Roughly one week into the season (and it’s been a hell of a week, considering that my top 4 picks going in haven’t even premièred yet) my top two new series have been Uchuu Kyoudai and Najo no Kanojo X. The weird part is, both of them are directed by the same guy – Watanabe Ayumu. That’s interesting on so many levels, not least because the two series are so different, and it’s the first time I’ve ever had two new shows with the same director atop my list. With anime directors – as with movie directors (and actors) – I think the great ones fall into two categories. There’s the ones who have a signature style that’s very recognizable – like Nagai Tatsuyuki and Omori Takahiro. And then there are the chameleons, who can seemingly do anything and do it well – with Mochizuki Tomomi being the more prominent example in my mind. With these two starkly different series on his résumé, Watanabe-sensei is starting to make a case for himself as one of those great chameleons.
As for the thoroughly excellent Space Brothers, it really puts me in mind of the fact that there are so few anime about adults, and why that is. I think it boils down to the fact that there are things adults know that teenagers and even young adults in their 20’s usually don’t – things that come only from experience. The best anime about adults tend to dwell on the fact that we build up regrets as we get older, and we’re always carrying them around with us – like a feather-light backpack that grows and grows with the weight of regrets accumulated, becoming a heavier and heavier burden to carry. There’s no reason young people should know that – and frankly, I don’t blame them for not wanting to watch shows about it. But when the rare such series does appear (Mochizuki’s Sarai-ya Goyou, for example) it’s something to be treasured.
Of course, even once you learn that hard lesson, if you’re lucky you learn another one eventually – most of the regrets in the heavy bag on our backs don’t come from things we’ve done and wish we hadn’t, but things we didn’t do and wish we had. That seems to be the central theme of this first part of Uchuu Kyoudai, and it seems as if Hirata Hiroaki has become a sort of spokesman for this generation of men in anime. Tiger & Bunny was a hit, but a big part of that was because we got to see Kotetsu interacting with a bunch of youngsters and becoming a mentor to them. Here, Mutta is so far fighting an internal battle – he’s learned the first lesson of regrets, and he’s starting to learn the second. Hirata-san is proving himself a fantastic actor, and he’s the heart and soul of this show so far. It’s very well-written and cleverly directed, but he’s the one making the connection with this viewer.
It’s clear that the burden of being the older brother has weighed on Mutta from a young age. By taking some of that weight on himself, he’s made it easier for Hibito to chase his dreams freely – but at a cost to himself. But it’s still poignant to see how much all the freedom and confidence in the boy has been lost to fear and caution in the man. We see this through a visit with “Aunt Sharon” (Ikeda Masako) whose telescope gave the young Mutta his first glimpses of the moon’s craters in detail. I’m not sure of the relationship here – Sharon’s telescope is on top of what very much appears to be her house, yet it’s also a full-fledged observatory. Is she rich, and is she his biological Aunt or just a family friend? I also get the sense that Sharon’s colleague Tamura-san may also be her partner, but it’s nothing more than an implication.
In any event it’s clear Sharon was a huge influence in young Mutta’s life, and not just with her telescope. She encouraged the boy to try new things, and in those days he was game for anything – trying out every instrument she provided for him before settling on the trumpet. True, the rendition of “Danny Boy” that he and Hibito performed wasn’t especially good, but the point was that Mutta picked up any skill he wanted to and backed away from no challenge. It’s a present-day visit to Sharon that convinces Mutta to go for it with JAXA after all, despite his poor odds. And so he does, subjecting himself to a series of exams as the agency whittles down the candidate pool from 315 to 45, and next to 8 and eventually the three winners. Along the way we meet the two who seem likely to join Mutta at JAXA – slick-haired Makabe Kenji (Katou Masayuki), 31, and 26 year-old hottie Itou Serika (Sawashiro MIyuki – given that she also plays the young Mutta, I don’t want to consider the Freudian implications should romance develop). There also the examiner Hoshika Masa (Ryuzanji Shou, so wonderful as Usui in Rurouni Kenshin) who uses his own screening process by loosening a screw on the chair the applicants use.
There are a lot of touches in this ep that really worked, such as the irony that Mutta was convinced his fiddling with the screw had cost him his chance – when in fact, the fact that he noticed and was able to tighten it esteemed him in Hoshika’s eyes (Masa had plaid the same trick on him – I wonder if this is based on a true story). While it seems likely Mutta will eventually pass and join JAXA, the length of the series means that the journey will be a long and uneven one, and it’s going to be especially interesting because it’s himself and his demons (see the chair example) that present the biggest obstacles to Mutta. Not least of these is how to deal with the reality of his brothers fame – will his pride allow Mutta to use that to his advantage, and is that something he should do, even if so? We also get more of the quirky humor of the premiere, such as Mutta accidentally (subconscious at work?) flushing his mother down the toilet. Another great element is that relationship with Mutta and Mom – Hirata and Tanaka Mayumi are hilarious together, and it represents yet another rarity in modern anime – a realistic relationship between an adult and his parents. It may not sell the Blu-rays, but it’s those rarities in Uchuu Kyoudai that endear it to me the most.