宇宙兄弟: Space Brothers, a review

It must be Made in Japan week here at Bicycle Astronomy. Yesterday I reviewed a cool Japanese bell for your bicycle. Today I’m reviewing a cool Japanese anime (animated series) for all you astronomy and space nerds out there who might relish a pretty realistic story about two brothers who decide to become astronauts.

In the past, I have mused about the (justifiable) costs of space exploration compared to the (unjustifiable) costs of say, plush toys in the (vague) form of animated children’s characters (here), and also why the US’s woeful manned space program doesn’t mean the end of humanity’s journey to the stars (here). Space Brothers comes from the same unabashedly idealistic vision of space as a frontier for human betterment.

Space Brothers, or 宇宙兄弟 (Uchū Kyōdai), was originally a manga (graphic novel) by Chūya Koyama, that was quickly made into an anime and then a live-action film (that I have yet to see). The anime can be screened, with subtitles, on Crunchyroll. Episodes hit that service just days after they show on Japanese TV. So this winter, while my wood stove has warmed my body through the cold months, Space Brothers’s 15 minute episodes have kept me looking up in spite of the clouds.

space brothers

Space Brothers focuses on two brothers who share the dream of going into space. That’s them as children in the inset of the image above, right before they witness a UFO speed off in the direction of the moon. I know, my rational readers are like What? First a space pug and then a UFO? and are wondering if perhaps the Bicycle Astronomer has been ringing that Suzu bell a bit too close to his ears. But the otherworldly is kept at arm’s length in the story, and instead what you get is a pretty realistic, rational, and actually quite fascinating drama about people trying to realize humanity’s ago-old dream to travel to the stars.

(Oh, and there’s a pug in it too, though I have yet to see him in a space suit, except on the promotional materials.)

Hibito, the younger brother (who is blond for some reason) sticks with his determination to become an astronaut and is continuing his training with NASA in Florida, preparing for a lunar mission. Meanwhile, his older brother Mutta (with curly hair, also not exactly a normal thing for the Japanese) has strayed off course and is a car designer. Or at least, he is until he head-butts his boss for a crack against his younger brother, and finds himself out of a job, living at home.

space-bros1

Mutta soon follows in his younger brother’s footsteps, taking multiple exams and facing myriad challenges, interpersonal, personal and formal, on his way to becoming a JAXA (Japan’s space agency) astronaut. The story proceeds slowly. There is no fast montage to get Mutta into a space suit so he fly off to Mars with Hibito only to end up in fierce hand to hand combat with a skinless former astronaut turned demon….thing.

Nope, you get what is called a “slice of life” drama in anime lingo, with characters that are slowly rounded out from cartoonish simplifications into fully-formed and complex people. And the story expands beyond Mutta and Hibito, encompassing a large cast of fleshed-out characters from a wide variety of social backgrounds.

I suspect a lot of details about the JAXA astronaut exams and training exercises are true to life. If you enjoyed The Right Stuff, you will like Space Brothers, though the latter does not share the winky sarcasm of the former.

Give Space Brothers a bunch of episodes before judging it, because it’s a bit slow. The episodes are also very short, and they often spread out a single cliffhanger over several installments (like Mutta and the other candidates waiting for the results of the third and final exam). By that story arc’s denouement, however, I realized that the pace of the show was trying to communicate a fundamental point: it’s the process, all its constituent moments and minute details, and the people involved in that process, that matters. Not the end goal. Not failure or success, nor any one person.

“The people involved in that process” are endearing, and memorable. The traditional salaryman who yearns to do something important even though it means sacrificing a lot of time with his family, the older rocket designer who has already lost his family to his work and now wants to pilot the rockets he has created, the doctor who wants to use her time in space to cure a disease that took her father’s life, the primatologist who struggles with the realization that he actually likes other people…these characters are not one-dimensional, they change, and they surprise you.

We simply don’t make animations like this in the US. Heck, we don’t make live action science fiction with this earnest complexity. If we did, you can bet there would be more support for a manned space program. Instead, our studios and filmmakers spend millions on cool sets and special effects, all to get our heroes to some exotic planet where they get undressed and battle some gooey, tentacled monster with a fire axe. (I’m talking to you, Prometheus!) In Space Brother’s, childhood UFOs aside, it’s all about keeping it real. And refreshingly optimistic.

Go watch now.

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