Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 14-26 Streaming
Through blind luck and hidden potential Mutta has made it to the third test in JAXA's astronaut exam. Driven blind to a secret location and locked in an isolation chamber with a carefully selected group of fellow examinees, he faces a series of tasks and secret tests designed to probe his suitability for space travel. Each group has been asked to select two of their own to advance, which means that only a third of the examinees will make it to the next stage. Does Mutta have the right stuff to make the cut?
If the drawn-out third stage of Space Brothers' astronaut test tells us anything, it's that the verve of the series' opening shouldn't be taken for granted. The test is fourteen days long, and there's practically an episode for every one of them. It's a long, slow run of episodes in which little happens beyond the testing. The breadth, speed and deep-seated oddness of the series' first episodes are nowhere to be found. It is, in short, Space Brothers as ordinary astronaut show. Good ordinary—bright, terminally optimistic, and blessed with an intensely likeable cast—but ordinary nonetheless.
The ordinariness is more a reflection of the series' presentation than anything. In truth the third exam is no more or less predictable than the rest of the series; it has always followed the astronaut rise-to-glory path with little in the way of deviation, so test three is no change. But where the series' opening was jumpy and whimsical and often hilariously subjective, here it grows deliberate and steady, more conventionally objective in its approach to Mutta's journey towards the stars. No UFOs here; no first-person tours of Mutta's skewed view of the past; no cheeky ruptures in continuity. Instead we get mission-of-the-week or problem-of-the-week episodes, each designed specifically to flesh out another member of the two main teams (one team has Mutta and Serika, the other Kenji, so the third is ignored outright). Combine that with the confined setting, consequent stylistic restrictions and steadily less interesting look of the series, and there's no other word for it than ordinary. It could be a Discovery Channel show about astronaut training for all the pop and sizzle it has.
Though it'd be a pretty darned good Discovery Channel show. And that is, very simply, because of the characters. All else aside, the third exam does give the cast plenty of room to grow or just be themselves—and that's nothing but a good thing. Mutta, loveable, afroed goof that he is, never lets the show forget its sense of humor: he fumbles and trips his way through the test, doing dumb things for dumb reasons that always end up, either through serendipity or his own cock-eyed good judgment, being exactly the right things to do. He gets his team past the first test because he's curious about the bus driver's toupee. He stumbles across the truth behind the nefarious goings-on in the capsule through dumb luck and long memory. His solution to the team's final problem is dippy and counterintuitive, but also unassailable in both its emotional and logistical reasoning. He is, as ever, just a great guy: smart and dorky and good hearted; just impossible not to like.
And he's not alone. Serika is almost as great: a beauty whose absentminded affability and quiet strangeness hide a steel spine and sharp mind. And a bottomless stomach. Her clueless rapport with the equally clueless Mutta is just priceless, especially when Mutta is sending signals that could be seen from the moon (his reactions to shaking her hand and being able to call her by name are plain great) only to have them bounce off unnoticed. Kenji for his part deepens throughout the exam as his family insecurities and leadership qualities come to light, revealing a man who's more conflicted than his Superman spit-curl indicates, but just as super.
They're supported by a sizeable cast of new comrades, who run the gamut from the scheming nasty to the autistic savant, desperate veteran, astrobiology nerd, stoic athlete, abrasively honest monkey-man, and more. Taken together they're both the obligatory motley crew of recruits (what did you expect, a dozen steely-eyed, square-jawed test pilots?) and a clear indication that the series' kindhearted humanism is perhaps moving into unrealistic territory. Some are antagonistic, some aren't, but the further the show delves into their circumstances and reasons, the more it is revealed that at heart they're all good, decent people. Everyone has deep-rooted motives for their comportment, is ultimately amenable to reason (or at least charm,) and eventually emerges hand-in-hand amid comradeship and mutual respect. It's nice for sure—watching Mutta win over his teammates is a highlight, as is the grudging respect between Kenji and his primary rival—but it doesn't exactly ring true.
Once the isolation test has run its course, the show picks up again. Mutta flies to Houston to hang with his brother, once again bringing their strange but generally great relationship back into rotation. Mutta and Hibito's nutty parents re-enter the picture, as does Kenji's adorable little family. The story bounces from Mutta striving yet again to find employment (which he does, as Santa Claus) to the exam's non-passers putting their lives back together again after their failure. The art picks up color—thanks mostly to the larger number of settings and characters—and some measure of its odd visual rhythm returns. Even the series' comic timing (always good in its offbeat way) seems to be trending upward. Of course, Toshiyuki Watanabe's score still lets its emotions hang out too far, especially when director Ayumu Watanabe decides to ladle on the team-bonding sap, and continues to repeat itself with exhausting frequency. But even so the show shows every sign that its mojo's coming back. These episodes are quick and funny, heartfelt and yet not sappy. And when the final exam rolls around, it's a surprise both in the form it takes, and in the suspense (and humor) it raises. The isolation exam episodes were fun, sure, but that doesn't stop us from rooting for the episodes that come next to be as good as the last of these.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : C
+ Still fun, even when it bogs down in astronaut-testing minutiae; picks up once the isolation test ends; continually great cast.
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