As children, Hibito Nanba and his older brother Mutta once saw a UFO that flew off to the Moon. The boys swore to become astronauts and investigate this someday, but while Hibito kept true to that promise and is now poised to become the first Japanese person on the Moon, Mutta took up engineering and became an automotive designer- until an altercation with his boss ended that career. With Hibito's encouragement, Mutta tries to again walk the path to space.
Space Brothers is kind of the War and Peace of space anime- an epic tale, with a very large cast, and the ambitious goal of realistically portraying the personal lives of the astronauts of the near future, from the competition to be selected, through the training, the actual missions, and sometimes the aftermath of those missions, and how this affects, and is affected by, their family and friends. A real astronaut trains for years for a mission lasting maybe a week or two, so the show also devotes considerably more time to the training than to actual spaceflight (though there IS some of that.) Space Brothers is solidly grounded in the ambitious vision NASA had near the end of the Shuttle era- a moonbase followed by an expedition to Mars. In the more recent reality, budgetary concerns have chipped away at these lofty goals, and it's now not at all certain that NASA will go back to the Moon at all. Yes, our Space Brothers themselves, Hibito and Mutta Nanba, and their comrades are actually employed by Japan's space agency, JAXA, but since NASA provides the launch vehicles and equipment, JAXA has had to align the goals of its manned program with those of the Americans. (Even in Space Brothers this is true, though the Japanese in the show are trying to develop their own launch vehicles.) So there might be less actual "space action" here than some viewers might like, yet the show now seems naively optimistic about the likely near-future of manned space exploration.
The characters here are mostly a pretty interesting bunch. Hibito was the one who never strayed from the childhood promise, and we do get inside his life (and his head) from time to time in the first half of the series, and MUCH more extensively in the second half. But the star of the show is big brother Mutta. Mutta is intended to be an Everyman type I suppose, though he sometimes seems a bit immature for a man in his thirties. (For example, he has an almost schoolboy crush on a fellow astronaut candidate, a young pathologist named Serika Itou.) Most of Mutta's jokes (and most of the humor in the show in general, actually, though particularly that involving him) tend to fall flat. (The incident that costs him his job with the auto company seemed rather silly.) On the other hand, despite his feeling jinxed, he has a lot going for him: he's got some behind-the-scenes backing from people who've known the brothers (and their enthusiasm for space) since the brothers were kids; he sometimes actually DOES have streaks of pure good luck; and, most important, he has natural leadership qualities, including the ability to motivate indifferent or even hostile team members. (He also has a talent for ingenious ideas and inventions- presumably tied to his engineering background- and though one would not normally think that a top priority in an astronaut candidate per se, the brass here seem to dig it.)
Other characters of note included, on the Japan/JAXA side, wacky Director (of manned space operations, I guess) Nasuda, who, like his chairs, seems to have some screws loose; astronaut Takio Azuma, who everyone assumes is hostile to Mutta because of a grudge against Hibito, but things are actually very different than they might seem; "Aunt Sharon", an astronomer who had been an inspiration to the Nanba brothers for years; and Kenji Makabe, Mutta's friend (and sometimes rival, though not by choice.) On the NASA side we have "crazy old coot" flight instructor Deneil Young; Pico Norton, an alcoholic engineer; and the marvelously named Vincent Bold, who's coldly efficient and has little patience for the likes of Mutta.
I did have some "Oh, come ON!" moments in the show. The first occurs when Mutta's suitability to become an astronaut is being tested. Mutta and his fellow candidates are split into five-person teams, and each team is put in an isolation pod for two weeks. (JAXA really DOES test its astronaut candidates this way, according to Mary Roach's delightful book on human spaceflight, Packing for Mars.) One of Mutta's fellow podmates keeps making an obvious, elementary-school-level mistake in plain sight of all, and I found it unbelievable that the person didn't realize it themselves, much less that NO ONE ELSE pointed it out either.
The second example is much worse. An accident occurs during space operations that was just ridiculous. Space operations are ALWAYS carefully researched and rehearsed beforehand (elsewhere in the show we SEE this), yet here we have an accident that could only occur when NEITHER of those conditions had been met. It's even shown (after the fact, of course) that the information needed to perform the operation safely could have been speedily obtained. (Actually, the info to avoid a mishap of this magnitude has been available since the mid-1960's or so.) Real NASA accidents have been more like the type that befell astronaut Brian Jay and his two fellow crewmembers in this show- an equipment failure, either due to something defective not being caught by the technicians preparing the craft (Apollo 1 and Apollo 13)- or, much worse, some known defect that had not been addressed because it was never thought likely to actually endanger the spacecraft (both Space Shuttles.) I have nothing but admiration for the astronauts; where the damage wasn't instantly catastrophic (Apollo 13), they've been able to do what it took to survive; even when it WAS catastrophic, they've been problem-solvers to the end. While for Columbia we don't have records of the last moments in the spacecraft (like those of Brian Jay's in Space Brothers), one of Columbia's recovered instrument panels showed that certain switches had been pushed that might have actually helped the crew recover control of the spacecraft if it hadn't been as fatally damaged as it was.
I did also feel that the show started resorting to padding about midway. Episodes 52-54 are essentially just recaps of what had happened in the first half. Subsequently, every episode has a brief recap- sometimes not as brief as it SHOULD have been. Also in the second half of the series we get a show-within-a-show, short episodes of a rather stupid "funny animal" anime called "Mr. Hibbit", and based (loosely) on Hibito's exploits. The main problem here is that it also contains an offensive racist stereotype. That is also true of the final group of astronauts we see Mutta actually training with. It's a shame, really, because, having spent some time noticing who was perusing racks of anime and manga in stores, I can tell you that the genre is NOT the exclusive province of Caucasians and Asians.
Technically, the show's hardware looks very authentic of course- the credits indicate both JAXA and NASA as consultants. The CG is first-rate, particularly of the T-38 jet trainers in flight, and an atmospheric re-entry of a capsule is simply spectacular. Character designs are a mixed bag- a character that's only supposed to be 15 looks about a decade older; and I thought there was something vaguely unpleasant about Mutta's character design, though I couldn't quite put my finger on it. (It's either his hair or his perpetual 5-o'clock shadow, I think.)
The show does change the opening and closing title sequences about every dozen episodes; my favorite closer is the one with the Celine Dion-esque song, "Beyond". My favorite opener is one billed as a tribute to Jules Verne, but is actually an homage to the famous surreal visuals of Georges Melies' Verne-inspired silent film A Trip To The Moon (1902)
The show DOES have a real ending, but in some ways it seems a rushed one; it looks like it had been intended to go on longer, and when that couldn't happen, closure was attempted on major storylines with mixed results. One character's dilemma is actually resolved quite elegantly, with a solution that actually kills two birds with one stone. On the other hand, another character has to quickly explain how things turned out- not enough time to develop that story, apparently-and as for yet ANOTHER thing you might be wondering about, the only answer we get is a one-second visual. (Blink and you'll miss the denouement of a plotline that's been developing almost the whole show.)
The stupidity of the accidents, the padding, the racism (intentional or no), the weak attempts at humor, and some annoying traits of the lead combined to make me subtract one star from what is otherwise yes, a genuine epic, and often a solid drama as well. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: A 15-year-old girl is in love with a man twice her age (and he has similar feelings toward her), but since this is an anime that's not even surprising. Alcohol is consumed, not always in moderation. I can't really think of anything else that anyone might have an issue with.
Version(s) Viewed: crunchyroll.com stream, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (99/99)
Space Brothers © 2012 Aniplex, A-1 Pictures
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