I’m occasionally struck by how much Space Brothers and Hunter X Hunter – two seemingly wildly different shows and my Sunday companions for the last year – are similar to each other. Above and beyond the obvious fact that both are superb anime that seamlessly combine wonderful characterization with intelligently crafted plot (and Sawashiro Miyuki), they’re alike in that both are much more than they seem. H x H disguises its genre-transcending originality in an innocent-looking shounen package, and Uchuu Kyoudai delivers seemingly low-key and dry material with a subversively shounen-like abandon and originality.
The two series are alike in structure too, in that both of them consist of a series of long arcs – possible only in series with such extended runs – which tend to be quite different from the one that came before. This is more pronounced with Togashi but it’s the case with Koyama-sensei as well, and just as “Greed Island” has elements of “Heaven’s Arena” philosophically, this arc of Space Brothers seems to recall the JAXA exam phase. The big difference this time is the presence of Vincent Bold, and he’s the one element of this arc that has me a bit worried. He seems calculated to be something of a straw man – a character thrown onto the screen to give us someone to dislike. Vince seems to represent every stereotype of the narrow-minded, judgmental military hard-ass Yank – right down to the seemingly unnecessary addition of his having dismissed Mutta in his mind without giving him a chance. Bold may yet surprise me – though his characters redemption after Mutta wins him over won’t, as that’s fully expected – but as of now, he stands as possibly the most worrying character in Uchuu Kyoudai’s run so far.
In fact, the first half of this episode didn’t do much for me generally speaking, and I was a bit concerned. However, once the survival training began, the essential drama of the moment really started to win me over. There’s a lot going on here, with a lot of potential. There’s Nitta, for starters – still wrestling with whatever family drama has him preoccupied, and still hiding it from the rest of the ASCANs. Seeing Nitta worried and vulnerable makes a nice change from the impassive iceman we’ve seen so far. And then there’s Amanti, who’s alarmed expression while telling Mutta’s future is definitely messing with his head. I wish he’d just come right out and ask her what she saw, and put himself – and us – out of our misery. Perhaps she doesn’t realize how her slip has messed up Mutta’s confidence (never all that secure to begin with) but comments like “Don’t worry – you aren’t going to get stung by a scorpion in this training” only make things worse.
As so much of this series is based on reality, I assume what we’re seeing play out with the ASCAN training is close to what really happens with NASA. I don’t have an issue with Bold sending the newbies out on survival training just after arrival, or even with his demand that they finish the training in 1.5 years instead of the required two (indeed, Mutta seems enthused at the notion) but he seems like a very odd choice to be put in charge of new astronaut training in the first place. Mind you, I’ve seen the worst possible managers assigned to training in the corporate world repeatedly, but I would have hoped at this point NASA would know better. A contrast is being set up with Bold’s comrade Larry Bison (Kawahara Yoshihisa) – really, do they think Americans have names like this? – who’s “lukewarm” to Bold’s fiery impatience. They look like the classic good cop/bad cop pairing for the moment, but it seems that Bold is the one effectively in charge – he’s certainly the one telling the other astronauts how to conduct themselves.
With the astronauts currently assembled for a six-day hike across the West Texas desert to Amarillo, it looks as if we’re in for a study in group dynamics along the lines of the isolation pods from the JAXA exam arc. Bold has split them up by country into teams of six, with the odd slots filled by the countries with fewer candidates – Amanti has joined the five Japanese on Team E. Each candidate gets a chance to lead for a day, and there’s the added drama of Team E having three women – and knowing full-well that if they’re the slowest that will be blamed for it. Of course the build-up is to the moment when Mutta takes charge, but next week the drama is going to be Nitta – who, unsurprisingly, seems to lack the essential qualities of leadership he’s going to need to succeed in the long run.