I probably haven’t spent enough time talking about Watanabe Ayumu, the director behind Space Brothers. “The other Watanabe” did a fantastic job with Nazo no Kanojo X, and he’s acing it here with a project that could hardly be more stylistically different. Watanabe’s fingerprints were easier to spot in the more avant-garde and accessorized MGX, but he’s pretty much disappeared into the background here – the way that other great director named Watanabe so often does. Everything with Uchuu Kyoudai is so natural and effortless that a director hardly seems necessary – and that’s great direction. In this episode we saw some of the more pronounced stylistic touches of the series, such as long stretches with no dialogue and tricks based on character perspective. It was impressive in what it accomplished, making a seemingly small story quite powerful.
Any time you’re going to fill an episode with scenes of the child Nanba brothers interacting and those of their parents interacting, you’re off to a great start. Both pairs are great fun to watch – the parents for their off-center quirkiness and consistently great comic moments (like when Papa told Hibito off by telling him, “OFF!”) and the boys both for their authentic goofiness and the fascinating glimpse they provide of the man inside the boy. The fact that “Brothers” is in the title is never far from the surface in this show – it underlies everything that happens, and basically forms the core of what drives both brothers into space. The love for space exploration is strong in Uchuu Kyoudai, but the love between brothers is even stronger.
There’s no question that this episode was unabashedly sentimental, but few shows do sentimental as well as this one does. Part of it lies in the way the characters are grounded, part of it is the excellent cast, and part of it is Watanabe’s willingness to let the emotion speak for itself rather than try too hard to push it. There have been times this series has pushed me pretty close to tears (which is a rarity for me) and this episode was one of them. For all his self-doubt and inferiority complex, Mutta is and always will be Hibito’s hero – the brother he still looks up to after a lifetime of beating him to the prize. Hibito hasn’t changed from the little boy he was – he’s still full of hare-brained ideas to try and help Mutta out, even when Mutta doesn’t try to help himself. It was one of those ideas that led to the “Miracle of Doha”, and one that led to Mutta becoming an astronaut candidate. Mutta overthinks, and Hibito just acts – they’re seemingly as different as can be, yet they have so much that ties them together.
Looking back, I’m sure a case could be made that this episode wasn’t necessary for the plot – we didn’t need to see all that banter between the Nanba parents, and a guitar and harmonica magically sounding like a banjo and fiddle in a quite hilarious take on what Japanese think Americans do on cookouts. But with Space Brothers it’s often the unnecessary eps that are the best ones, because the strength of the series lies in simple character interaction. And in the final analysis, I think this episode was more revealing about Hibito than any before, and showed us once again that these two brothers idolize each other in a way that’s quite poignant. When that rocket blasts off for the moon next week, the moment is going to be that much more emotional because of what we saw this week.