Given how exhaustively mangaka Kouyama Chuuya has researched space travel and the extent of the geekery for anything space-related, I can’t help but wonder if the components of the
Hunter JAXA exam are based closely on real astronaut selection procedures, as the lung capacity test from the first exam was. In any case it’s certainly an interesting process to watch unfold, as a gaggle of candidates (one of whom is played by Koyama Rikiya, if I’m not mistaken) ranging from their early 20’s to 54 try and secure one of (presumably) three spots in the JAXA family.
The first surprise is that there are fifteen candidates this time around, whereas in previous exams there had apparently only been eight finalists. The meaning of that isn’t clear yet, but Kenji certainly notices it – just as he seems to notice everything. I wonder if Kenji is having second thoughts about the whole endeavor, because he seems out of sorts and on-edge – and his extended conversation with his 54 year-old seatmate about their daughters seems to reinforce this suggestion. It’s interesting too that Kenji immediately noticed the relevant fact about the bus – the cameras – while hyper-observant Mutta noticed that the driver was bald. That’s classic Mutta – a hyperactive mind, thinking more than is good for it. But that obsession with minutiae just may end up being his great strength as well as a weakness.
The personalities of the myriad candidates were certainly on display during their long bus ride, which I think was exactly the point. Starting with the oddball Director Nasuda, it’s obvious that JAXA places a strong emphasis on psychological profiling in making their choices. Herding everything onto a fortress-like bus and blinding them for a trip to a “top-secret” location is classic interview technique in hyperdrive. My personal view is that the bus drove around in circles all night and ended up back at JAXA HQ, but we’ll have to wait and see – I hardly see the need for a top-secret location to test candidates. It was seeing how everyone reacted to confinement that mattered – how they dealt with sensory depravation for boredom, and how they interacted when forced to do so for 140 minutes.
Compatibility is a big part of this, no doubt – and I worry for Mutta a little here, as I don’t think his obvious crush on Serika is going to cast him in a good light. Romantic tensions in a confined environment in space? Urgh. It was certainly interesting to see how everyone coped – Mutta’s first seatmate Shigeo Morishima (Shiga Madoka) talked his ear off about his dog and Tom Cruise (“My dog looks like Tom Cruise, so I named him Tom. Then I took him on a Tokyo Bay cruise and he really was Tom Cruise.”). Serika enthusiastically discusses her favorite cuisines and stresses over whether they’re going to get a meal, young Furuya Tasushi (Naitou Ryou) flashes his inferiority complex and badgers his seatmate, and some candidates sit quietly, without talking. It’s this sort of unplanned behavior that the examiners want to see – the essential nature of the candidates emerging when they’re forced to react to situations rather than keep their façade in place. And the pièce de résistance is to have them rank themselves as candidates – every interviewer tries to make the candidate assess themselves. That’s one of the most revealing things a person can do, and it also gives JAXA a chance to test the candidates observational skills and objectivity.
It seems fitting that Mutta should have visited Aunt Sharon (not a true Aunt, as it happens) on the way to JAXA, as she seems to have been instrumental in his and Hibito’s love for space developing as strongly as it did. His quest for meaning and purpose in life is obviously central to this story, but I think his angst over his “reasons” for becoming an astronaut are a little misplaced. How is it that fulfilling a dream isn’t as good a reason as what Kenji and Serika can claim? Mutta too is doing this for love – and pursuing the dream of his life is more than enough of a purpose to justify his quest, if you ask me. I think that’s the lesson he’ll learn in the end, whether he succeeds (and it’s not much of a story if he doesn’t ) or not.