A fan of anime? Not a fan of anime? It doesn't matter because either way, Space Travelers can be appreciated for its inventive approach to creating a feature that integrates live action with impressive animated sequences. These references will no doubt be enough to keep the otakus happy, but the sublime depiction of a failed bank robbery should be more than enough to keep everyone happy.
The film opens with the question "What are you doing now?". You could criticise any other movie for opening with such a provocative question, but Space Travelers is a film about finding paradise. Three young men who grew up together in an orphanage decide to try and find their own personal nirvana as embodied by a photograph of a beach they carry around. Although they have no idea where it may be, they decide that the best way of realising this ambition is by robbing a bank at closing time and leaving with enough money to catch a plane to a destination where they may ultimately retire and live out the rest of their concordant lives in a clichéd beach environment.
At this point some people may be making comparisons to Hollywood films like Quick Change or Dog Day Afternoon, but this is where the similarities end. Nishiyama (Kaneshiro) is the charismatic leader of the gang, playing the elder-brother/father figure to the other two: Fujimoto (Ando), an anime fan with a predilection for a fictional series called Space Travelers coupled with the naivety of a schoolboy, and Takamura (Ikeuchi), the silent-type with eagle eyes that would put Action Man dolls to shame. Unfortunately the heist goes wrong and leaves them unable to reach the vault. A hostage attempting escape raises the alarm and within minutes the bank is enveloped with the boys in blue. Being relatively new to the bank-robbing game, the three don't have a contingency plan, and are left puzzled as to their next step.
Over a short period of time each of the hostages realise they are bored with their own mundane lives and that this bank robbery is the most exciting thing to have ever happened to them. When they realise that the robbers are humane and caring people beneath their initially militant demeanour, they feel they are no longer in danger and willingly open themselves up to the robbers to help their cause. As various events unfold inside the bank, Fujimoto notices subtle idiosyncrasies in the actions of everyone in the main foyer of the bank corresponding to each of the personalities of the main characters in his favourite anime. This dropping of the proverbial penny paves the way for much rediscovery via each of them taking on the persona of a character from the Space Travelers anime. The hostages who help make up the fictional bank-heist team are: an owner of a small electrical appliance store who wants to be appreciated for his superb electronics knowledge; a warring couple on the verge of divorce; the bank's loans assistant, who is an introvert but wants to have more courage; the bank's customer service assistant named Midori (Fukatsu), who has always had a secure life but yearns for adventure, and a mysterious customer (Watanabe) who carries around a bag of money and a suspicious looking teddy-bear.
The help provided from the hostages makes the gang of robbers appear to be much larger and sophisticated than they really are and throws the police and tactical operations teams into confusion. As the hours pass and the robbers and hostages express their true colours, they end up believing in each other's merits and aspirations, but a forced entry from the tactical operations teams is inevitable and they must decide how to resolve the situation. How does it all end? You'll have to wait till the end of the film to find out, but like life, it's the journey and not the destination that counts, and Space Travelers contains a lot of personal journeys.
The humour translates smoothly from the Japanese as nearly all the puns that arise from this dramatic situation are physical, rarely verbal. If you can read and understand human expression, you'll easily be won over. The performances from the cast are way above standard with each actor/actress playing an accurate-to-life embodiment of their character, and the chemistry between all of them, considering their circumstances, is magical enough to induce any moviegoer into a sense of security.
The choreography is stunning considering the enclosed spaces that Motohiro (who previously directed the highly successful precinct drama Bayside Shakedown in '98 - another film based on a TV Series) was given to direct in. The gracious panning and other sleek camera movements that are added to the artistic choice of still angles keep the action sequences fresh and the sentimental scenes wholesome.
This is a film that celebrates the attractions of anime, and later spawned a one-off animated short of the same name based on the characters of Fujimoto's favourite tale. Beneath all that it is a film about human spirit and aspiring to make yourself happier, which would potentially make it a film for everyone. If you're not put off by good chemistry and melodrama that might be mistaken as slightly cheesy when taken out of context, it would be worth investing some time to immerse yourself in the tale that the Space Travelers has weaved for you. It may well help you to re-evaluate your own life. So, "What are you doing now"?