SERIES REVIEW: “Planetes” (2003/2004)

Kevin Long
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Planetes – pronounced “Plan-eat-ease” – is the Greek word from which our word “Planet” is derived. It doesn’t actually mean that, though, it means “Wanderers.” This is what the ancients used to call the visible planets: “Wandering stars.” The Epistle of Jude even mentions this in the Bible, in a one-off reference.

Planetes is also probably the best anime series I’ve seen since the original Macross back in 1982.
The premise is simple: a couple generations in the future, space traffic and space industry is commonplace. The moon has been colonized, and tens of thousands of people live there. Mars has been visited a generation before, and while its status is unclear, there might be a small colony there as well. Mankind is preparing for the first great leap outward: The first manned mission to Jupiter. The overwhelming majority of space traffic, however, is to orbit and the moon. Orbit is used for weightless industry and shipping and production, the moon is used for mining and the energy production, and (Evidently) the production of solar power satellites. Most of the use of space is industrial, generating power which keeps earth running as other sources of power have become too scarce, and undoing some environmental damage as well.

This is a highly profitable enterprise, overseen by first-world nations, megacorps, and fairly powerful consortium both have formed in order to keep the playing field level for them, and tipped slightly against newcomers.

None of this really matters to our heroes, however. What matters is trash.

They’re garbage men.

No, really!

You see, anything you launch into orbit is going to leave some debris in orbit – a screw, a bolt, an expended third stage of a rocket, some trash someone just chucked out an airlock, dead satellites, anything – and all this crap is traveling at 15,000 MPH or more. This is a hazard to navigation, and indeed the opening scene of the entire series is a screw whacking into a space shuttle window, blowing it out and killing all the passengers.

The major space space stations (At least five, and they’re all really big rotating wheel things) maintain trash departments. These people go out in ships to capture trash before it can become a problem, and either kick it into the atmosphere, or bring it back to the station for proper disposal. The missions are alternately boring (Such as when they’re literally just collecting bits of metal) and terrifying (Such as when an old dead weapons satellite suddenly comes to life while they’re tampering with it). These missions are interspersed with occasional trips to the moon to get equipment overhauled, the standard ‘get to know the characters’ stuff, and the obligatory frustrating Japanese Romantic Triangle thing. Actually in this case it’s a quadrangle, but as only two people in it are major cast members, we know how it’s going to resolve itself, which makes it all the more tedious.

The leading man is Hachimaki (“Headband”) Hoshino, a mid/late 20s cynical washout of an astronaut, living in the shadow of his famous father, who was engineer of the first mission to Mars. The leading lady is Ai “Angel” Tanabe, a 22-year-old just-out-of-college idealist who hoped for a better job in space, but who’s deliberately-annoying relentless optimism demands she make the best of her job as a garbage woman just the same. There are also a slew of secondary and tertiary characters – the show seems intent on reminding us of how many people and how fully-functioning society in space is – but I’ll let you discover them for yourselves.

All told, the series runs 26 episodes, which comprises a solid beginning, middle, and end during which everything is resolved. The ending is a good solid optimistic one, though it’s not a very western one, and hence not entirely satisfying for an American audience.

The first seven or eight episodes are more-or-less standalones, and are interesting enough (Including a hilarious trip to the moon). The second seven or eight episodes comprise a kind of second act in which the stories get more arc driven. These center around Ai’s growing reluctant love for Hachimaki, Hachimaki’s increasing frustration at his own dead-end life, a really touching and understated subplot involving another trash man who’s wife was killed in the accident that opens the series, and an exploration of what life on earth is like.

Basically it’s not much different than now: The first-world nations call the shots, the third-world nations take whatever scraps fall from the table, and frequently fight over them. Since most energy comes from space now, the arab world, and the oil-based economy has completely collapsed, and nothing has arisen to replace it. There are continual brush wars as poor countries squabble for resources, and the rich nations use this as an excuse to get in and back whichever side agrees to do what it’s told with a minimum of fuss. Ok, it’s a little worse than now.

The second act also introduces us to an environmental terrorist group which wants humanity out of space, so we can work on our problems on earth. Typical short-sighted ecologists. They’ll stop at nothing to put the genie back in the bottle, including attempting to start a runaway Kessler Syndrome, such as the type we saw in “Gravity” last year (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kessler_Syndrome )

The final act involves the group breaking up and going their separate ways, attempting to follow dreams that don’t include each other, but keep bumping into each other just the same. Hachimaki wants to be on the Jupiter mission, and gives up everything to do it. Ai suffers a grievous injury. The trash haulers just want to haul trash. Several supporting characters begin to question their own priorities. In one case, this is portrayed sympathetically. In another, it’s portrayed as biting the hand that feeds you. All of this spirals out of control, culminating in a war between the International Space Regulatory Agency and the Terrorists which is…damn clever and edgy and successful from a narrative point of view, even if it won’t fully satisfy Americans.

This is a glorious show. The animation is solidly above-bar, the cast is sprawling and increasingly engaging. The annoying obligatory romance does actually become rather touching as the show progresses, the war is genuinely pulse-pounding, and emotional death/resurrection/catharsis of the “Yuri” character is quite moving. The action is good, the humor – after the first couple episodes – is pretty funny. The world they live in is entirely believable, as is the economy.

Best of all: this is a hard-science SF show.

That’s right, you heard me! They don’t break any rules of physics in this show. There’s no artificial gravity, no aliens, no faster-than-light travel, the economy we see is entirely plausible, there’s no hokey one-world governments or prime directives. It is neither dystopian nor utopian and - I cannot reiterate this enough – they use real physics in the show! They even deal with the common biological problems of long-term life in space. This is virtually unheard of in science fiction of any sort.

This really is the best anime I’ve seen since the original Macross from twenty years before, and – best of all – there’s no Minmei and no Minmei singing!

Strongly, strongly, strongly, strongly recommended. Go watch it now!
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