Twelve year old Sasshi (voiced by Tomoko Saeki) returns from summer camp to rejoin his lifelong friend Arumi (Yuko Matsuoka) in Osaka where he finds his family's bath-house torn down and the once-thriving Abenobashi Shopping Arcade fast fading away. Everyone else has abandoned their street markets and shops but Arumi's grandfather stubbornly clings onto his teriyaki restaurant until a freak accident lands him in hospital. Intrigued by a shared family secret Sasshi and Arumi learn the restaurant forms one point in mystical pentagram harking back to Osaka's supernatural past. At which point Sasshi suddenly notices dragons flying in the sky and giant mushrooms disco dancing in the street! In a madcap adventure, Sasshi and Arumi are catapulted into a medieval fantasy realm and then one alternate reality after another: a space opera world, a world based on Hong Kong kung fu films, the prehistoric past and other parallel Earths drawn from Sasshi's wildest fan-boy dreams. Repeatedly harassed by busty, bespectacled Mune (Aya Hisakawa), the hyper-manic adolescents struggle to figure out what the heck is going on and find their way home.
Studio Gainax, Japan's most innovative anime studio, started out as a collective of anime, manga and science fiction geeks whose breakthrough work, the exuberant short film Daicon IV (1983), was a giddy animated thrill-ride through the entire history of fantasy and SF. With the television serial Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi Gainax co-founder Hiroyuki Yamaga revives this conceit as each alternate reality explored by Sasshi and Arumi parodies a different aspect of geek culture. Hence world number one sends up fantasy role-playing games, complete with power bars, multiple levels, pop-up screens, hidden magical items and rambling, pointless conversations with annoying 'non-player' characters. Thereafter Sasshi and an increasingly exasperated Arumi end up on a space station under an Ultraman-shaped dome full of Time Bokan-style steampunk mecha flying a giant robot in battle against an overgrown Pokemon clone. Sasshi's unrestrained glee when he realizes he is in a pastiche of Seventies anime space operas, tokkusatsu and giant robot shows is priceless as he struggles to come up with cool-sounding, hyperbolic names for robot combat moves!
Along with co-founding Studio Gainax with fellow anime nerd Hideaki Anno, who makes a vocal cameo here as an alien, Yamaga directed one of the greatest science fiction anime of all time: The Wings of Honneamise (1987), scripted the charming semi-autobiographical fantasy Otaku No Video (1991) then vanished from creative duties for fifteen years. He returned with a double-whammy of TV shows seguing from the lightweight SF comedy of Mahromatic (2001) into the more ambitious genre-bending madness of Abenobashi. Based on a manga by Kenji Tsuruta, creator of the much-beloved steampunk fantasy Spirit of Wonder (1992), Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi transcends mere postmodern hijinks to weave a disarmingly dense, nuanced story as emotional as it is funny. In a surprise collaboration with comedy screenwriter Satoru Akahori (the equivalent of J.J. Abrams working with Judd Apatow), Yamaga clearly relishes indulging his inner fan-boy. He crams the show with mile-a-minute allusions to every Japanese genre icon and beyond, from Yatterman to Gamera, Captain Harlock to, surprisingly enough, the obscure and much-derided space heroine anime Hyperdolls (1995). The pop culture references don't stop with Japan's genre output. Abenobashi also includes an especially funny parody of the prehistoric ape intro and stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a giant Mr. Vampire doll terrorizing Hong Kong and a martial arts montage part-inspired by the Shaw Brothers kung fu favourite 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) where Sasshi morphs into Bruce Lee (in iconic yellow tracksuit from Game of Death (1978) of course), Ken the hulking hero of Fist of the North Star (1986), Son Goku from Dragonball then inexplicably screams "Adrian!" a la Rocky (1976).
However, what elevates Abenobashi from mere fan-boy masturbatory antics is a subtle emotional core. The opening episode is for the most part surprisingly low-key and character driven. Yamaga deftly intertwines ordinary, everyday adolescent angst with heady flights of fancy and exhibits real empathy with his disenfranchised child heroes, stuck in a dead-end existence with no future thanks to Japan's economic downturn. Ever since the breakout success of seminal giant robot epic Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), Gainax have sought to celebrate the possibilities inherent in the SF and fantasy genres while at the same time critiquing the escapist attitudes of genre fans. Here Sasshi would rather explore endless infantile alternate fantasy realms than confront his problems in the real world. As in Gainax's earlier, even more confrontational FLCL (2000), Magical Shopping Mall Abenobashi argues persuasively that fantasy need not function as a means of escape but a source by which one can draw inspiration and strength to tackle real problems in new ways.
At the same time Yamaga interweaves the story with allusions to Osaka's historical past as a fount of supernatural phenomena as well as its strong ties to the 'manzai' comedy movement. Takeshi Kitano is one of many Japanese comedians who hail from Osaka. Hence the serial-like plot of Abenobashi is structure much like a succession of comedic skits. Voiced to perfection by Tomoko Saeki and Yuko Matsuoka, Sasshi and Arumi are appealing adolescent heroes with peppy 'country kid' personalities quite different and more engaging than the average Tokyo teens found in anime. Their motormouth monologues are especially funny. Shiro Sagisu's score often breaks into parodies of themes from films like Star Wars (1977) and more surprisingly, television shows like Charlie's Angels with opening and end themes performed by Megumi Hayashibara, the most popular voice actress in anime.