There is a natural inclination when talking about space to focus on the big picture. The universe is one of the last remaining frontiers of humanity and the allure of such adventure is hard to shake. There are stars that are a hundred million times the size of Earth’s sun, there are literal holes in the very fabric of space and time, and there are distances that are so large that traveling it only exists in theory. I think we can all see why storytellers don’t like to focus on the little guy in space, everything else is simply too cool to overlook. Except, that is, if we are talking about the very people who train and study to visit space themselves. Those astronauts, are an entirely different kind of animal. And luckily for us, the world of manga has a story all about them and it’s called Uchu Kyodai or simply, Space Brothers.
Uchu Kyodai follows the story of a man named Nanba Mutta as he struggles to keep a promise he made in his childhood years to go to the moon with his younger brother Hibito. A promise that had faded as the brothers grew up and Mutta struggled to hold down a steady job and was, as the story begins, fired for headbutting his current boss like soccer star, Zinedine Zidan. It is only due to Hibito getting their mother involved that Mutta had even submitted his application to JAXA (Japan’s version of NASA) and got roped back into the promise he had made nearly a decade before. Much of Uchu Kyodai focuses on what it really means, on the human side of things, to go to space. There is a huge emphasis placed on the sacrifice and preparation needed to make it through the rigorous testing astronauts have to endure to follow their dreams. Uchu Kyodai is a character driven story. Mutta is just one of literally dozens of JAXA hopefuls who have made major concessions in their everyday lives to be there. There is a middle aged rocket engineer named Naoto Fukuda who lost his daughter in an accident and changed careers to follow a dream. And there is Sereka Ito whose father died of ALS and now seeks to do research aboard the International Space Station. There are dozens and each and every one of them has a purpose, a driving ambition that brought them onto a stage of the application process that few individuals ever see or interact with. Quite a bit of the story’s early conflict and story arc focuses on whether or not Mutta really deserves to be sitting there among the rest of the participants. He has no lofty dreams nor grand ambitions. All Mutta has is a childhood promise and a growing need to find out if he is destined for anything greater than a desk job.
Going to space, or rather, getting someone to send you to space is a really, really difficult thing to do. As it turns out it is not quite as easy as paying someone a bunch of money and hopping on a rocket for a trip. There are considerations that need to be made outside of the logistics of travel. JAXA, just like NASA, has to test for things like psychological health, ability to function under pressure, ability to work with a team, creative thinking, ability to cope in extended isolation, and ability to learn. There are literally hundreds of necessary skills. Not recommended or preferred, necessary, as they correlate directly with the overall success of a mission and the safety of the crew. These skills and character traits are so important that nearly the entire show is spent fleshing out the different tests and activities levied our large cast of characters. These tests range from submitting the applicants to high G situations and gauging how they react to making them complete a thousand piece puzzle whose guiding picture is a single white color. Each phase of the hiring process is barrage of stress aimed at exposing what makes each applicant tick. One of my favorite parts of the manga is an arc in which Mutta and Co. are tasked with living in a space station replica apartment for days on end without leaving. The idea of the test is simple. JAXA wants to know how the applicants handle living in very tight quarters for an extended period of time. The results are spectacular to read. Some of the people go mad, some go stupid, others shut down completely. There is no character that doesn’t change and watching that slow and steady descent is glorious. It says something about space and humans, about how unnatural and alien it is to leave the spacious world we have all grown so used to.
One of the main driving themes in the manga is how being in space does not come naturally to humans. Mutta and all the rest have to consciously adapt because their brains aren’t wired for it; and that says something about how viable an option it is for all of humanity to suddenly pick themselves up and move out there among the stars. This manga challenges you to take a second and really think about how overwhelmingly foreign space is to human beings. As a species we enjoy gravity and open sky and having the ability to get away from things and think. These things are a fundamental building block of daily human life and yet all three of them are lost in the transition to space. Gravity is gone, the sky is a death filled void, and you cannot escape the company of your fellow astronauts. Essentially, just like Mutta and the other cadets, we have to relearn how to live and that is not nearly as easy as most people think.
Uchu Kyodai is a beautiful series about how humanity’s relationship with space travel. We can build rockets that will fly us past the stars, we can build suits to protect us from radiation and space vacuum, and we can even figure out how to terraform and make other planets habitable. But all of that does nothing to change human nature. One of the biggest factors of space travel and its success has absolutely nothing to do with engineering or math or nerdy men and women in white lab coats. It has to do with how adaptable our species really is. One of the underlying questions being, are we ready to really change everything? The coolest part of this series is finding out the numerous answers to that question. This manga isn’t a fast paced adventure series,
Uchu Kyodai isn’t about aliens or love, hell it isn’t even really about space. It is all about people and the ways in which they change and adapt. Prior to reading this I had really no idea as to all the problems space presented. I mean I have seen movies like Star Trek and read books like Dune and Foundation, but the problem is that all of these stories are larger than life. They tend to focus on the larger logistical and technical issues surrounding humanity’s inevitable ascension. What they fail to do, at least in any large and meaningful way, is explore how much humans are going to have to change for any of their stories to be possible. Uchu Kyodai takes the time and energy to look and for that I cannot help but recommend it.