Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 15th 2012
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Mutta and Hibito Nanba are brothers, but not in any way similar. Hibito is a star astronaut, training at NASA to colonize the moon. Mutta is back home in Japan, living with their parents after being fired for on-the-job violence. It's there that he gets a message from Hibito, reminding him of the long ago night when a UFO sighting prompted the pair to aim for the stars themselves. After some debate, he decides to follow his childhood dream and apply to the Japanese equivalent of NASA, JAXA. The chances of passing all of the qualifying tests are very low and he knows it, but dreams die hard. And he may have a better shot than he thinks.
Space Brothers is about space exploration, but you won't find any space battles or intergalactic intrigue here. Heck, you won't even find much space exploration. It's as much a series about having dreams and struggling to fulfill them as it is about the wonder of space and the human urge to explore the unknown.
Which makes the show sound rather more noble and serious than it actually is. It's a show that puts equal emphasis on the personal, the lofty, and the humorous. It takes space travel seriously, to be sure. Similarly it is in dead earnest when advocating the headlong pursuit of dreams. But it never takes itself too seriously. It establishes an offbeat comic rhythm early on as Mutta abbreviates his and his brother's lives, using events in sports history as landmarks: sporting ignominies for the mileposts in Mutta's life; shining triumphs for the mileposts in Hibito's. It's an incredibly efficient sequence. It sets up the basic differences between the brothers and illustrates how Mutta thinks about himself and his brother while simultaneously being very funny in its own right and also setting up a joke for later when we realize why Mutta chose the sporting events he did.
Not every scene in Space Brothers is that efficient, but it's still illustrative. There's a lot going on within the confines of its straightforward plot, enough to create a very pleasing balance of tension, humor, wonder, emotional complexity, and even romance. The humor comes mostly from Mutta. Mutta is a great guy: smart, idealistic, full of the kinds of doubts and fears that anyone throwing themselves behind a dream would feel. But he's also an afroed goober. He head-butts his superior before the show even starts, flushes his phone down the toilet before a test, and dreams up the worst possible answers to some of the astronaut interview questions. He's constantly agonizing over the dumb stuff he does during the testing process, but can't help doing it anyway. During a stirring scene in which the other examinees pay private tribute to a wall of astronauts' pictures, Mutta claims a spot on the wall by licking it—like a kid with a candy he doesn't want to share. It's impossible not to love the guy. He can even make the soul-sucking task of job hunting amusing; what happens when he's sent to the doctor to be probed (astronauts have got to be healthy) is positively unspeakable. He's so damned likeable that you can't help rooting for him, even when his (very reasonable) doubts get the better of him and turn him wishy-washy or worse yet send him into defeatist resignation. And you can't help cheering when he finally overcomes.
Mutta has a romantic interest in strange but beguiling fellow examinee Serika, who actually manages to steal an episode from under him when we finally get a good (and funny) look inside her head. He has a rival/friend in upstanding Kenji, a good guy with the Superman hair to prove it. He has mentors in tough lady astronomer Sharon and (unbeknownst to him) in unconventional examiner Hoshika. The series is patient and funny and thoughtful with all of them. They're fun and likeable and involved in Mutta's life in potentially very interesting ways.
That said, the heart of the show is obviously in Mutta's relationship with Hibito. It is called Space “Brothers” after all. It's a relationship worthy of being a show's heart. Since the early days of their childhood they've been simultaneously best friends and arch-rivals: protective, inseparable, and forever trying to outdo each other. Something about it rings deeply true. Something about the way Mutta is both proud and resentful of Hibito's success. About the way he avoids direct comparisons when they finally reunite. About the way Hibito both looks up to Mutta and wants to best him. About how his respect fuels his disgust at Mutta's bruised fatalism. It's the work of writer intimately familiar with how brotherhood works; work that anyone who has been a brother can instantly identify with.
Aside from a distinct lack of action and an apparent lack of any goal greater than getting Mutta into space, the closest the series gets to an Achilles' heel is probably the testing process itself. It relies pretty heavily on the tests to drive its first episodes, and there really isn't anything in them to surprise anyone who's seen The Right Stuff or practically any astronaut series/film since. Lots of physical tests (lung capacity! classic!), tough interviews, psychological evaluation, and of course the obligatory “secret” test (only hinted at thus far). The series is content to follow the popular conception of the astronaut selection process point for point, trusting its distinct character (and characters) to distinguish it when the plot doesn't. And it works quite well; even better when it abandons the tests altogether to focus entirely on, say, Mutta and Hibito's American reunion.
If one were so inclined, the series' visuals could also count as a weakness. While not weak per se, they're certainly not on par with the quality of the writing. Backgrounds are sufficient to their purpose, establishing settings and spatial relations and nothing else. Most of the animation is utilitarian, getting the job done without looking bad but rarely looking good either, the occasional computer-assisted vehicle aside. The series has its standout moments—the magical night that young Mutta and Hibito see the UFO; Mutta literally trumpeting an early success into the sunset—and the charm of its offbeat visual rhythm is not to be underestimated, but overall it isn't intended to knock your eyes out. Or your ears for that matter. Both the opening and ending sequences are appropriately playful but not exactly musical masterpieces, and the background music is as utilitarian as the animation, and recycled rather more often than is good for it. If the series has a claim to visual excellence, it'd be in the characters, who aren't exactly beautiful but are distinctive and interesting-looking. Mutta in particular derives a lot of his goofball charm from his goofball body language, not to mention his endless arsenal of goofball facial expressions.
That opening impression of seriousness and nobility isn't entirely unwarranted. In its own modest way Space Brothers is quite an inspirational series. Very few people will actually go out and change their lives because of it, but at least while you're watching it, you feel like maybe you could.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : C+
+ Funny, grown-up tale of pursuing dreams come hell or high water; great main character, interesting supporting cast, well-written central relationship. Astronauts!
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