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Encounters In Space

Two of the many high-profile anime movies released last year in Japan are due for release on DVD/BD this month (as of this writing, one has just been released), which give this otherwise dull month a reason for excitement. Incidentally, the two films were part of those films that I’ve been looking forward to since first hearing about them, not because they both looked like intricately realized thought-provoking masterpieces of art, but more so due to the way the two looked and felt: fun. It has long been said that anime is great because it is “more mature” and “more intelligent” than ordinary cartoons, but that kind of thinking unfairly categorizes the medium in a narrow-minded way. Sure, anime can be a vehicle of social commentary (some of which succeed at this) and philosophical discourse (while most have failed at this), but if it doesn’t meet a certain degree of fun and entertainment first of all, then it won’t be as effective as a whole. It becomes boring, and at times even unwatchable. Mamoru Oshii’s 1989 OVA series Gosenzosama Banbanzai is an example I can name off the top of my head which capably combines fun and lively directing and animation with socially relevant scripting and content. It’s a bit of a shame now to find what the director has come to these days, come to think of it.

While the first 2010 film has been released just recently, the other film–Takeshi Koike’s Redline–should come in two weeks (if I remember correctly). If anything, that film should be one of the most jaw-dropping spectacles of pure animation in years, and should be a welcome watch to anyone–animation geek you may be or not. Not a lot of anime films have achieved a very high level of supreme catharsis and electrifying entertainment since 2004’s Mind Game, but Redline promises to deliver, at least for the second part.

And sure enough, the anime film released just recently has become one of the highlights of my February.

Welcome to the Space Show (Koji Masunari, A – 1 Pictures)

One of the two films of 2010 I’ve watched which focused on children (the other being Mai Mai Miracle), Space Show flies high, even reaching the far reaches of deep space. It succeeds at achieving a full sense of scale and scope, endowing the film with light-hearted humor and heartfelt emotion through its simple characters. Even though the movie is spotted with pacing issues which take away from the flow of the film in exchange for immersion, but for what it’s worth, the film as a whole is very strongly directed with interesting and full animation work. What’s great about films like this is its ability to reach beyond ages, to be fun for kids and even adults alike. It’s a strong, simple work, something that I would even put alongside Mamoru Hosoda’s films in terms of appeal.

 

Welcome to the Space Show is a reunion of sorts for the main team behind Read or Die, with Masunari, Masashi Ishihama, and Hideyuki Kurata assuming the roles of director, character designer/animation director, and script/screenplay respectively. The trio also worked on Brains Base’s Kamichu, which I felt gave this most recent film its appeal and character in terms of the character animation and the imaginative settings. Space Show is more Kamichu-influenced, if only because they are both original works by the same team of people. From the opening minutes of the film, Space Show is endowed with strong action animation, but I find that it’s the succeeding sequences which gave the film its personal approach and identity. Lively shots of thoroughly conceived and full character animation set the tone for the entire two-hour duration of the film. To give an example, the exercise sequence is one of the most impressive scenes in the film. What’s nice is that it also doesn’t feel over-animated save for a few scenes. It’s the type of animation seemingly available only for movies and well-produced series, and its quality almost saves the film completely from its main problem.

A few people note the apparent similarities between Space Show and Hosoda’s Summer Wars, and it can be seen at a few spots. However, the two films are only alike on the superficial level, and they, in fact, couldn’t be any more different. Hosoda’s approach to his anime is of the simplistic and realistic flavor, ably fusing together grand premises with the touch of the every day, giving enough of the spotlight to the characters. The characters carry his film more so than the actual premise. Hosoda gives an ample focus to his characters–their motivations, their personalities, and their drama–as such rounding out the entire anime, giving it a sense of connectivity, and also broadening its overall appeal. Mamoru Hosoda is a good director because he can manipulate his characters convincingly. On the other hand, Space Show flies high. It gives off a sense of pure adventure, of a great journey seen through the eyes of its characters. In this film, it is the majestic and the well-realized setting that drives the movie forward, with the characters acting as vessels and vehicles for viewer immersion. Characterization is at the basic level, but that really isn’t a flaw here. It’s still fun either way. The broad appeal achieved by the film is delivered through its imaginatively fun and quirky world ideas and art design. A spectacle of creativity, this film is.

The many different inventive world, creature, and art designs abound in the film are the main culprits behind the film’s success. Everything revolves around them. The film itself invests quite a lot of time for the viewer to understand that this is what the anime’s vision of space looks like. The various locales and environments are highly entertaining to just look at, and it is quite easy to just lose yourself in the scale and the grandness of it all. It maintains a thoroughly unified aesthetic for the entire length of the film, and not only that, every scene is extremely pleasing to the eye at every turn. Every alien, every building, and every planet featured in this movie contribute in their own little ways to enhance the film’s sense of full scale and large scope, endowing the film with its own brand of wonderfully realized extraterrestrial fun. In that regard, the film seems like something by Miyazaki, especially in the manner in which he inserts ample doses of creative ideas in every inch of his films. Space Show just feels more contemporary, more updated, and it even has an edgier attitude to its system. More so than the actual superbly fluent animation, it is the uniquely thought-out setting that is the main draw of the film. Take that away and the film will not be as hilariously fun as it is.

I had thought that only Ghibli films were able to stretch their films to a full two hours, but it appears that there have been some exceptions as well. Shin-Ei Douga’s 2007 film Summer Days with Coo the Kappa was a two hour affair, and based on what few bits of information I got, it was supposed to run for even longer until the director, Keiichi Hara was forced to cut it. Most anime films only run for 1 hour and 30 minutes at most, and perhaps that is because of the budget and the production staff. As Shin-Ei is responsible for the timeless Shin-chan and Doraemon, I would think that they have more than enough to spare to run a film for as long as possible. Perhaps that is the same deal with Space Show. The ending credits boast a long list of people (skilled people, at that) involved in its production, and you would think A- 1 and the production committee gave them more than adequate resources to spare. However, therein lies the film’s main problem. The two-hour running time of the film hurt it more than it would like to admit. For this type of film, even the standard 90-minute length would have sufficed to convey the film’s expressiveness.

The film’s pacing issues has been observed by many before (as they had the luck to watch this in international animation festivals), and it is really apparent in many parts of the film. Some scenes, while immersing the viewer, also manage to overstay their welcome. Running for a few minutes too long, these scenes don’t feel as if they take away much from the film at first glance, but when watched as a whole, all of those needless minutes add up to subtract needed chances for the film to expand on more important things (as in the main conflict leading up into the climax). It’s the padding of scenes to reach the two-hour limit which contribute to the film’s problem. As such, sometimes the film felt like it took too long to enter the main conflict and it rushed too much in resolving it. They’re especially apparent firstly in their lunar antics, and then into the characters’ various forays into space. It would have been better if they did away with some sequences and focused on building up the problems to be faced and solved by the characters. Some characters felt a little too underdeveloped (Pochi, most especially), which takes away from the cathartic effect of the ending. But, since this was all done in exchange of incredible immersion, I’d take it. The film is, again, strong enough to stand only on its wonderful imagery, flaws aside.

I also found it a nice touch for the main theme dealt with in the film to be pointed out by a seemingly harmless scene. A simple interview in order to acquire a space passport gives viewers an idea as to what the film is all about, thematically speaking. I didn’t expect the entire narrative to lead back to that one scene as I watched the climactic sequence, and I smiled as I thought it was a really nifty way to go full circle. And again, I think this is also where the difference between Space Show and Summer Wars becomes visible. Summer Wars dealt with the importance of family and cooperation, especially in times of crisis, but Space Show talked about the values of self-reliance and self-sustainability, especially in times of crisis. In such a time of scientific exploration and adventurism, I found the said aspect to be quite an apt question. The film explores this through the characters, but not in as involved a way as Hosoda usually does, but it works well enough as a backdrop to the animation. It won’t be a genuine children’s film without the heartfelt and heart-warming moments, and true enough, the film does give us such sequences. They are done in a grounded and genuine way, so adults won’t be as put-off by them. The film is all-ages, both in terms of content and enjoyability.

Space Show won’t be as lively and as entertaining to watch as it was without the hands of capable people behind it. As such, skimming through the credits gives you a delectable list of great names which also give you an idea as to how well-produced the film really is. There is no way I can name everyone on the list, but the ones I do recognize are names which are all good enough to carry a production, no matter how exquisite it is. Some of them include Yasunori Miyazawa, Takashi Hashimoto, Soichiro Matsuda, Ryo-chimo, Takeuchi Tetsuya, the near-omnipresent Hironori Tanaka, and even Norio Matsumoto at dead last. I think I even saw Erukin Kawabata in there somewhere. There are lots of great people on board, but what’s surprising to me most of all was the inclusion of a certain Masaaki Yuasa. I’ve heard before that he was somehow involved in Space Show, and as a result, part of the reason I was excited for this film was to see his cut. His cut is incredibly easy to spot, and as always, it is imbued with the individualistic quality of the visuals only someone like Yuasa can pull off (though it isn’t as personalized as his signature cuts in Mind Game). I wonder how he could have gone aboard this project, but since some of the people involved also worked with him on his Madhouse productions, I suppose it could be because of those connections, at least partly.

To top everything off, the film even features an appearance by famed singer Susan Boyle, in what is easily the most impressive accomplishment of the production committee. She performed the ending song, and I think she also sang a few bits throughout the movie. How could they have pulled this off? Maybe it’s because of A-1’s connections to Sony or whatnot. This is just one of the many proofs of the film’s exquisitely well put-together production.

For all its worth, Welcome to the Space Show is one of the most vibrant, most energetic, and most creatively fun film of the past year. It doesn’t feature much substance, but its highly engrossing world design and art sensibilities give it its valued edge over most competitors. I don’t think I can name another recent film as inventive or imaginative as this one, leaving aside the obvious usual suspects. Summer Wars almost got the nod for the Academy Awards, but I feel that Space Show also deserved the chance, if only because of its majestic appeal and personality. If it had just fixed its problems with its pacing and length, then it would have been an honestly better choice.

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