The Mike Toole Show
Anime in Orbit

by Michael Toole,

Space is the place. Just look at some of our real-life milestones over the past few years. NASA has had an SUV roaming the surface of Mars for over two years, doing god knows what. A shipment to the ISS blew up shortly after takeoff, and a Virgin Spaceways test flight flamed out, killing one of the pilots. It's not all bad news lately – India launched their own exploratory rocket to Mars, and the European Space Agency also just dropped a landing pod on a dang comet. How's it look on the surface of the comet? Pretty rocky, kinda like the comet they landed on in Armageddon. Or was it Deep Impact? Anyway, while the lander picked up some weird sounds before running out of juice (cross your fingers that it recharges as it nears the sun, so we can talk to it some more), there's no reason to suspect that the comet is actually the one housing the infamous Comet Empire from Space Battleship Yamato.

Our recent strides in space travel and technology have been reflected in our pop culture. The movie everyone's talking about lately, Interstellar, is about space travel, replacing last year's movie everyone was talking about, Gravity, which was also about space travel. Persistent scientific research and experimentation can lead to auspicious things, but really capturing the public's imagination is almost as valuable a phenomenon. The dream of proper spaceflight is one that anime's embraced for a long time. Let's pull out the telescope and spot some great anime about space travel, sitting high in orbit.

Anime has always loved space and space travel.  One of Toei Doga's early feature films involves a fanciful trip to the moon, and the opening sequence to the fine and fun Rainbow Sentai Robin features an establishing shot of team leader Robin leaping into a transforming supersonic jet, blasting off, achieving escape velocity and leading a fleet of ships and flying robots out of the atmosphere and to space. It's an image I still find compelling today. For years after that, space was generally treated as a mysterious place where bad guys (and sometimes heroes, like Prince Planet and Meteor Mask) came from. Shows in the 70s, starting with fare like the aforementioned Yamato, took the idea of space a tiny bit more seriously, but only a tiny bit – we may expect to hear explosions in the noiseless vacuum of space, because that's just good theatrics, but it's still a bit jaw-dropping when the titular space battleship takes a big hit from the enemy and cruises through the void, belching smoke and fire.

The first show to treat space with something vaguely approaching realism was probably Mobile Suit Gundam. Sure, it had its liberties, but Yoshiyuki Tomino's idea of space included no such niceties as mysteriously-working artificial gravity and containment. If you served on a battleship, there was no gravity, so you had to learn to spacewalk, and when it was time for combat, the entire crew was required to don their spacesuits, because explosive decompression was a real danger. Most impressive were Gundam's space colonies, gigantic space hulks that simulated gravity by rotation, sitting out in stable points called Lagrange points. But Lagrange points are real—actual places where relatively small bodies can camp out in a point relatively stationary to the larger bodies around them. We'd have happy accepted “Just shut up about gravity and orbital velocity kids, we've solved those problems in the future!” but Gundam endeavored for an explanation that makes some sense.

I'll start off in earnest with a total lark, a one-shot OVA about a fine and capable troubleshooter heading off into space with her stuffy boss.  Nora, based on manga by Satomi Mikuriya, is an unusual OVA in that much of its production duties are also handled by Mikuriya. He hasn't been a particularly prolific manga artist, so I guess he made time to direct and provide a great deal of production artwork for Nora himself. Nora, concerning the adventures of the titular Nora Scholar, a beautiful blonde problem-solver, begins with an entertaining gag about zero-G passenger shuttles. What happens when the boss unbuckles to stretch out a bit, but then dozes off in his seat? I'll give you a hint: it involves a portly man in a fine suit gently banging around the cabin, snoring with great gusto and annoying the spaceflight attendants. I like the joke, but even more than that, I appreciate Nora's vision of space commuting being a regular, accepted thing.

Later in the OVA, there's a major gravity malfunction at a spacebound luxury resort. Once again, it's played for laughs, as people and objects just start gently free-floating around. But Nora herself recognizes the real danger of having that much stuff rattling around the tin can of the resort, and gets to work on a solution. Again, I like how a potential hard reality is treated like a nuisance; look to the more contemporary Knights of Sidonia to see how a sudden shift in inertia and attitude can lead to widespread death and destruction rather than people floating around, trying to keep their neckties from wackily going askew. Nora's another one of those OVAs that didn't really make it out of the 80s. A sequel, dramatically different in tone and featuring some of the worst animation I've ever seen, is also buried. That one's probably for the best.

For years and years, I referred to Royal Space Force, Gainax's masterpiece, as Wings of Honneamise, because that was the official title. Only later would I learn that this weird title (talk to three fans of the movie, and they'll pronounce “Honneamise” three different ways)  was demanded by Bandai Visual, who looked jealously at the success of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind and decided that their big-budget anime project needed a similarly exotic title and marketing campaign.  The film, under its now more accepted title Royal Space Force, is a fixture on lists like this one, because it depicts a rocket launch as not merely a means to an end or an impressive achievement, but as the culmination of an entire planet's civilization.

The twist? That planet isn't actually Earth. In Royal Space Force, director and screenwriter Hiroyuki Yamaga and his staff carefully engineer a human civilization that's similar to ours, yet remarkably different—every obvious aspect of their technology and culture is somehow alien, down to their weird triangular spoons.  Yamaga gives us a space agency founded not as a genuine attempt to research and conquer the final frontier, but as a political stunt, to annoy and alarm the country's closest rival nation. The film's true genius is that, in spite of this inauspicious arrangement, the catalyst arrives in the form of Shirotsugh Lhadatt, a callow recruit whose eye-opening experience with a religious girl makes him take a sudden interest in his work as a pretend astronaut.  I love this, because it's not as if Shiro's mind is suddenly expanded by contemplating the heavens—he wants to go to space to impress a girl, and she just happens to give him the right motivational speech at the right time.

The resulting film is a classic, something transcendent, and incandescent. The climactic launch sequence, rendered with loving realism using baroque rocket, launch pad, and capsule designs, is a technical marvel that I could watch over and over. And even today, Royal Space Force remains a bit controversial – it took quite some time for the movie to recoup its budget (initially regarded as a failure, it eventually made it into the black), and a key scene where Shiro tries to force himself on the religious girl, Riquinni, still sparks debate. It might not be the greatest anime film yet made, but it's one of the most important.

I've mentioned Mighty Space Miners in this space before, because it's such a typically grand failure of an OVA release, an exciting space adventure that fell on its face after a mere two episodes. Its depiction of Ushikawa, a clever miner's son who's forced by circumstances to cheat death over and over in a treacherous space mine, is fast-paced and fun to watch. The OVA has some real bona-fides to it as well, with direction by the late, great Umanosuke Iida and character designs by Toshihiro Kawamoto.

One scene sticks out, though—a bit where Ushikawa has to perform a spacewalk without a helmet. Now, here's the thing: until one of our brave astronauts dies horribly in hard vacuum with the cameras rolling, we'll never be perfectly certain of what kind of awfulness space's vacuum subjects a human body to. What I can tell you is that I laughed my head off when Ushikawa, before popping the airlock, takes a big, deep breath.  That's a sure way to rupture your lungs, as the air's gonna come out of them one way or another once you're outside. Most experts agree that you'll have about five or ten seconds of consciousness and limited mobility before your body starts haplessly shutting down, and maybe ninety seconds before your circulatory system dies and you can't be resuscitated. Happily, Ushikawa fares a bit better than all that. Man, I kinda hope we never find out exactly what space's vacuum does to people.

Twin Spica
is a grand classic of seinen manga, Kou Yaginuma's tale of Asumi Kamogawa, a young teenaged girl, and her entrance to a new space academy in Japan. Asumi's experiences are shaped by a terrible rocket accident that happened when she was just a baby, but what makes Twin Spica so interesting is that it's not really about space travel, but about the relationships that the series’ characters form before the space travel, and because of the space travel. Of course, Twin Spica frequently does touch on issues of space travel, like the fact that the plainly adorable Asami can't seem to find a spacesuit that fits her.

Later in the story, Asumi and her friends will start intensive training, including survival drills, simulated spacewalks underwater, and grueling academic classics on physics and astronomy. But despite her physical limitations, Asumi feels connected to space. As the series progresses, there's never any real doubt that she's going to get there, but she starts to worry about how she's going to help her friends get there with her.  Running parallel to her story is the sad tale of the Lion disaster, the rocket accident that put a black eye on Japan's space program, threw Asumi's family into upheaval, and left her with a curious friend that nobody else sees. The TV anime version is pretty good, though it's one of those “they finished it well before the manga finished” deals. There's also a live-action TV drama, but I haven't checked that out. Twin Spica really shines in manga form, and while Vertical's print version has that grating “good luck finding the later volumes, they are way out of print” problem, the whole 16-book series can be snapped up as sub-$5 eBooks. It's well worth your time.

One look at the cover of Rocket Girls is all it takes to understand its conceit – it's a series about taking cute, bubbly teen girls and putting them into curiously form-fitting spacesuits. One amusing detail: the TV anime, which came to our shores some years back courtesy of Bandai Entertainment, is actually based on a series of science fiction light novels by Hosuke Nojiri. Indeed, the first of these books is available from Viz's SF imprint Haika Soru. I took a look at it as part of a broader investigation of Japanese SF earlier this year, and zoomed through it in a single day—while it's kind of dumb, there's nothing about its scientific basis that can't be overlooked in the name of a fun read. I kind of wish that more novels in the series would come out in English.

But what's Rocket Girls about? It's about the Solomon Islands Space Agency, and how they solve their rocket payload problem (none of their designs can handle the weight and mass of an adult male crew) by recruiting petite high school girls for their missions. It sounds dumb as hell, and it kind of is—especially when one of their leading candidates, Yukari Morita, is recruited kind of unwillingly (she'd only come to the Solomon Islands to track down her absent dad). Aghast at the idea of manning death-defying missions in a comically skimpy 3mm-thick spacesuit, Yukari sets to work, trying to behave badly and gain weight so she'll be kicked off the program. It's that kind of series. But despite that, Rocket Girls was made with the assistance of JAXA, Japan's space travel agency, and even features a cameo by real-life astronaut Naoko Yamazaki. Its depiction of rocket-assisted launches is realistic enough, and the series climax, involving an EVA/rescue mission where the girls help out the plainly impressed crew of the space shuttle Atlantis, is an entertaining watch. Good old Atlantis made its final flight just three years ago!

is probably the most celebrated manga about futuristic spaceflight, and for good reason—it's full of great characters, interesting situations, and has a kind of wild idealism about space travel that never crosses the line and gets treacly or sentimental.  The series is nominally about a crew of spacebound garbage collectors, because in a near future where commercial space travel is ordinary (we've got cities on the moon!), orbital debris becomes a notable hazard, and someone has to collect all that space junk. The crew of the Toy Box is up for the task, with grouchy protagonist “Hachimaki” Hoshino nurturing a dream of owning his own salvage vessel.

But after Hachimaki gets hurt, a new character enters the fold, the idealistic Ai Tanabe, and Planetes starts to spread its wings. The 5-volume manga raises complicated questions about what a spacebound proxy war by Earth countries might look like, how extended space travel affects human physiology (after Hachimaki's injury, he has to spend time rehabbing on Earth, which is what real astronauts do after an extended sojourn in the void). One of my favorite side-stories is about Nono, a native Lunarian who was conceived and born on the moon. The low gravity results in the girl having remarkably large frame—at age 12, she's taller than Hachimaki—but a physiology so much weaker than Terrans that she'd be in considerable danger if she went down to Earth. For Hachimaki, the moon is a bit lonely and treacherous, but for Nono, it's her home.

The anime version of Planetes is also often tipped as a fine series. It's not too bad, but the manga's undoubtedly superior—the anime's good episodes are damn good, but it's got too many left turns into weird little subplots involving characters not appearing in the manga. Both versions still end with the human race gearing up for the next big step – a manned mission to Jupiter.

I've griped about Moonlight Mile in this spot before, because in North America, it remains frustratingly unfinished. A jolly seinen tale about a pair of… you know, I really can't put it any better than “bros.” The main characters in Moonlight Mile are total bros. But don't worry, they're still pretty likeable dudes. These bros start the story by conquering Mount Everest and immediately setting their sights on the moon. It's fun to watch their career trajectories take shape—while one of them takes the traditional approach of becoming a pilot before moving on to astronaut training, the other gets every heavy machinery certification in the book, because he's certain that deep space heavy construction is a growth industry. He turns out to be correct.

Moonlight Mile's
science is kind of junky in parts—it still features the space agencies using water displacement as a tactile simulation for equipment usage, but that approach has been largely abandoned except to simulate spacewalks. But it's still got a neat range of realistic space vehicles and tools, and the pursuits of its heroes are underpinned by musings on the politics of getting out into space. The stories of the heroes can get pretty outlandish (they both invariably fall into bed with beautiful women in a manner reminiscent of Golgo 13) but it's still fun stuff. Season 1 is out there, and it's got a fine dubbed version to boot, but season 2? Lost in space, man.

I've been leading up to Space Brothers, because when it comes to realistic space travel, none of the others in this piece can really touch it. Like Rocket Girls, it's made with the cooperation of JAXA and has cameos by real-life astronauts. But it takes an exacting, exhaustive look at the logistics of space travel, from training and liftoff to the hazards of EVA and lunar missions, in a manner that none of the other examples measure up to. Even more remarkably, the series’ thrilling tales of new lunar landings and rigorous training programs are frequently overshadowed by the most fantastic idea of all – the idea that a Japanese salaryman in his mid-30s can pull an immense, career-ruining stunt (hitting his boss after an argument), but still manage to start over and succeed.

Mutta Nanba's little brother, Hibito, is a famous astronaut, and in line to become the first Japanese man to land on the moon. As kids, the two brothers promised to head into space, but Mutta ended up choosing a safe job at a car design firm instead. But circumstances see him unemployed and looking, and that's when his family just goes ahead and submits his application to the JAXA astronaut exam.  Mutta's an endearing goofball, a guy with a curly mop of hair and a perpetual smirk who seems to spend entirely too much time thinking of pretty girls and worrying about dumb stuff. But as he reluctantly goes along with the plan to become an astronaut, something amazing happens – all along, he's had what it takes to succeed. His brother, destined for fame and the dangers of lengthy space missions, knew this all along, and becomes his greatest advocate.

Space Brothers
shines a light on the incredibly rigorous and competitive process of becoming an astronaut, as JAXA doggedly weeds out a series of excellent but very slightly unsuitable candidates. As Mutta's dream of returning to his role as big brother in space gets closer, it also becomes clouded—after all, the series tells us, anyone can die in space; Mutta and Hibito's inexorable progress is framed by the tragic tale of Eddie and Brian Jay, two of NASA's finest, and brothers. One of them died heroically in a botched landing; the other is sadder for it, but unwilling to give up the dream of space.

There's other good stuff happening in Space Brothers, as well—Mutta finds a new best friend in fellow astronaut candidate Kenji Makabe, and a potential love interest in Serika Ito. He meets a number of eccentric weirdos in the space program too, like the inscrutable engineer Doneil Henry and motormouthed NASA liaison Jennifer.  Even after selection, Mutta's endearingly flawed—one of my favorite episodes involves him struggling to master flying a supersonic T-38 jet, because a fast food jingle is stuck in his head.

As good as the Space Brothers TV anime is, the manga's even better—it's funnier, quicker-paced, and more focused.  There's also a live-action film, but it's kind of like almost every other live-action anime adaptation ever, in that it looks an awful lot like its source material, but is just kind of terrible. Ultimately, however, Space Brothers is the kind of production that I look at and wonder when we're going to get a big-budget Hollywood movie adaptation starring Chris and Liam Hemsworth, and directed by Clint Eastwood. It really has everything you need – comedy, tragedy, hopes and dreams, incredible scenes of space adventure, and an adorable little pug.

Has the news or these big new movies gotten you interested in space? Or have you started looking at rocket deisgns and star charts because of Space Brothers? Seen any other anime lately that's inspired you to look up to the heavens? Sound off in the comments!

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