Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 27-38 Streaming
With the final test of the astronaut exam behind him Mutta is able to focus on his brother's upcoming trip to the Moon. It's a stressful time as there's all manner of things that could go wrong with the intricate launch, which involves two rockets and an orbital hookup as well as a moon landing. In addition Mutta has to deal with his own complicated feelings about seeing his little brother live their collective childhood dream. And then it's time for Mutta to see if he's to follow. Will he pass muster in JAXA's final deliberations or have to return to the life of an unemployed moocher? One phone call is all that stands between glory and ignominy. Naturally it's a long wait for the call.
There was a time when Space Brothers was snappy and fresh, paced like a thirteen-episode romp (a romp through Mutta's shattered dreams mind you). Now it's climbing the upslope towards episode fifty. The struggle to extend the series' simple story to fit its lengthy runtime takes a clear toll on its early energy. The show has grown distended, puffing up little stages in Mutta's journey to fill entire episodes. It's slower, more repetitive, and less eventful. It's a change perhaps most noticeable in last season's isolation test, and a change you have to make peace with if you're going to enjoy the show. And you should make peace, because there's still much to enjoy.
That said, part of making your peace is understanding that this entire stretch of the show, all twelve episodes of it, will cover a total of two events. There's Hibito's moon mission and Mutta's final evaluation. That's it. For less patient viewers it may feel like the show's moving through molasses, or at the very least strolling along unconcernedly smelling every rose in its path. But if you've the constitution for it such a stroll has many rewards. Each episode is a charming wisp of not-so-everyday life, usually built around a single moment of uplift and/or spacefaring wonder. There's the episode that finds Mutta in the clutches of a mysterious old weirdo, ending with Mutta getting a front-row seat to one of the space age's most inspiring spectacles. Or another that has Mutta monitoring his brother's flight before running into Azuma, the astronaut that Hibito replaced, and getting a telling peak behind his terse exterior.
For Space Brothers, the personalities, pasts, and worries of would-be spacefarers share equal weight with the wonder and grandeur of their mission. And it pays off handsomely. The show's characters have become intensely likeable. Leisurely it may be, even filler-like in its concern with runaway dogs and love of extended flashbacks, but the time spent with the cast is not wasted. Watching Mutta be Mutta, his brain going to the strangest of places at the strangest of times, his behavior getting odder the closer he gets to his day of reckoning, is an unending delight. We get our first real good look at who Hibito is during his mission, and the man we see is a free spirit in the best sense of the term: a good-natured oddball utterly unconcerned with how others see him. Serika reveals a depth of desire that can be hard to spot behind her quiet strangeness, and Kenji demonstrates the strength of his young family.
When that kind of character warmth combines with the series' serious love of space travel, the result can be quite potent—whether it's the heart-tugging power of Serika's vow to make it to space or the humor and shameless sentimentality of Hibito's first step on the moon. The show takes its sweet, sweet time getting to each of its several payoffs, but when they come they're generally worth the wait. And it's not like the waiting's so bad anyway. Not with the show's nearly inexhaustible supply of colorful supporting players to distract us along the way. Particularly fun this time around are the old man who kinda-kidnaps Mutta and Jennifer, the know-it-all tour leader that Mutta hangs out with at NASA.
This is probably the most technical stretch of the show to date. In part that's a reflection of its aerated plot: discussions of technology and spacefaring strategies are good ways to fill in all of that time not spent advancing the story. So we get an explanation of why a trip to a moon-base might be split between two rocket launches (one for personnel, one for supplies), and the reasons behind the space capsule's rotating motion (to keep the sun from heating one side more than the other). Interesting stuff for what is essentially filler. It's nice to see a show that takes near-future speculation seriously.
It's when being technical that the show is at its best, artistically speaking. The show's space technology is detailed, well thought-out, and animated with a CG sheen that the rest of the show lacks. It's clear that the animators paid special attention to the docking, landing, and other assorted movements of NASA's tech. Though even they have their shortcuts. The show has its memorable images—the stirring photo of Hibito's first moon-step being among its best to date—but it generally shoots for good-enough, not great. The same is true of its effectively manipulative but frequently repetitive score. The series gets the reactions it wants, and looks lively and colorful doing it, but there's little candy for the eyes. If you don't count Serika, that is.
A pokey story and a low substance-to-time ratio aren't the only things you need to make peace with as Space Brothers passes middle age. It also has a habit of belaboring its points. You can always rely on someone to say aloud what the visuals are telling us (“perfect,” says Mutta's dad at Hibito's launch, just after the camera zooms in on the word “perfect” on his sweater). There's a goodly amount of cheese in its attempts to touch us too, and it falls back on rigid plot structures while extending its story lines. Each of the phone-call episodes (yes there are multiple episodes) is a stiffly-framed flashback to a JAXA candidate's past. This isn't a flashy or innovative show, at least not any more. What it is, is consistent. Think of it as the Law & Order of follow-your-dreams anime: solid, technically proficient, comforting and predictable. The place to come, week after week, for a reliable dose of uplift. Not that that's a bad thing to be.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : C+
+ Consistently fun and successfully sentimental; attention to technological and scientific detail; cast is still great.
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