Life changes – promises don’t
This is a bit of a historic moment for me as a blogger – I’ve never done a series review post on a show that’s run for anything like two years (though in fact it’s obviously also an appetizer for one I’ll be writing later this year). How can you sum up the experience of watching 99 episodes of a series like this one? It’s not such an easy thing, especially given that there have been ups-and-downs over the course of those two years, times when Uchuu Kyoudai waxed and waned in my esteem.
To begin with, it should probably be noted that Space Brothers as a franchise isn’t going anywhere. The manga continues to be a superpower. There’s an anime film coming this summer, on the heels of two live-action films that fared well at the box office. There’s going to be an Uchuu Kyoudai “Come to the Moon With Me” exhibit in May at Mitsukoshi Ginza – by the square foot, the most expensive retail space in the world. And there was a tweet from the official series Twitter today to the effect that the anime would return once the manga had rebuilt its lead, though no specific timeframe was given. This series is very much thriving – it’s just not going to be a weekly visitor on our TVs for a while.
That said, this is an ending of sorts, and endings demand acknowledgement. In the first place there’s the ending itself, as in the final episode – how did it do? On the whole I’d have to say very well. Uchuu Kyoudai ended the way it spend the best weeks of its run – dignified, emotionally resonant, low-key but powerful. When the show cranks up its haymaker BGM in key moments – something it hasn’t done all that much lately – it never fails to impact me. This was a finale that was largely free of the distractions that have sometimes marred the last few cours, and focused on the themes that are at the heart of the series.
We certainly didn’t get the kind of ending where things are neatly tied up in a bow, but with the manga ongoing and the anime likely to return, there’s no reason we should have. There was nary a mention of Aunt Sharon – that was the only thing I would call a surprising omission – and I wouldn’t have minded seeing Deneil Young or the gang from the JAXA isolation pod in the montage of reactions to Vince’s launch. But in broad terms the finale was about two things – brothers and space. And as I’ve always said, this series more than any I know is truth in advertising when it comes to the title.
I was very pleased to see that Nitta played a role in the resolution, because after his character was nicely advanced in the desert survival arc, I’ve felt that his character was rather wasted (and far more interesting than Kenji). Yes, there’s a bond that he and Mutta share, and yes, Nitta could see it – especially given that he’d heard the rumors about Hibito (I imagine few at NASA hadn’t). Asking Mutta out for pizza was a nice touch, and it gave Mutta and ourselves the chance to hear what’s been happening with Kazuya, Nitta’s hikikomori younger brother. And that amounts to progress, but not miracles – Kazuya has left the house and started to pursue his own dream, but faces a skeptical world in trying to prove himself.
There are limits as to how far I’d take the analogy between Kazuya and Hibito – if someone hires Kazuya and he relapses, a bunch of people aren’t going to face the risk of death. But the larger point is valid – it’s a long hard road back once you’ve been to a dark place inside, and it may mean seeking a fresh start in greener pastures. Coming to America is clearly the right thing for Kazuya – hikikomori face a horrendous social stigma in Japan. And for Hibito, it seems, the right thing is leaving America – apparently for a joint mission to the moon with JAXA and Roscosmos. It’s a bit of a bitter pill for Butler, but there’s no argument he can make that it’s the wrong move – he can offer Hibito nothing more than he already has, and it wasn’t enough.
Of course the truth is, Hibito’s disappearance has been especially hard on Mutta. It was incredibly selfish for him to leave without a word knowing that his brother was facing a crucial time in his own career (at least when he finally does mail Mutta, Hibito has the decency to apologize). And it’s had an impact – Mutta is screwing up as CAPCOM and he knows it. Vince has lost whatever confidence in him that he had. This is a dilemma for Mutta, who’s always tried to live by his old motto that the older brother should always be in the lead – yet he’s lived a life where he’s always been chasing Hibito, and in some way that’s surely more comfortable for him now. After having spent so much of his life defining himself in terms of his relationship to his brother, it seems it’s finally time for Mutta to forge his own path.
Vince isn’t the most likable guy in the world, but it’s hard to fault him here – Mutta takes this on himself for not being able to compartmentalize his mind and focus on the job at hand. “Treat training as if it’s a mission and treat missions as if they’re training” – extremely sound thinking, especially in Vince’s line of work. Naturally Mutta falls back on his strengths to work through this – building a personal connection to Vince to allow him to truly act as his alter-ego on the mission. It’s classic Mutta – I would actually have liked to have seen the process play out over a couple of episodes, but that’s a minor complaint in the larger scheme of things.
Uchuu Kyoudai ends as it began – with “Feel so Moon”, with two young boys seeing something remarkable and making a promise for the future, with a rocket blasting into space. Space and Brothers are what this series is and always will be about – it’s only the circumstances that change. Hibito’s message to his brother is “See you on the moon”, and I’ve no doubt that it will happen (though let’s not forget Mutta’s original pledge – “I’ll go to Mars”). No matter how many times Sharon tells him so, it won’t be a piece of cake – it never is for Mutta, and Hibito is learning that lesson too. But sometimes the hare – even a moon bunny – has to take lessons from the tortoise.
So there you have it – almost a hundred episodes, two years of anime, what does it all boil down to? There have certainly been stumbles, most troubling mangaka Koyama Chuuya’s weakness for stereotypes and caricatures. Buddy the Gorilla is a part of Space Brothers’ legacy too, as much as we’d all like to forget it – but it’s only a small part. The real legacy of this show, I think, is that along with Gin no Saji (indeed, it’s a real blow to have them ending within a week of each other) it’s the most realistic character drama anime has seen in the last couple of years. It’s an example of the way anime can be used to enlighten the human condition when it focuses on elemental human psychology and relationships, and does so with wit and intelligence.
While I’d certainly admit that the second year of Uchuu Kyoudai wasn’t as great as the first, there were still some great moments. For me, though, the highlight of this series will always be Episode 37, “Two Men in the Park”. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s one of my favorite anime episodes of all time, and the emotional payoff it delivered for all of Mutta’s struggling and hard work was nearly unmatched for me. It was beautiful in its simplicity, letting the moment speak for itself as director Watanabe Ayumu so often does. Any anime that can soar to that kind of height will always be special in my book – and it’s the sort of moment the series has delivered many times over these last two years, if never quite at that level.
It would also be no exaggeration to say that Uchuu Kyoudai is one of very few anime (or any work of fiction, in fact) that truly inspired me in my personal life. Mutta is the heart and soul of this series, and the fact that he perseveres and takes risks despite nothing ever coming easily to him emboldened me when I was agonizing over whether to move to Japan. He’s a great man, the kind of great man we can all aspire to be because what makes him exceptional is something we can all aspire to, his decency and his persistence. Hirata Hiroaki is delivering one of the all-time great seiyuu performances ever here, providing the solid base upon which everything in this series builds. Mutta’s journey will continue, albeit not in anime form for a bit – and as my own journey continues, he’ll continue to be a source of inspiration and encouragement that nice guys can finish first sometimes. And any anime that can provide that is truly exceptional, just as its main character is.