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Andrew Osmond investigates an unexpected link between Madhouse and Disney

Cartoon fans should know Stitch. He’s the toothy blue delinquent, aptly described as “an evil koala,” who fell to Earth in Disney’s 2002 film Lilo and Stitch and was tamed (a bit) by a little Hawaiian girl. Now he’s the star of the Madhouse TV anime Stitch!, in which he falls to Earth again and is tamed by a little Japanese girl. What, you’re a Stitch fan and you’ve not heard of it? Actually, not many Westerners have…

Lilo and Stitch had anime links from the beginning. Film directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois made no secret that one of their inspirations was Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro. According to DeBlois, “We were inspired by the way Miyazaki created realistic relationships between the human characters, [Totoro’s)] sister-sister relationship, and wove in a realm of fantasy and whimsy very subtly.” In Disney’s film, Lilo was voiced by Daveigh Chase, while David Ogden Stiers voiced Jumba, Stitch’s alien inventor. Both actors reunited in the Disney dub of Spirited Away, where Chase voiced Chihiro and Stiers voiced the spider-man Kamaji.

In Lilo and Stitch, the delinquent Stitch fled from the galactic authorities to Hawaii, where he met Lilo, a cutely stumpy six-year-old eccentric with boundless imagination and energy. One of the main charms of the Disney version is that Lilo and Stitch are obviously kindred spirits, lovers of mischief and adventure. However, the film also played up their dark side; they’re both damaged, angry infants with a terror of rejection. Stitch sums up the moral at the film’s end: “This is my family… Is little and broken, but still good.”

Disney spun off Lilo and Stitch into a 65-part TV series and three video films. Then it surprised everyone by announcing that the Madhouse studio in Tokyo would make its own TV version of the franchise. In the anime Stitch!, the blue monster crashes not on Hawaii but on a fictional Japanese island, Izayoi. Instead of Lilo, Stitch meets Yuna, a preteen girl tomboy who practices karate and helps Stitch carry out good deeds. Several adversaries from the Disney version return in the anime, including the bungling Gantu, who looks like a walking whale, and the megalomaniac Dr. Hamsterviel, who looks like… Oh, work it out.

Later episodes of the anime introduced Delia, Hamsterviel’s long-eared femme fatale partner, who was voiced by the actress Romi Park, Edward Elric in Fullmetal Alchemist. Stitch himself was voiced by famed actor Koichi Yamadera, whose roles include Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop and Togusa in Ghost in the Shell. Yamadera has dubbed the Japanese versions of numerous Disney characters, including Roger Rabbit, Sebastian in The Little Mermaid and the Genie in Aladdin. (The American Stitch was snarled and gibbered by the film’s co-director, Chris Sanders.)

Stitch, of course, is clearly the reason why the anime was made. He’s a truly inspired cartoon character, with a personality akin to a Joe Dante Gremlin or a Tasmanian devil but much cuter than either. Even before the anime, Stitch soft toys were festooning the shelves of Tokyo toyshops, competing with the likes of Totoro.

Sanders, on his own account, is fascinated by a particular kind of mammalian head; low eyes and a nose that’s big and high on the face. Remember that when you watch the film that he and Deblois made after Lilo: Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon, which has a very Stitch-ish firebreather.

Then there’s the Madhouse factor. In recent years, the anime studio that brought us everything from Ninja Scroll to Redline has been busy adapting Western properties like there’s no tomorrow. Madhouse contributed to the Animatrix and Batman Gotham Knight anthologies; it animated Highlander: The Search for Vengeance; and it’s now adapting American TV sagas (Supernatural: The Animation) and Marvel heroes (Iron Man, Wolverine, X-Men and Blade). In that respect, Madhouse’s version of Stitch! fits right in.

Except… why haven’t we heard more about it? Domestically, the show seems successful; it’s run three years and 85 episodes. Yet Disney seems in no hurry releasing it elsewhere. The early episodes, at least, have been dubbed into English, though none of the original Anglophone cast has returned. The dubs have reportedly shown in the UK on the Disney Cinemagic channel, and in some other territories, but with very little fanfare.

Why? Perhaps because, in honesty, if you’re a fan of Lilo and Stitch, then the anime Stitch! won’t measure up. You feel the difference in animation quality; the characters’ stock, frequently static expressions are a thin substitute for L&S’s quirkily charming toon acting, even in its TV incarnation. You miss the stubby, bottom-heavy designs of Lilo and her Hawaiian peers, and the softly luminous island scenery.

Far more important, though, Yuna and Stitch lack the eccentric chemistry of Lilo and Stitch. Disney’s Lilo was as much of a character as Stitch himself, arguably more, while Yuna just comes over as a standard anime girl. Having one without the other is like Snoopy without Charlie Brown, or Scooby-Doo without Shaggy.

There’s also the puzzle of the story’s relationship to the Disney original. Why isn’t Stitch still in Hawaii with Lilo? An obvious answer would have been to establish the anime as a parallel universe story, in which Stitch landed in Izayoi instead of Hawaii. You could even have a crossover where the anime Stitch met Lilo via a dimension jump. The Disney series included a time-travel episode, with a fairly similar plot to the anime The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, so parallel universes would be no stretch.

Instead, the anime is ill-advisedly presented as a sequel to Lilo and Stitch, supposedly set after the Disney duo split up. One confusing Stitch! episode, broadcast this January, had Lilo visiting Izayoi and joyfully reuniting with Stitch… only for her to turn out to be Lilo’s daughter, with an adult Lilo showing up for a last goodbye. It was meant as a touching crossover, but it was likelier to offend fans of the Disney characters by breaking up the definitive partnership. Imagine an American Doraemon in which the blue robot cat blithely moves on from Nobita, the little-boy hero of the decades-long anime, to hook up with an L.A valley boy!

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