Anime loves space. Epic battles unfolding on faraway planets. Giant robots slugging it out in zero G. Even the occasional "ragtag bunch of misfits struggle to make a living ... on a spaceship!" tale.
But Space Brothers is different. It eschews far-off starscapes for somewhere a lot closer to home, weaving together a story of sibling camaraderie and rivalry within the incredibly competitive and stressful world of astronaut training, right here on Earth.
Space Brothers isn't as widely known as some of the flashier sci-fi anime series, but if you adore real-life space program dramas like The Right Stuff or October Sky, it just might be for you.
Astronauts: an origin story
In 2006, Mutta Nanba and his younger brother Hibito are exploring the environs outside the confines of their apartment building one warm summer night. As inquisitive kids, they're recording the experience, capturing the sounds of a rushing river and some croaking frogs on their father's old tape recorder. They eventually spot a UFO speeding off toward the moon. The two brothers' imaginations are sparked by this encounter, and they make a childhood promise to become astronauts. Hibito's eager to go to the moon. Mutta, as the older brother, decides to one-up his sibling by promising to be the first person on Mars.
As the two boys' interest in space intensifies, they seek the help and mentorship of the closest astronomer, because we all know that one person in the neighborhood who has a telescope setup worthy of any university astronomy class. For the young brothers, that person is Sharon Kaneko, who becomes their Aunt Sharon. She opens up her house and her life to the boys, and as she teaches them astronomy and astrophysics, the boys enrich Sharon's life, becoming the children she never had.
Twenty years later, Hibito joins the ranks at NASA, while Mutta gives up his childish dream and becomes an automotive engineer. Mutta's hotheadedness is a poor fit for a staid Japanese company, and after he headbutts his boss for daring to make light of Hibito's accomplishments, Mutta's fired. Adrift in a sea of self-pity, Mutta has no clue what to do in his life, but his mother already figures out his next step. There's an open call for astronauts at JAXA, the Japanese space agency, and she's put in an application for her wayward son. Mutta is inevitably chosen to undergo the initial exam, and his quest to catch up to his little brother begins.
A relatable main character
Mutta's lucky enough to experience things the average person will never get to see, but he's so self-deprecating and dorky that it's hard to get angry with his incredibly steady journey from office salaryman to potential astronaut candidate. He constantly can't believe his own luck, although he's got the obvious smarts to earn a spot in an astronaut training class. His interactions with other people are incredibly awkward, and each episode is peppered with his internal thoughts as he berates himself for his social ineptness. The guy overthinks everything, from what sort of groceries he should get on his first trip to an American grocery store to how he should address his new American neighbors. This is the kind of guy who wears a Stetson and aviator sunglasses to fit in with the rest of Texas.
Although Mutta's the main focus, he's far from the best candidate in his class. He's older than most of the other prospective astronauts, but what he lacks in relative youthfulness he more than makes up for with experience and ingenuity. He's not the strongest, but he's a pro at problem solving. A decade of working in the automotive industry taught him to keep a cool head under pressure and push himself for creative solutions to difficult problems. Mutta Nanba proves that you're never too old to pursue your lifelong dream.
A motley crew of endearing misfits
Mutta can't carry the entire show alone, and it's his rivalry with younger brother Hibito that drives him to work even harder. Mutta is serious-minded, while Hibito is much more playful. In fact, it might have been Hibito's willingness to take chances that allowed him to go in for astronaut training first, even as his older brother gives up that dream to go into a more reliable, Earth-bound career. Mutta's constantly second-guessing his behavior around his younger brother, and he still wants to act the role as older brother and mentor. "The older brother must lead the younger." A story arc later on in the series features two other brother astronauts, Americans Brian and Eddie Jay, and their relationship is put up as a comparison to the Nanba brothers ... with tragic results.
The two brothers' parents stray very far from the expected role of retired parents. They don't spend their golden years sitting around the house, letting their grown sons do whatever they wish, because they can't be bothered. Mrs. Nanba can often be found yelling at Mutta on the telephone and encouraging him to get his butt in gear so that he can join his brother. Mr. Nanba doesn't say very much, but he dons a dazzling array of retiree gear. It seems he has a T-shirt for every single occasion. I guess when you have time to shop for clothes, you can eventually collect a wardrobe that matches your every mood ... even "I'm proud of my two astronaut sons!"
Mutta's fellow JAXA initiates are a ragtag bunch of researchers, rocket scientists, engineers and doctors. Not all of them make it past the initial exam to the next stage, and what's surprising is that these characters aren't berated as failures just because they didn't make the cut. Becoming an astronaut is an astonishingly difficult task, and the show doesn't shy away from showing how difficult it is to join NASA. And even for those who are skilled enough to make it through to the astronaut training program, only a select few of those are actually picked to go on a mission.
When Serika Itou was a child, her father, a respected genetic researcher, suddenly fell ill with a mysterious disease, which was later diagnosed as ALS. As her father weakened from the disease, he continued to investigate it in the hopes of finding a cure. Eventually, he passes away, and Serika has made it her life's goal to continue her father's research and develop a cure for the terrible disease. Mutta adores her tenacity and her love of food (and of Star Wars). An isolation exercise brings them both closer together, but for all of Serika's investigative prowess and her extraordinary empathy, she's the last person of their group to figure out that Mutta's sweet on her.
Kenji Makabe is a classically handsome (see the Superman-like spit curl on his forehead?) astronaut trainee who becomes Mutta's best friend. A family man with a young child to support, he joins the training program for the simplest goal of them all. Weary of his researching job in a photochemistry lab, he wanted to experience something other than monotony. His goal is probably one of the more fanciful dreams among Mutta's fellow trainees, but, again, Kenji is so good-hearted that it's hard not to root for him as well. Initially, Mutta's jealous because Kenji seemed to have it all, and he seemed so willing to throw it all away for a shot at going into space. Mutta soon discovers that Kenji's incredibly passionate about space travel, and since Kenji's affable nature allows him to get along with other people with ease, he's essential for a mission to a possible space colony.
And these are just the people that Mutta meets during his initial testing at JAXA. Once he arrives in Houston to begin working at NASA, the cast of eccentric characters grows even more. Every single astronaut and engineer and instructor has something slightly strange about them, so NASA is filled to bursting with multi-talented weirdos. In a case of reverse psychology gone amok, Mutta's piloting instructor trains him to be the best pilot in his class while simultaneously terrifying the crap out of him with a never-ending series of foolhardy stunts.
The engineering team responsible for designing a new type of space rover all look uncannily like the cast of the original Ghostbusters.
Dang, Bill Murray. Why so kawaii?
It’s a slog ... sometimes
Just because an anime is awesome doesn’t mean it's not without flaws. While the characterization of Mutta, Hibito and the rest of the cast is top-notch, relatable and quite entertaining, sometimes the glacial pacing makes it a chore to get through all 99 -- yes, 99! -- episodes. The show was produced at the same time as its manga predecessor ... and as each weekly comic book chapter takes shape, the show had to slow down repeatedly just so it wouldn't get ahead of the comic story. It's a story that could've been told in half the time if there were the time, inclination and budget for it.
Yes, this show requires patience. Don't be afraid to skip ahead if you don't think the story's getting anywhere. There are episodes which basically recap the entire story so far, and those can readily be ignored. There's also a "show within the show" -- the animated adventures of a rabbit version of Hibito, produced once his fame in Japan spreads -- which is frustratingly kiddie in scope. The style is just a shade above Flash animation and can be skipped without any impact to the main story. You just need to know that this cartoon exists and is tremendously popular (though who the heck really knows why, considering its incredibly poor production values).
But there's a pug!
Apollo, Apo for short, is a pug that Hibito adopts once he moves to Houston. As Hibito's rigorous astronaut training keeps him away from home, the pug eventually becomes Mutta’s pet.
Apo is incredibly cute and deserving of all the love, and I wouldn't have minded if this show were called Space Pug and was just about this little guy's adventures in orbit.
At the end of the day, dogs always make anything worth it.