I’ve often claimed (with some degree of hyperbole) that Planetes is one of the best kept secrets of anime. While it does not enjoy the same level of awareness and popularity as some of its monumental brothers in the same genre, tucked within this 26-episode series is one of the most satisfying character-oriented shows you will find. This is an important aspect of Planetes – the show is about characters, unlike sci-fi shows which derive their drama from the large scale of their intergalactic conflicts or technology. In fact, when larger conflicts do erupt towards the second half of the series, they manifest directly in a smaller scale between members of the cast familiar to us. Though the vision of the future in Planetes is quite interesting on its own and a great attempt is made at realism, the show is a human drama first (though with plenty of lighter moments in the first half). It is primarily for this reason that I feel the need to convince others to try the show – while I can understand that some people will dislike sci-fi shows, the approach that Planetes takes has a far broader appeal, if given the chance.
If I had to summarize Planetes, I would probably borrow from this review, which describes it as “blue collar workers in space who get caught up in something far bigger than they are“, though the latter part of that sentence becomes truly dominant only in the second half of the series. We begin the story by meeting Tanabe Ai, an optimistic and idealistic young woman who has been assigned to work in the not-very-prestigious Debris Section within a space station. What is the Debris Section? The world of Planetes occurs in a near future scenario where mankind has only partially taken to the stars in a believable extension of modern space flight – there is nothing stereotypically futuristic like teleportation or light speed travel. However, debris caused by this expansion poses a danger to travelling spaceships, and the Debris Section is tasked with cleaning it up. Tanabe takes her new job with pride despite being looked down upon by most of the other sections, but immediately clashes with a young, gruff and pessimistic co-worker, Hoshino Hachirota (nicknamed Hachimaki). Much of both the tension and comedy of the early episodes are a direct result of their difference in viewpoints.
Along with these two main characters is a large cast of secondary ones of different nationalities, motives, and status. The early half of the series primarily serves as an introduction to these characters and the world around them, with self-contained stories which develop relationships while providing jointly playful and inspiring vignettes about different facets of space life. However, even if this does not appeal to you, do not make the mistake of giving up on Planetes early on. Around the half way point, the series becomes increasingly more tense and plot-oriented, gradually building to a gripping and powerful climax which shakes the very foundations of those same characters. It is a familiar pattern of storytelling that has been executed perfectly in Planetes: if you allow the audience to form a bond with the characters in a relatively carefree atmosphere, the shock when they are thrust into previously unimaginable conflict will be even more resounding. Indeed, when Tanabe herself begins the show, her optimism and idealism are both a source of sentiment as well as outright humour (due to her clashes with Hachimaki). Yet the feeling is very different when she finds herself in a life or death situation where she must question that same idealism.
The show also benefits from the aforementioned feeling of realism thanks to a relatively sturdy backbone in terms of the believably of its physics. Little details such as the hand-grips provided for drifting travelers within the spaceships adds an natural sense of authenticity to the world, as does the absence of sound during scenes in outer space itself – the silence is cleverly covered through key character dialogues during these scenes. The key conflict of the series is also heavily based upon themes relevant to us today regarding inequality throughout the world. It’s worth mentioning, though, that the show does not preach or force any opinion onto its audience regarding this conflict – the events play out as they do, and it is up to the audience to decide to what extent they will sympathize with either side. The reason that Planetes is able to maintain this level of detachment is because, as I have mentioned earlier, it is – at its core – a show about characters, and politics are secondary.
The supporting aspects of the show are all done well. The music in particular does a fine job of underscoring both the tense moments as well as the more comedic ones, and the full orchestra is usually pulled out for the most dramatic scenes. As for the theme songs, the OP, “Dive in the Sky“ remains a personal favourite of mine, with an energetic and optimistic tone that suits the series perfectly along with visuals that chart the progression of space flight in an enjoyable manner. As for the art, I found the visuals to be excellent – crisp and detailed, particularly when within the space environments. Small details and movements as characters traverse the space station – or moon surface – added a great deal to the ambiance and believability of the show as a whole.
I would wager that there are quite a few people who will dismiss this anime merely because of its sci-fi wrappings. While it’s understandable that people have their own genre preferences, I can’t think of any anime better suited to bridging the gap than Planetes due to its humanist story and likable cast of characters. Whether your preference is for comedy, romance, or drama, there will most likely be something here for you to enjoy, and hopefully by latching onto that, you will also be able to enjoy the remarkable development of the story in its second half. This is an anime that makes excellent use of its 26-episode format to give a satisfying sense of development and closure that wouldn’t be possible in a shorter time length. I have been evangelizing this series for years now, and I still have not come across many series that gave me the level of satisfaction upon completion that I found in Planetes. It is one of those few stories which were engrossing enough that it stayed in my mind after its finish – something very few anime manage to do. Give it a try.
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