Space Brothers was back on very familiar ground this week – and thank goodness. That trip to the moon was certainly thrilling, but it felt at times like I was watching a different show. At heart this is a series about people and the unspoken (and occasionally spoken) ties that bind them, gently sentimental and darkly comic without being mean-spirited. It’s certainly fair game for a show about astronaut brothers to set foot into space, and Space Brothers proved it could do that – but it feels even more at home with both feet planted on the ground.
It’s fitting that this episode proved to be a return to roots, because this is a series that perhaps better than any other in memory successfully connects the present to the past. I’m always struck by the continuity we see between the Nanba brothers as the boys who dreamed of space and the men who achieved those dreams – one of them anyway, with the other hopefully soon to follow. I think it’s true that much of who we are as adults is formed by the time we reach our teens, but there’s no denying that it’s the influence of others that helps direct us onto the road we ultimately choose to follow. And no one has been more influential on Mutta especially than Aunt Sharon. This is a show about the people who influenced Mutta and Nanba – Sharon, Hoshika, Brian Jay, Azuma, their parents – as it is about the brothers themselves.
Sharon’s story has always been interesting in that it’s told in bits and pieces, and in larger part not told at all. We know she’s an astronomer who lives in a country house with an observatory, with a woman named Tamura. We know she loves music almost as much as space, and Mutta and Nanba almost as much as their parents do. But it wasn’t until quite late that we found out that she had a husband (their short scenes together are incredibly warm and authentic), and it wasn’t until this week that we found out his name – Dr. Kaneko Shin’ichi (Takemoto Kazumasa) and that he died of an illness after four years of marriage, when Mutta was 13 and Hibito 10. How is is that Sharon came to live in such a strange and enormous house? Is Tamura her lover, or merely a companion to fight off loneliness? How did she happen to cross paths with two youngsters completely unrelated to her? For the most part we’re left to guess, and asked to accept it as enough that she helped foster the love of space in the boys, that they love her and she loves them. And somehow, it’s enough.
The theme of Sharon’s part of the episode is promises – the promise Shin’ichi made to her, the promise Mutta made her as well, and the promise he made with Hibito. The notion of building a telescope on the moon is certainly grounded in scientific reality, and it seems likely to provide a framework for what I see as the second half of the series. We’ve definitely reached a turning point – Hibito’s mission is ending, he’s had his brush with death, and Mutta is beginning his journey himself. A goal has been reached, and Mutta needed something more specific than simply “be an astronaut” to provide narrative focus. He can fulfill both his promises at once by reaching the moon, and it seems that remembering that one he made to Sharon has given him a second wind of inspiration as he starts down the arduous path to keeping it.
My favorite moment of the episode, though, comes from another of “Afro’s” childhood mentors. I can only imagine it’s a huge moment in any astronaut’s life when they get their first monogrammed jumpsuit – even if it’s not super-sentai color coded like Director Yasuda wanted. One might have expected Space Brothers to play that up as a sentimental moment, but mostly what it was instead was joyous and inspirational. Yet there was a moment when Hoshika was watching the five new astronauts stroll back into the room in their new uniforms and he clearly found himself fighting back tears, as his assistant peeked over at him and he quickly looked away. “This part always gets to me”, indeed – but one suspects that this particular go-around was a little more special for Hoshika than all the others.
With that, the second part of the show really begins – it’s off to Houston for cross-training with new astronauts from all over the world. The one is charge of the group isn’t Azuma or Tanuma, but an Oba-san named Komachi Michiko – and there are some interesting oddities in that the character’s name translates as “Little Town, Little Street” and she’s played by Ayado Chie, who most surely be in a very small group of seiyuu to make their debut at age 55 (though she’s quite a famous chanteuse in Japan). There’s another notable seiyuu debut in this ep too – Koyama Chuua as “Tissue” from Tissue Taros, who won the “Comedy Grand Prix” with Tissue’s reading of “Nyanbo!” If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the mangaka of Uchuu Kyoudai. Another notable “Nyanbo!” came from Nanba-papa, who was wearing a “Pug is Dog” T-shirt at the time, as he and his wife wore a practiced mask of indifference regarding Hibito’s accident. And the preview brings us the unmistakable voice of Tsuda Kenjiro, who’ll be joining the cast as the JAXA cadets hard-ass instructor Vincent Bold, United States Military style.