Space Brothers (Uchû kyôdai)

Japan (2012) Dir. Yoshitaka Mori

There are leaders and followers in this world, and sometimes seniority dictates which of these roles we are to assume, specifically in the case of family. Almost by definition, the first-born is expected to achieve things before their younger siblings do, but since life is unpredictable, this isn’t always the case.

In the summer of 2005, two brothers, 12 year-old Mutta (Rei Nakano) and 9 year-old Hibito Nanba (Kaito Nakashima) see what they believe is a UFO flying towards the moon and make a pact to become astronauts and journey into space together. Over the next few years, they become fanatically engrossed in space and the universe, vowing to join JAXA, Japan’s space agency.  

Jump forward to 2024 and Hibito (Masaki Okada) has been chosen as the first Japanese astronaut to travel to the moon on a NASA mission; meanwhile Mutta (Shun Oguri) is working for a motor engineering firm – until he hears his boss badmouthing Hibito and headbutts him! Now out of work, Mutta receives a call from Hibito encouraging Mutta to finally train as an astronaut himself and fulfil their promise.

Space Brothers is the live-action adaptation of Chuya Koyama’s manga which was first published in 2007 and still going to this day. An excellent anime series appeared in 2012 – two months before the release of this film – which ran for 99(!) episodes, and like this version, had to make do with its own ending.

One advantage the anime had was the ability to tell a more comprehensive story whilst Yoshitaka Mori only had 128-minutes for his adaptation. The good news for anyone who is a fan of the anime, most of the significant key plot developments are covered here (to a certain point); the downside is much of what made the series so enjoyable has been either trimmed or jettisoned as a result of the time restraints.

Mori and screenwriter Mika Ohmori have constructed a cogent script that features plenty of salient and integral plot points that this works as a standalone film for anyone who isn’t familiar with the source material. The casualty of this is the character development of the supporting cast more than the Nanba Brothers, but perhaps equally affected is the downplaying of the humour that made the series so relatable and easy to enjoy.

Presented more as a drama with minor levity courtesy of the brothers’ infectious and rabid interest in space travel, the only connection this film has left with its predecessors is the appearance of the cast. Great care has gone into replicating the original character designs with a minimum of manipulation in most cases, so credit goes to casting director Keiko Fujimura for her inspired choices.

Chief among these are the fellow astronauts Mutta competes against at JAXA during four years of intensive training. Much of this is sadly skipped, with the final six in their mock space capsule heavily truncated from the source material. As such, the romantic interest of Mutta towards lone female candidate Serika Ito (Kumiko Aso) is restricted to a few yearning looks and expository compliments elsewhere.

Despite being presented in this redacted form, the insight afforded to us of the training programme is fascinating, presumably the result of some intense research by Koyama. Physical fitness is not just a vital requirement – temperament, mental agility, teamwork, honesty, integrity, and basic engineering understanding are just some of the traits the hopefuls are evaluated on.

For Mutta, he may be the eldest brother but he is destined to live in the shadow of his younger sibling unless he can make it through the examinations. Flashbacks recall how the pair were inseparable in their love for space related interests until Mutta was bullied for his UFO sighting story at school. Hibito never gave up and now is a made man, on his way to the moon and whilst Mutta isn’t jealous, regrets do dig at him, and he uses his brother’s success as motivation to join him in space one day.   

Because the storytelling is so brisk, the developments tend to feel a bit contrived without the tension of the exams, and the near misses that almost cost Mutta his progress along the way. It’s a shame that Mori didn’t opt to make this a two-part or a trilogy like other adaptations often do, giving more time to dig deeper into the examination process and the aftermath, as well as allowing the characters to grow naturally too.  

Yet, looking at the production values and the fact parts of it were filmed at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, featuring a cameo by Buzz Aldrin, perhaps we can assume the budget afforded to Mori was only enough for one film. If so, there is little to fault on that front, everything looks great and convincing (some might disagree about the scenes on the moon), especially in the JAXA complex.

As mentioned earlier, a great cast was assembled to bring these characters alive, with the added challenge of not appearing as affected as their animated counterparts. Luckily, this is achieved, Mutta’s curly hair being the only real distraction as Shun Oguri is less gauche than the anime version. Masaki Okada spends a lot of time speaking English, making him a little stiff at times, but they remembered Hibito’s pug Apo, cos pugs are awesome!

With the film bookended by clips and notes of the landmark moments in the history of mankind’s space mission endeavours, Mori treats this as a universal celebration of our fascinating with what lies beyond the stars. Yes, a Japanese flag is planted on the moon but this is as nationalistic as it gets, unlike other countries who would bludgeon us with their own horn blowing.

Space Brothers works better if you are not aware of its wider origins, but also serves as a nice refresher for those that do. And if it inspires anyone to seek out the anime or manga then everyone wins.