It would be so easy to overlook Space Brothers in the flood of equally great but flashier anime this Spring. This has nothing to recommend it apart from preternaturally incisive examination of the human condition and the sheer oddity of its premise and cast, though there’s no doubt that those things will endear it to a segment of the population that normally wouldn’t be watching anime and still won’t be buying Blu-rays. But for me there’s no denying its place among the best simply on merit, and this episode was my clear-cut favorite of the series so far. I found its examination of the sibling relationship especially profound, and that’s not a word I throw around very often when talking about anime.
As I said last week, this show has the perfect title – “Space Brothers” – because those are the two obsessions that make up the core of the series. The love of mangaka Koyama Chuuya for space and everything about it is plain in the writing, such as the tributes to great space films like “The Right Stuff” and this week, “Apollo 13”. The extensive usage of the powerful imagery of Tom Hanks’ Jim Lovell blocking out the moon with his thumb was nicely played here, especially as it related to Mutta’s musings on how far away it was and Hibito’s response – “Remember when we rode our bicycles to Grandma’s house in Kyoto?” Three days is three days, in his mind. There’s no doubt space is romanticized here, but I have no problem with that – for these two boys it was love at first sight, and the affair continues.
The different ways Hibito and Mutta look at the question of distance are quite telling, and really take us back to the strong theme of this week, the sibling relationship. I was very pleased to see the adult Hibito finally enter the story as a major force, because until know we’ve really only seen him through Mutta’s eyes – as the boy he was, and as an adult whose strengths are romanticized to frightening levels and weaknesses to comic levels. There are several great scenes that touch on this but my favorite is the one where Mutta goes around Hibito’s rented house and points out all the small details that Hibito has missed – the peeling poster, the dead light bulb, the curtain hook, the cactus that rarely needs watering (with half the UPC sticker still attached). For Mutta these are important, for Hibito simply evidence that Mutta is “anal”. But speaking as someone who’s a lot like Mutta, they also speak to the fact that Hibito is happier in his life than Mutta – and that Mutta, as I’ve said many times, is one of those people who simply thinks too much. Hibito lives in the present, while Mutta is always worrying about either the past or the future.
To say that the relationship between these two is complicated is an understatement. Brothers pretty much always have complex relationships, but that’s not explored in anime nearly often enough and rarely as well as it is here. The fact is that Hibito still measures himself against Mutta, even as Mutta already thinks of himself as a failure. Even with the JAXA possibility looming he can only focus on how far behind his younger brother he is, and the only way he can try and compete is to go back and trump Hibito the same ways he did as a child, before Hibito caught and passed him – as he always did. One day Hibito was faster than he was, then taller – and when he got to middle school, poor student Hibito was suddenly getting better grades, too. In Mutta’s mind this race has already been run, and lost – but Hibito still longs for nothing more than to have Mutta’s back to focus on to drive himself forward.
Another element I enjoyed this week was the introduction of Hibito’s neighbors, the older couple Mr. and Mrs. Smith (how cliched is that?). There’s a fun element of culture shock as they interact, Mutta explaining the Japanese meaning of the expression “he has a screw loose” – which is quite different from the English one – as they eat hot dogs in the park. In Mutta’s head Hibito still has a screw loose, he’s “missing something” – and when the Smiths (Nakamura Tadashi, Taura Tamaki) grasp the notion of the Japanese meaning, they gently tell him that he’s right, and what Hibito is missing is his brother as his inspiration. That’s the part that’s both saddest and most hopeful here – even if Mutta has stopped believing in himself, Hibito still believes in him.
More than ever I’m quite pleased with where Space Brothers stands, and where it’s going. I like the new setting, with Mutta adjusting to Houston and the introduction of the NASA crew and Apo the pug, one of the best anime dogs I’ve seen for a while. The pacing continues to be steady and pleasing, leading to the expectation that this show is going to be around for a while. And there’s the interesting possibility that the JAXA trials might not end as expected after all, but that Mutta might have a future with another space agency instead. Uchuu Kyoudai isn’t going to break any speed records, but it (like its main character) may in fact be the iconic tortoise, still going strong when other series have spent their energies and their race is run.