While I do enjoy reading Japanese manga (comics) occassionally, I’ve spent a much greater proportion of my time either watching Japanese anime or reading novels. When I was young I wasn’t really into comic books at all, and as a result it takes me extra effort to follow and appreciate them. When I first started reading manga I remember having trouble recognizing which character was saying what, since sometimes that isn’t completely spelled out and you have to infer from clues.
Given that, it’s not too surprising that there is only a handful of comic series where I’ve read over 5 or 10 volumes.
“Space brothers” (宇宙兄弟, uchuu kyoudai) by Koyama Chuuya (小山 宙哉) is one of my top ten Manga of all time (along with this), such that I’ve managed to read a full 25 volumes of it. One of the other reasons I’m not too into Manga is that purchasing every physical volume of a long series can become fairly expensive, with a single book being around $5 or more (buying used is cheaper though). Ignoring the visual aspect of manga for the moment, novels are much more cost effective with significantly more story for less than one tenth the prices (25 issues at $5 each is $125, compared to a paperback novel which can run ~$10 or less). For me, Space Brothers is one of the few series that is totally worth putting out over $100 to enjoy.
宇宙兄弟 chronicles the story of two brothers lives as they try to achieve a shared dream – to become astronauts and travel to outer space. In the earlier parts of the story, we see them trying out for Japan’s space program (part of a JAXA, Japanese space agency that actually exists), go through all sorts of training, and compete with other tryouts for the privilege to be a real astronaut.
There is many things I like about this manga, beginning with the fact that much of the technical stuff seems pretty realistic, with very few jumps of logic or magical elements added in for dramatic effect. Though I’m no rocket scientist, it’s clear the author did his research, and it shows in the detail given to the various tests that the brothers go through and the many procedures involved in space flight.
The characterization is also done quite well, with a large array of character appearing gradually as the story progresses, each with their own personality quirks. As is pretty common in manga, there are a few flashback scenes, but that technique is not overused.
I also really like Koyama’s storytelling style, which combines just-right pacing with what I think of as excellent direction – every cell feels carefully thought out, with great choices of perspectives and attention given to character’s facial expressions which seem more expressive than many other manga I’ve read. In Space Brothers, it’s not uncommon to have a few successive cells where someone’s face gradually changes to show a subtle emotion occurring as a result of some event. This also saves alot of unnecessary dialog since you can read the character’s feelings by looking at their faces, just like you were watching a movie with top-class actors.
Above all, some of the main themes of this series – hope and aspirations – really hit home with me, plus the fact I used to think I wanted to be an astronaut when I was young (no joke). More often than not, Uchuu Kyoudai is stare-you-in-the eyes serious, but there are enough comic interludes to break up the tension.
I read this manga in the native Japanese, and linguistically it has a good mix of casual conversation, semi-formal conversation between teammates or higher-ups, and techno-talk that is filled with words you’ll probably have to look up in a dictionary the first time you come across them (ex: 月面着陸). There’s a good mix of speech from younger people and older generations, and also somer regional dialects mixed in here and there. Furigana (reading hints) are given for Kanji that are rare or irregular, but for most words that contain common (jouyou) Kanji you’ll be on your own. All things considered, I’d say the Japanese is appropriate for someone with a few years of Japanese study, at minimum a very good grasp of grammar and knowledge of several hundred common Kanji.
This manga is pretty popular, so you can likely find it at any comic store that sells Japanese books, like Kinokuniya, or you can get it on Amazon Japan. An English translated version seems to exist, though on Amazon I could only find a few of the later volumes translated.
There is also a live-action movie as well as an anime series, both based on the same general story. The movie, though entertaining, felt underwhelming and only told a small fraction of the story (which is to be expected in a 2-hour movie). I only saw one episode of the anime series, but it seemed almost exactly the same as the source material, down to many of the same lines and scenes. If you prefer listening than reading, you’ll probably enjoy the Anime though.
This manga has begun in 2007 and has 26 volumes out so far, with the 27th scheduled to come out this year. I don’t see any signs of the story ending any time soon, which is great since it means I’ll be able to enjoy this story for a long time to come.
Highly recommend for any fan of manga, science fiction, or anyone who likes a good story.