What's the definition of a "kid's movie" — one made for kids, or one about kids? Most of us would tilt towards the former, but Welcome to the Space Show cuts a path about halfway between those two poles. It's got the form and the format of a kid's movie — albeit one of staggeringly wide gauge — but it also sports some of the ambition and the ingredients of a movie aimed at their parents, or the kids' older siblings, at least. It also serves, perhaps unwittingly, as an example of how many films from Japan that are aimed at younger audiences walk that line, and may give pause to parents who aren't entirely aware of what they're getting into. If said parents wrinkle their nose at this, I say they're missing out.
In fact, many of us outside of Japan nearly missed out entirely when Space Show was released. Apart from screenings at various conventions and festivals (I caught it at Otakon some years back), it lacked for an English-language version save for what could be had by way of imports from Europe. But Cinedigm and GKIDS — my choice for the most promising new anime licensor — saw fit to pick it up, and now we have it on shelves just in time for Christmas.
Space, the fun frontier
Barring its zap-and-bang cold opening, Space Show begins as if it were one of the many anime productions about the joys of bucolic country life. Five youngsters — de facto leader sixth-grader Kiyoshi, dreamy fifth-grader Natsuki, reticent fourth-grader Noriko, voracious bookworm (and UFO buff) third-grader Kōji, and cheery second-grader Amane — are spending part of their summer together on a self-managed school trip. There's not much to do, and so they hunker down for what they suspect will be many uninterrupted days of sheer boredom. Then comes drama in the form of Natsuki mistakenly allowing the class pet, a rabbit they've named Pyon-kichi, to escape. When the kids band together to search the surrounding countryside, they find instead a dog, injured and unconscious.
Except he's not a dog. He's an alien named Pochi (an in-joke: "Pochi" is a dog's name in Japanese akin to "Spot" in English), and he proves it when he walks on his hind legs, thanks them profusely for saving his life, and demonstrates some of the eye-popping bits of technology he's got on his person. He's a professor doing research into the preservation of rare lifeforms, and his work brought him to Earth — although he wasn't expecting it to bring him into head-on contact with a couple of brigand poachers.
Pochi wants to make it up to the kids, and so he gives them a quick jaunt in his UFO to the far side of the moon. There, the bug-eyed kids behold a thriving nexus for the galactic civilization the human race hasn't yet encountered — but through a bureaucratic goof on Pochi's part, they've been barred from returning directly to Earth. Instead, they'll need to head for Pochi's home planet first1, provided they can raise the cash. When their attempts at part-time jobs bottom out (save maybe for Amane turning out to be a surprisingly capable babysitter), they land some fast money thanks to the cachet of wasabi one of the kids is carrying around. It turns out wasabi is a close cousin to a species that went extinct throughout the rest of the galaxy billions of years ago, and is highly sought after not just because of its rarity but because it gets aliens royally stoned. Hence the subplot where the poachers that attacked Pochi in the opening scene continue to chase after the bunch of them, all for the sake of selling some of this "Zugaan" (as it's called) to their lord and master.
In between various bouts of calamity, the kids enjoy meetings with one assortment of sweetheart oddballs after another, and discover all the absurd and eye-opening wonders of the galaxy. Among them is the "Space Show", a kind of pirate variety show that broadcasts from a giant spaceship and has a massive following. Pochi is ambivalent about them — both their leader, the one-eyed and octopoid Neppo, and Marie, the gorgeous star attraction of the Space Show for whom Pochi still carries a torch. But he's pushed to confront them again when Amane is kidnapped by the poachers, an incident that forces the kids to examine their own motives and band together to make a great many things right.
Through a child's eyes
Something that seemed clear to me the first time I saw Space Show was how it wasn't just a movie for kids, or one that featured kids, but one that sported a kid's-eye view of the universe. The details of the dark side of the moon, or Pochi's homeworld, or the Space Show itself, all feel reminiscent of what a bright ten-year-old might have come up with. I don't say this because I find it a bad thing; it's part of the movie's effortless and sunny charm. It also explains why the movie's idea of aliens and the rest of the universe is essentially a bigger, gaudier, more colorful, and more science-fiction-y version of the world we already live in. If it were really alien, it wouldn't be anywhere nearly as accessible, either to the kids in the movie or the kids watching it. For those who are sticklers for the proper use of labels, then, Space Show is better thought of as a fantasy rather than as SF proper. There's the odd SF trope here and there, but they're used mainly for entertainment value or color, not because the movie is seriously curious about kids meeting aliens.
But again, there's no reason why it would have been a better film if it had tried to be serious about such things. The movie's main function is to give the kids an adventure, and it does that with great gusto and no small amount of heart. Sometimes that does edge into sentimentality, but not in ways that are either bad or predictable. At one point Pochi sits with Natsuki and asks her some remarkably tough questions about her relationship with Amane and her feelings of guilt about letting Pyon-kichi run off, and it provides enough of an emotional center of gravity to anchor our feelings about the two girls for the rest of the film. Less effective, though, is when at one point Amane is asked a kind of immigration-screening quiz, and while the answer she gives is spot-on, it's framed a little too much like the way a screenwriter would think a kid would frame such an answer.
Even if the movie didn't work on an emotional level, it certainly works as a parade of uninhibited visual imagination. Animation, no matter where it's from, is a license to present us with the cheerfully impossible, and the universe these five kids are thrown into is like a museum of such things. Some of it is the characters, like Ink, a girl who works with her father as a junk scavenger and who not only has hands growing out the sides of her head but manages to look adorable and not at all creepy because of that. Sometimes it's the scenery, such as the gargantuan Space Show itself, a cross between Cirque du Soleil and a mammoth spaceborne city. Sometimes it's in the riotously colorful animation, the vast majority of which is hand-drawn and all the more impressive for it — especially in the sequences where Pochi suits up in a kind of energy armor and goes to town on his pursuers. And sometimes it's in the little touches in the corners of the screen, as in the way the same alien never seems to show up twice in the backgrounds of shots. (The movie's psychedelic design work owes at least as much to the likes of Vaughn Bode, Ralph Bakshi, and other 1970s tripsters as it does anything anime-influenced.)
Space Show was the product of director Koji Masunari (Read or Die) and screenwriter Hideyuki Kurata, whose Tokyo ESP is currently making waves, but who was also responsible for doing screenwriting duty on a wide-ranging slew of different projects: Read or Die, Kamichu!, Oreimo, Samurai Flamenco, Bamboo Blade, The World God Only Knows, Excel Saga, and the remarkable and under-sung Now and Then, Here and There. I did not consciously connect him to those other works until doing the research for Space Show's staff, but now that I have, there seem more reasons than ever to keep a close eye on the rest of his career.
Not long ago I described another GKIDS-distributed production (A Letter to Momo) as "for adults of all ages", and the same description could apply here. In, I should add, a most flattering way.
Footnote to parents: Those wondering how this film might differ from a kid's production from the U.S.: one scene early in the film presents nudity below the waist (albeit wholly in a flippant, non-sexual context), and one of the plot elements involves wasabi being treated like a drug, although admittedly in a way that's more goofy than anything else.
1 The subtitled version of the movie inadvertently ruins one of the gags here. Pochi's home planet is named "Wan", which is the Japanese onomatopoeia for a dog barking. The English subs translate this as "Planet One", where it might have been more fitting to say something like "Planet Arf".