Hirata Hiroaki really is a marvel. I had a hard time believing he could top his performance as Kotetsu T. Kabaragi, but he might just be doing so here – as Mutta, he’s even more restrained and focused while still bringing the same sense of emotional honesty and barely-contained frustration as the cruelties life presents him. Hirata-san’s performance is so utterly natural that you forget it’s a performance – he simply is Mutta, and it’s he who brings you into this story and holds your interest. They ought to play this anime for any youngster aspiring to be a seiyuu – or even better, for every guy working in the US animation industry as an actor.
Of course much of the credit goes to the character as written, and Hirata is undeniably lucky to have found two such characters in succession as they’re rare birds in anime – grown-ups with grown-up problems, still young and proud but old enough to realize that the dreams they had as boys aren’t all going to work out the way they’d hoped. I think Mutta had a bit of a revelatory moment here when he was watching Hibito wow his cohorts with his physical prowess. As Hibito sprinted during his distance run and broke bench-press records and the others shouted “Samurai Boy!” he initial reacted the way any Japanese would to hear such things about his younger brother – it was the absurdity of it that stood out. This was the goofball little kid with chopsticks in his nose, not a samurai. But eventually he realized the difference between Hibito and himself that was relevant here – Hibito simply moves forward. He doesn’t complain, he doesn’t worry – he just does. And if you’re someone for whom such things don’t come naturally, it’s impossible to explain to someone for whom they do just how infuriating that is.
Not to be lost in all this is the fact that the main thing driving Hibito forward in all this is that he’s trying to make Mutta proud of him. He keeps doing his best to make Mutta understand this – up to and including cheerleading for his brother on an American late-night talk show – but the disconnect in Mutta’s head is still too strong. Still, he’s making an impression – and slowly, the things that make Mutta special are beginning to impress those around him. The very obsession that causes him to fret over every detail while Hibito plows ahead mean that he catches all the things others miss – the UPC stickers, the corner of the wall poster, the loose screw in the chair, even the shampoo bubbles. It was this obsession with detail that made Mutta a great car designer. And in life and death situations like space travel, there’s a place for people for whom no detail is unimportant – where a single loose screw could mean the demise of everyone in the crew, don’t you want someone in the crew who never misses one?
Mutta’s NASA guide Jennifer is starting to see this (keeping Hibito’s lap times in his head shows Mutta’s obsessive nature) and our old friend Hoshika-san from JAXA has seen it, too. This is another wonderful performance, by veteran live actor Ryuzanji Sho (only his third seiyuu role, though one was truly legend – Usui in Ruroini Kenshin). He’s someone who isn’t afraid to go his own way and it’s been obvious he was in Mutta’s corner since the selection process began, but the details are becoming clearer as to why. Hoshika wasn’t one of the “lucky ones” who became an astronaut, but he loves the program as much as any of them – and it was he who remembered “Afro” and “Spike” for their constant visits to JAXA all those years ago (skipping school for some of them it seems) and he’s taken a personal pride in seeing them come back to space as adults, just as he predicted. And I think he sees something of a kindred spirit in Mutta – someone for whom luck hasn’t always been an ally in chasing his dreams.
This really comes into play when Mutta’s old boss tells JAXA about the headbutting incident – and then apparently adds a lot of embellishment, besides. This is enough for the others on the committee to write Mutta off, but Hoshika has enough of a personal stake in this to want to know more – which he does by seeking out some of his other co-workers and learning the truth of the matter. Mutta is a man of contradictions, and his greatest weaknesses are also his greatest strengths – this is true of his obsessive personality, and also his stubbornness and righteousness. With his boss, he did the wrong thing for the right reason – which seems to be a recurring theme in his life.
I’m beginning to feel as if Hoshika-san’s support isn’t going to be enough to overcome the stigma of what happened at his old job for Mutta, and that his fate might lie elsewhere – but it’s obviously still an open question, and with the emergence of Hoshika as a great character I’m loving the chance to see it play out. I think we witnessed some important milestones for Mutta himself, too – not just in terms of self-awareness, but in the fact that his rage and frustration seem finally to be boiling over and breaking out. I think that needs to happen for him to move on with his life, be it at JAXA or NASA – perhaps even a few moments of raging at Hibito for surpassing him would be therapeutic. Hibito is only making it worse by constantly praising Mutta, but he doesn’t realize this of course – it’s all very straightforward for him. These brothers are interesting as much for what separates them as for what they share in common – and in that, they’re not much different than most pairs of siblings. That’s what makes Space Brothers such a universal story.