I’m still not happy about the way the moment was teased and delayed, which felt a little bit beneath Uchuu Kyoudai’s usual standards. But if there’s one thing I have to say about this show, it’s that it gets the big emotional moments just right. This one has obviously been building for 37 episodes to it had the weight of a steamroller behind it, but Watanabe-sensei once again proves his worth as a director by letting the moment speak for itself. As he did when Hibito’s ship safely launched and when the lunar module safely touched down, he gave us simple long-shots and cuts to Mutta’s face – no soaring music (as wonderful as this series’ music is) or camera trickery. Just the honesty of well-earned emotion.
I felt the tears welling up for several minutes before the actual words left Hoshika’s lips that Mutta had passed the exam. Was it ever really in doubt? No – but there’s that sliver of doubt that never leaves you, and the need to finally get the actual reward for all that patience (both from Mutta and the viewer). I knew as soon as Hoshika-san said he wanted to meet Mutta personally that the news was good, and there was a point with about 7 minutes left in the episode when I was sure the news was coming this week (I don’t know why I was sure, but I was). The last two eps were at least one episode too many of stringing it out, but I wouldn’t have changed a frame of this one.
This is certainly a triumph of good writing, because the bond between the audience and the characters has been constructed with patience and hard work. But it’s a triumph for the actors too, starting with Ryuzanji Shou as Hoshika-san. He hasn’t done much anime but what he has been memorable, and he was a brilliant choice for Hoshika. From the first appearance Ryuzanji-san made Hoshika special, not just a side character but an emotional anchor for the show and the audience’s proxy inside JAXA. The long-standing relationship between Hoshika and Mutta-san – even if Mutta had forgotten most of it – made the triumphant moment that much more emotional, because it was almost as big a moment for Hoshika as it was for Mutta. Hoshika proved there was a place for heart and passion in the selection process, and that there’s nothing wrong with making a big decision a personal one.
As for Hirata Hiroaki, there’s not a whole lot that needs to be said at this point. Simply put, there’s no seiyuu in anime who can communicate the innate sense of decency and humility that Hira-Hiro does. Every character he inhabits becomes a real person of astonishing depth, and he’s delivered two of the best performances in anime in the last two years, as Kotetsu Kabaragi and Nanba Mutta – a role that I think surpasses the great work he did in Tiger & Bunny. Space Brothers is a great series, but it says something about Hirata that I can’t possibly imagine anyone else playing Mutta.
There were some nice touches in the episode that surrounded the big moment. My favorite of these was the band-aid – not only did it connect Mutta to Hibito, but also to the boy who memorized the presentations at JAXA. That’s fitting, because both of them are as much a part of this story as the adult Mutta himself. It was also nice to see Nanba-mama finally break down and act unabashedly proud of her eldest son. Of the other candidates, only Mizoguchi was given a chance to be told he’d failed on-screen (the preview spoils the fact that someone else we know passed). He’s arguably the least likeable character in the series, but I thought his moment was handled with a lot of respect and dignity. It’s not easy to watch someone you feel you know well get their heart broken, and Moziguchi surely did – that in itself was a surprisingly emotional moment, and I’m glad Space Brothers took the time to show at least one rejection on-screen because that’s the other side of the happy moments we’ve been seeing.
In the end, though, all of the other moments pale in comparison because the name of the show is “Space Brothers” after all. What happens to Mutta and Hibito is what this series really is, and ultimately it’s Mutta whose story is being told. He reacted to the news exactly as I expected him to – quietly, fighting back tears (especially when Hoshika-san said “You’re one of the lucky ones” and Mutta realized what that meant for both of them) but not breaking down completely, a little awkward and discombobulated. That’s the essence of the man – a very real person with very real feelings who accomplishes the remarkable feat of being completely normal and exceptional in every way at the same time. That he pulls it off is a tribute to the mangaka Koyama-sensei, the director, and the actor who breathes life into the character they created. Thank goodness for all three.