When push comes to shove, Uchuu Kyoudai is, effectively, Nanba Mutta. The other characters and elements are important, but this is his story. And more than that, the series takes on the same character as the man himself – the same priorities, the same charms, the same vulnerabilities. It’s a kind of synergy – for better or worse – that certain fictions have, a sense that the character saturates everything in the story and it becomes hard to tell where one stops and the other begins.
I found it totally appropriate that Mutta, as a child, asked Sharon for an English phrase meaning “I’m a useless person who never comes through in the clutch.” Of course it’s fitting that she lied, and in the way she did – that suits her character perfectly, just as asking the question suits his. But the fact is, what really strikes me is that Space Brothers always comes through in the clutch. This is a series that loses its way sometimes, goes through spells of meandering narrative and blind-alley plot threads. But it always gets the big moments right. When the chips are down, it always seems to fall back on a restrained, dignified style that lets the drama and sentiment speak for itself. When trying too hard would spoil the moment, Space Brothers lets the moment stand on its own. I’m sure the manga gets some credit for that, but director Watanabe Ayumu must surely be a big reason too.
Back when Sharon’s illness first became a factor, I speculated that ALS seemed like the most likely culprit – both based on her symptoms and the fact that it seemed to fit the demise of Serika’s father the best, and I figured they’d try and link those two elements together. I think this plotline works much better now that the disease has been named – it makes the notion of an unlikely coincidence seem less of a problem, and it defines the true tragedy of the situation in a way that makes it easier for the audience to understand. This is a terrible disease, indeed – in America we know it as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” for the famed baseball player felled by it, but most of the world knows it because of Dr. Stephen Hawking. Hawking has lived with ALS for an extraordinarily long time – no doubt partly because of the state-of-the-art technology at his disposal to help him do so – and remained a vibrant intellect even as his body has become a prison. That’s the curse and the blessing of ALS – the mind remains strong, fully able to comprehend everything that’s happening to the body.
This turn of events is effectively the framing device that sets up everything in the second half of the series, it seems. It has indeed brought Serika back into the plot in a very meaningful away, allowing her at last to be seen as a dignified and intelligent woman rather than simply comic relief and the object of a schoolboy crush. It’s given Mutta a chance both to reflect on his priorities, and to deal with the reality of trying to succeed in a highly demanding examination process while dealing with news that devastates him. Serika and Mutta now each have a goal to achieve, and each is trying to beat the clock in doing so – in his case to get to the moon and build the Sharon telescope, in hers to get to the ISS (assuming the ISS itself survives long enough) to do the research she wasn’t able to do in time to save her father.
As always, it’s Mutta’s humanity that makes him such an enormously appealing character. His self-doubt is not a put-on act – it’s very real. He’s struggled in the big moments for his entire life, and seen his little brother (who who loves dearly) bunny-hop over him time and again. As he agonized over the T-38 exam I identified strongly with him yet again – I probably identify with him more than any recent anime character – because I know just how hard it is for some of us to focus when other things are happening in our lives. All this does is add pressure, as he castigates himself for choking in the clutch yet again – and knowing that allowing her crisis to impact his training is the last thing in the world Sharon would want. It’s pretty heartbreaking to watch, actually, and it’s yet another example of how Uchuu Kyoudai instinctively gets the big emotional moments.
There are times when I really curse the Japanese aversion to overt displays of affection, because it gutted me to see Sharon leave without so much as a hug from Mutta or Hibito. But that’s realistic, and another example of restraint allowing the sentiment to be that much more effective. “It’s a piece of cake” was a great way to tie all the emotions of the episode together – Mutta’s struggle with himself, Sharon’s vital role in helping him become the man he’s become, and finally the last challenge of her life which looms before her. It could have been maudlin, or rang false, but in this instance the emotion of the final moments of the episode rang completely true. For this series, that sort of thing is a piece of cake.