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Andrew Osmond points out that sometimes it really is kids’ stuff

Welcome to the Space ShowThe film Welcome to the Space Show, released today on DVD and Blu-ray, lives up to its name, sending us through a bright universe of exotic aliens and crazy cities. Five perky Japanese kids find an injured dog – only the dog is a well-spoken alien called Pochi, who offers to be their intergalactic guide. Naturally, the adventure spins out of control, but what’s showmanship without a little danger?

Welcome to the Space Show has points in common with most Western cartoon films. It’s suitable for all ages; it’s a self-contained story with its own characters; and it’s an epic fantasy adventure. It’s also one of several expensive, ambitious family films by heavyweight anime studios in recent years.

But first, here’s a cautionary tale about an American family cartoon film, to strike a chord with anime artists and executives. Back in the 1990s, Warner Brothers made a fairy-tale toon musical for families, called Thumbelina. The story goes that before it opened, Warners held two test screenings, showing Thumbelina clips to see how audiences would respond.

Thumbelina Movie PosterOn the first screening, the audience reaction was “Meh.”

On the second, the test scores soared.

Can you guess what naughty Warner Brothers did the second time?

Answer – it had stuck the Disney logo on the Thumbelina footage. We all know that branding is king, but it’s spectacularly obvious in the field of family animated movies. Let’s consider 2010, when Space Show came out in Japan. 2010 saw other standalone family anime films; the child’s-eye drama Mai Mai Miracle, and the computer-animated Yona Yona Penguin. Both latter films were made by the prolific Madhouse studio – yes, the home of Ninja Scroll and Black Lagoon!

So how much did these family films earn? Here’s some context: that year’s Pokemon and One Piece films, both spun off from hugely popular manga and TV shows, each earned more than $50 million in Japan. Ghibli’s new film, Arrietty, earned $111 million. The films from two other franchises, Detective Conan (aka Case Closed) and Doraemon, pulled in $38 million. Below them were more franchise spinoffs: a Crayon Shin-chan film (about a naughty little boy) at $15 million, and the new PreCure or Pretty Cure pic (magical girl fare), earning just under $14 million.

And Welcome to the Space Show, Mai Mai Miracle, and Yona Yona Penguin? All three earned less than a million dollars each at Japanese cinemas.

Don’t feel too bad for them. Most Japanese cinema films aren’t expected to make their money back on the big-screen. The original Ghost in the Shell didn’t turn a profit on its Japanese cinema release, where it played only a fortnight; nor did a landmark epic like Wings of Honneamise. Still, the box-office disparity between the “brand” films and the standalone films is a bit of a shock. It’s certainly not because Pokemon XIV is fifty times better than Welcome to the Space Show or Mai Mai Miracle. It’s because of the power of the franchise. An anime film without the infrastructure of TV and manga (or the Ghibli name) just won’t do Pikachu figures.

But then there are the foreign markets. Western fans may complain that anime is often treated as one undifferentiated mass, with titles removed from their Japanese contexts. By the same token, though, it lessens the stranglehold of anime brands. There are a few powerful Japanese names in the British market, like Akira, Miyazaki and (ahem) Pikachu. But there’s also much more space for neglected titles to get recognition.

TokikakeThat goes especially for animated family films, where – series like Ice Age and Shrek aside – we expect self-contained stories that don’t need prior knowledge. The Girl who Leapt Through Time was based on a famous Japanese story, but it didn’t need that leg-up to sell in Britain. Anime in Japan is primarily a TV medium; in the West, it’s driven by hit movies. Family films like Welcome to the Space Show or Spirited Away show a friendly face to newbie foreigners who wouldn’t buy, say, the first Bleach box set.

The recent anime season at the BFI Southbank in London showcased several such films. They included Production I.G.’s Letter to Momo, the same studio’s CGI fantasy Oblivion Island, and Makoto Shinkai’s Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below. The BFI notes accompanying the season said, “A frequent misconception is that anime is invariably violent, or only for adults, but titles such as Momo or Oblivion Island are perfectly suitable for children.”

There’s no sign of such films running out. This May, Toei Animation released Rainbow-Coloured Fireflies: The Eternal Summer Vacation, about a young boy time-slipping back thirty years. July will see Mamoru Hosoda, director of The Girl who Leapt… and Summer Wars, release the furry-kids film The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki. Fans of the late Satsohi Kon, meanwhile, still hope the Madhouse studio will complete his last project, The Dream Machine, “a road movie with robots” that’s suitable for children.

Of course, there’s still the problem of how such films will fare outside Japan against Western brands: Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Aardman… Every anime studio must have envied Ghibli when its mascot Totoro had a walk-on in the Pixar megahit, Toy Story 3. Then there’s the Japanese CGI  Friends: Naki of Monster Island, which opened in Japan last December. Judging by its cinema trailer, it has very Asian-folklorish trappings, like Production I.G.’s Letter to Momo. However, the story of a human baby adopted by monsters seems strikingly close to a certain Pixar film.

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Friends has reportedly earned in the region of $20 million – a great haul in Japan, though not enough to worry Pikachu or Luffy. Ironically, Friends’ echoes of Pixar may be a liability in the West; they could make it look like a knockoff. Welcome to the Space Show, on the other hand, has its lush old-style drawings, of the kind seldom seen in Hollywood animation these days. True, it’s not as commercially sure-fire as a Totoro logo. But maybe it’ll show people that classy anime doesn’t need killer brands.

Welcome to the Space Show is out now on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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