauded for coming up with about the same running-time’s worth of comparable imagination and intrigue with an entirely original story to tell, with Karuta and Musanari clearly establishing themselves onscreen as one of the most potent creative teams in anime today. I don’t know if I would’ve rather seen this movie as a child than going to the planetarium, but I can safely say that it would’ve given me that much more to think about the next time I looked up at the stars and tried to play connect-the-dots.