We’ve seen lots of pretty direct references to well-known space movies in Spacee Brothers, most prominently Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff (especially during the first exam arc). This time around it’s October Sky, the movie and the book it was based on, the memoir of NASA rocket designer Homer Hickham (who, in case there were any doubt, is referenced by name in the episode). There were hints that’s where this was going with Vince and Pico’s story, but this week’s episode almost played like a tribute album.
In that context, I’m a bit sad that I didn’t like the episode more than I did. I know exactly where Kouyama was going with this and I can’t say how well it might have worked in the manga, but in purely qualitative terms I don’t think it was an especially effective turn for the anime. The original is a good film, not a great one (the book is better) but the problem is, that story was set in the late 1950’s. Guessing at Vince and Pico’s ages (I would actually have thought Pico to be older before all this started, but perhaps that chalks up to the obvious difference in their lifestyles) and the series timeline, I’d place the flashback scenes in this ep somewhere in the first decade of the 21st Century.
Theoretically, that shouldn’t be a problem. In practice though, it makes the story feel a bit trite – like a somewhat caricatured view of American culture from a Japanese perspective. 50 years makes a difference, and mining towns like the fictional Pothill, Minnesota, were nearly all on the decline by the early 2000’s. It’s not unrealistic that the fathers of 15 year-olds with big dreams would be pushing their sons to think practically about their futures, but with the handwriting on the wall I’m not sure most Dads weren’t pushing their sons to find a future outside the mining industry. And kids with terrific grades (like Vince and Pico apparently had, not surprisingly) certainly wouldn’t have a problem getting into a decent college. The broader theme of big dreams clashing generationally with adults trying to crush them is certainly still a valid one – I just felt the execution was a bit clumsy.
The wild card in the flashback scenario is Rick, the third boy in this idyllic American pastorale. He, Pico and Vince have made 15 model rockets, all of which have failed, but it’s Rick who provides the optimism and ebullience for the group. He dreams of being the next Gene Kranz, while it’s Hickham that provides Pico’s inspiration to design rockets, and Vince dreams of following Brian Jay into space. The obvious question is, what happened to Rick? Did he stay behind as the others pursued their dreams? The overtly sentimental tone of the piece and the cinematography seems to hint he may have died young, perhaps in tragic circumstances. Maybe he just ended up being a supervisor at the mine, who knows – but he did come up with the “earnest failure has value” mantra that ended up making the connection between Mutta and Pico.
The earlier part of the episode – the conversations between Mutta and Vince – worked much better for me. In the first place Mutta is the best character in Uchuu Kyoudai and it’s usually better when he’s prominently featured. It was amusing to see Vince’s reaction when Mutta was completely unfazed by his driving (thanks to old Deneil Young). And their conversation about enemies was an interesting one, reflecting the difference in their outlook. For Vincent, it’s a pretty basic “you’re either with me or agin’ me” take, and he lists the media – nor surprisingly – but also the likes of unmanned mission designers and astronomers as enemies. Mutta’s observation that the only enemy he has is himself pretty much nails him as a character. He’s self-aware enough to realize it, for starters, but he doesn’t judge people superficially the way Vince does. There’s an obvious bone of contention between the two of them on this issue, most specifically in the person of Sharon – one which Vince confronts Mutta about directly – the surface of which was barely scratched this week. The conclusion of that conversation, more than the conclusion of “October Sky II” and the reveal of Rick’s fate, is what I look forward to in the next episodes.