Episodes like this one are a reminder of why Uchuu Kyoudai has been one of the better anime of the last couple of years, and why Nanba Mutta has been one of the very best characters. I confess there have been times lately where I haven’t felt that way – too many lulls and valleys, and too much drift in focus. It’s a very natural thing for a series that runs this long to have them, because the source material usually does if nothing else (I suppose it’s yet another reminder of how exceptional Togashi and Madhouse both are with Hunter X Hunter) but right now both the series and Mutta are in the zone.
I make no bones about the fact that I don’t feel remotely conflicted in the current conflict – I prefer Mutta over Kenji by a wide margin as a person, a character and a potential astronaut. As a character, I find Kenji pretty boring. As an astronaut I find he’s at his best when things are on-schedule and trouble-free, and his worst when there’s turbulence (and is that what you want when you’re on a space mission when things get FUBAR?). And as a person I find Kenji presumptuous to the point of severe irritation. We saw it in the JAXA pods and we saw it here – he acts as if others should naturally defer to his serene, flawless wisdom any time there’s a disagreement. You can react to that as Mizoguchi did, with childish belligerence, or you can be like Mutta – quietly go about proving yourself the better man.
Here’s what I think it boils down to with these two: Kenji is a fine specimen of a conventional person, and Mutta a ragged specimen of an exceptional person. Kenji is as orthodox as they come – well-educated, erudite, beautiful wife and child, ambitious – he’s good at everything convention prizes. Mutta is a scruffy, odd man who moves forward in fits and starts, competing against self-doubts, never the first to arrive where everyone else is going but managing to go to places no one else would ever think of going to. Mutta is a genius in the art of the possible – because conventional living hasn’t been kind to him, his steel-trap mind has learned to look for the unconventional. He finds better solutions by changing the rules of the game because he’s not that good at playing the same game everyone else is playing.
In truth, there’s nothing that exceptional about the solution Mutta thought of in this episode – in fact it might even have been a contingency NASA considered might happen – but he’s still the only one that saw it. He had a teammate with exceptional strength, a machine that could do far more than was being asked of it, and a skilled diver in Hamilton about whom the exact same could be said. Mutta didn’t break any rules – he made sure of that – he just saw the potential in everyone and everything he had to work with and came up with a better way. It’s what he always does – and Kenji did what he always does, came unglued when things didn’t roll over and defer to his obvious natural superiority. In a way Mutta reminds me of Josh Waitzkin, as depicted in Searching for Bobby Fischer – the eccentric kid who was more brilliant than everyone around him, but was being held back because he was too concerned with not hurting anyone else to have the kind of killer instinct he needed to be reach the top.
My worry going forward is just what that sea turtle close encounter at the close of the episode represents. We’ve been given the premise that only one of the two Ants can go to the moon on the next mission, and as I’ve said already I hope Uchuu Kyoudai sticks to that. I appreciate that Kenji came to his senses and realized he was being a tool – getting his ass handed to him by Mutta certainly made it hard to miss – but I don’t want to see the cop-out scenario where the two of them get to move on together as best pals. It’s tough enough getting to be an astronaut – getting to go to the moon together as two Japanese astronauts in a NASA flight crew is too much of an ask for me. One of the reasons the JAXA isolation arc worked is that there were some hard and painful moments as characters we grew to like were left behind – they picked themselves up and moved on, and so will Kenji. Maybe this “good thing” is nothing more than Kenji getting over himself and the two friends completing the training as just that, friends, with the tension between them having been lifted. But as far as I’m concerned that’s as far as it should go, and the winner between the two of them has already been decided.