This was one of those episodes of Space Brothers were it seemed as if not all that much happened. Funnily enough those are often my favorites, because one of the strengths of this series is in its observational brilliance – and the narrower the focus, the more observational it becomes. In terms of plotting this is one of the more deliberate shows in recent memory, but it’s eps like this one that convince me this is a strength, not a weakness.
At long last, we may be seeing the thawing of the iceman. Nitta has been the mystery character of Uchuu Kyoudai so far, the Sphinx of Tokyo. He’s obviously athletic, cool as a cucumber in front of others, likes to needle Mutta in very subtle ways. Yet even compared to other characters of less relative importance we know shockingly little about Reiji Nitta – as we’ve been given privileged glances into the lives of others, Nitta has remained a cipher. Perhaps, now, that’s changing. Clearly he has a troubled family life – he’s rented a three-bedroom house in spite of the cost in the hopes that “he” will come and live with him. When I heard Nitta tell his sister this I thought perhaps he was referring to an ageing father, but it seems based on events later in the ep that it’s a younger brother. Not just that, but one Nitta sees fit to deny the existence of. It’s clear there’s a story here, and just as clear we’re going to be hearing it sooner or later (it can’t come too soon for me). In a series where brotherhood is such a major theme, it seems only fitting.
There are other themes in Uchuu Kyoudai, and one of the wonderful things about this series is that those aren’t discarded or changed as the plot demands. There’s the directional markers that take the story where it goes, and we see them repeat over and over in the lives of the characters. One of those themes is that the public face we present to the world is often a mask, and this seems clearly true in Murasaki’s case. That thing he told Kenji about turned out to be very simple (Mutta hounded the answer out of him): every time NASA holds a two-year training program, a few ASCAN drop out. They give up, in simple terms – walk away from their dream because they couldn’t survive the training. I can understand why Murasaki wouldn’t want to tell newbies that before they’ve even officially started, but it’s the sort of news I can only see making Mutta stronger. As for Murasaki himself, it’s clear his penchant for practical jokes (which has earned him the nickname “Ninja“) is something of a cover for the frustration he feels in life. In a wonderful sequence he explains his view of the space program to Mutta, that he sees it as a theatrical production – then proceeds to tell him that (in his own words) he’s been “calling himself an astronaut for years, but never gotten on-stage.”
Those are some pretty harsh words, any way you slice it. It’s the tragedy of the understudy, and a cautionary note to Mutta about the many challenges still facing him as he tries to advance in his brothers’ footsteps. Mutta continues to reacquaint himself to life in America – ten-gallon hat ever perched on his afro – and continues to make hilarious observations about American culture, like the one that our energy drinks look “both sweet and toxic”. Serika and Karen go house-hunting with Michiko (I thought they’d end up renting that house together, but it seems not). Hibito continues to recuperate at the moon base, forbidden from EVAs and clearly troubled by it, though Mutta is actually relieved at the news. And Vincent Bold continues to disdain meaningful human contact and give the impression that he might be one of the more troublingly clichéd characters we’ve seen in Space Brothers so far.
This is all buildup to the first group get-together of the 30 candidates (at the same roadhouse JAXA uses – they must be getting a kickback). The best part of this scene is the speech by Jason Butler, the “Producer” as Ninja sees him, who reminds the ASCAN that their “first promise” is to come home alive – that takes precedence over anything else. We meet a few of the candidates here, but the one who makes an impression is Amanti Patel, a beautiful candidate from India who’s introduced as having the ability to tell fortunes. It’s through this lens that we’re given the hint about Nitta’s situation, but I’m not quite sure what we’re supposed to make of Amanti and her supposed skill – she obviously sees something dodgy in Mutta’s future and lies to cover it up, and I suppose in the world of anime that’s certain foreshadowing. To be honest this feels a bit like a cheap dramatic device, a shortcut from a show that rarely resorts to them – but it seems we’re supposed to take her seriously. With the ASCAN falling into the clutches of Vincent next week, there seems to be fertile ground for any number of bad things sprouting up.