"Welcome to THE SPACE SHOW": A Universe of Beauty
I like my movies story- and character-heavy; visual beauty is just a bonus. But Welcome to THE SPACE SHOW, directed by Koji Masunari with the help of Tomonori Ochikoshi, Masashi Ishihama and Hideyuki Kurata, shows that beauty sometimes really is enough to please me. Masunari has television experience—he had directorial duties for Read or Die-TV, Honey and Clover, Tenchi Universe! and a number of others—but Welcome to THE SPACE SHOW is his first movie, and it’s an impressive debut. It has a simple story, but it works well thanks to the sheer beauty of its world and characters.
The movie starts out with a bang, literally, with a fast-moving battle between aliens: one, which looks somewhat like a knight and glows a bright red, against an antler-eared white alien and its small, hedgehog-like companion. It isn’t entirely obvious what they are fighting about—there is an intentional undertone of mystery because Masunari hasn’t established who the audience is supposed to be rooting for—but each attack/explosion is a visual delight. It ends with the white alien (and his companion) escaping and the red one seemingly blown to bits.
After this intense opening, we cut to the main character, Natsuke, waking up late to a workout session. As it happens, she and her sister Amane, along with three other children are going camping at school for a week. The parents leave and the kids try to get some actual schoolwork done, but fail due to the loss of their pet rabbit Pyon-Kichi. The oldest of the group, Kiyoshi, takes charge and suggests looking for the bunny. While looking, they come upon the wreckage of the battle that took place the night before, and with it find a talking dog named Pochi, who turns out to be the red knight-like alien. He is injured from the battle and the kids nurse him back to health. They learn that he has come to Earth to find an incredibly rare, thought-to-be-extinct flower, Zughaan. One thing leads to another and the kids end up stuck in space and trying to find a way home. As I mentioned earlier, the plot is simple: kids trying to find their way home while dealing with the underlying mystery of Zughaan and why everybody wants it.
But the story benefits from the fantastic job it does setting up the protagonists. All of them have a dream or a wish that they hope comes true. Natsuke wants to be a superhero; Kiyoshi wants to help people; Noriko wants to be a model/beauty queen, Koji wishes to know everything about space and Amane wants her sister to think of her as an equal and for the two of them to stop fighting. Of course, those are just their surface desires. Throughout the story they become deeper and deeper, making each character compelling and interesting to watch as they grow. Pochi, on the other hand, is compelling due to his mystery. There is a lot of fun to be had watching the kids adjust to space (eating space burgers, getting visas and then getting jobs), and the film is effortlessly hilarious. (I’m pretty picky about humor, too.)
On the flip side, though the villains are dangerous and provide good action scenes, they don’t get enough development and fall kind of flat. We get glimpses here and there, and it’s established that Pochi has a past with the villains, but it is never fleshed out, so when he finally confronts them it isn’t as intense one might hope.
The animation is gorgeously detailed, and showcases a lot of obvious thought and effort. Fluid character animation makes even the human characters adorable, but the real eye candy comes in outer space, beginning with the first stop on the dark side of the Moon. This is home to a big, cute, crazy, and colorful intergalactic city that boasts the most striking designs, both for the aliens and the architecture, that I’ve ever seen. Then there is The Space Show itself, which is the universe’s most popular television show, run by a tomato-like alien named Neppo and starring a beautiful dog named Maria. It’s a show that goes out of its way to be more over the top each time it comes on the air, meaning more monsters, bigger stakes and bigger explosions. When first introduced, its opening sequence is a surreal combination of shapes and colors, and eventually a kidnapping takes the characters (and The Space Show itself) to the birthplace of a star, which provides another excuse for brilliant, vivid color work. But even when the movie goes for simple artwork, as on Pochi’s home, Planet One, it looks good. Planet One—where all the inhabitants are disguised as talking dogs—conveys the atmosphere of a nicer looking, more technologically advanced Earth.
Welcome to THE SPACE SHOW is a fun, light-hearted ride. It’s not a deep or complex story, but the characters and their struggles as they face the transition from childhood to adulthood are things that anyone can relate to. Its weakness of plotting aside, the movie is also amply carried by its characters and its spectacular animation and music.
Watch out Miyazaki, Koji Masunari is in town.