Sitges 2010: WELCOME TO THE SPACE SHOW Review
Following a delirious prologue featuring alien poachers locked in deadly combat with a bad-ass entity of pure fire, Koji Masunari's animated feature Welcome to the Space Show innocently begins with a group of children being dropped off at rural summer camp. It being a self-run summer camp, devoid of adults, and coordinated by a teenager, the kids are initially bored out of their skulls and pass the time looking for a camper's missing rabbit. Now fortunately, their tedium is cut short when their activities lead them to a talking dog named Poochie, who invites them to join him on a trip to the Moon. Unfortunately, the moment they get to the Moon, all travel to the earth gets banned due to an illegal attempt at wasabi procurement (re: that aforementioned action sequence with the alien poachers). You see wasabi is apparently the spice melange of the universe, part crack-cocaine for aliens, part interstellar fuel source. Whoever controls the wasabi, controls the universe - that sorta deal.
Is your head hurting yet? Because this is only the first 40 odd minutes of 136. Following the children's exile from Earth, they end up working jobs in the sprawling metropolis that covers the dark side of the Moon in order to raise money for an interstellar train ride that'll take them to the far edge of the galaxy, where Poochie believes he can devise a means of getting them back to camp before their parents pick them up. Illegal wasabi trading, car-chases on a planet of dogs, and battles against an evil celebrity octopus' minions ensue on their adventures, whilst Poochie also tries to patch things up with a sultry lady-dog pop-star. The whole thing deliriously follows the logic of a five-year-old recounting a fever dream or a Racer Rodriguez screenplay: And then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened...etc.
Visually things are equally demented and schizophrenic, shifting from beautifully illustrated, but rather conservative and ordinary landscapes of the Japanese countryside to spectacular computer-generated intergalactic vistas and outlandish ornamental starships that parade through webs of stars in a sequence that felt evocative of Ghost and the Shell 2 by way of the Yellow Submarine.
But behind this wonderful veneer of WTF plotting and hallucinogenic imagery, there isn't much of to the story. It may be hilariously convoluted, but it isn't much more then a mess of tried and true cliches leading to an overwrought confrontation with an expected "ultimate evil". The cliches are also carried into the cute, but rather bland ensemble of children thrown into all this madness. The two major protagonists are sisters appear modeled after the Satsuki and Mei relationship from My Neighbor Totoro and their character growth is perfunctory and predictable. The other humans are a thin stock characters, typical of adventure films of this ilk. There is a geeky boy, a fashionable girl, and the supervising teenager who is insecure about growing up. I suppose in one sense, these characters are serving as straight-men to the lunacy of their surroundings, but they could still stand to be dynamic personalities. They are by no means dull, but they feel like a list of attributes, rather then real individuals.
The alien characters fare much better, both in personality and especially in their design, which are often reminiscent of the many faces of God from Studio 4*C's MINDGAME. There are sentient dominos pieces, brethren of Cthulhu, giant purple rabbits (that look eerily like Totoros) and, my personal favorite, a humanoid bureaucrat made up of orange goo and a gold fish bowl for a head (complete with goldfish). And although Poochie is less remarkable in comparison to his extra-terrestrial pals, he is a firecracker of emotions, bouncing between an enthusiastic optimism and a somewhat disturbing and angry intensity. That Poochie occasionally loses his cool, even in front of the children, adds a welcome sense of ambiguity to his character.
And in the end it is all the eccentric details to these alien worlds and characters that will keep you grinning throughout. Although the film never strays too far from typical anime character and narrative conventions, how those conventions get applied are remarkably endearing and, more often then not, bat-shit insane. I'm still grinning just thinking about it.
Aniplex has the first 20 minutes of the film up on their YouTube Channel. Although the clip ends before the film gets really zany. I've embedded it below with the trailer. The film opens in Japan in a few days.