8 kilometers per second. That is the velocity of space debris orbiting Earth.
A single collision between a piece of space debris and a spacecraft in orbit creates even more debris and escalates the probability of yet more collisions. Taken to its logical extreme, this chain reaction, known as the Kessler Syndrome, eventually renders the space surrounding our planet completely impassable, and space exploration and travel would be halted indefinitely.
Since mankind's first foray into space, humans have ignored the consequences of littering in space. In the year 2068, a stray screw hit a passenger shuttle. The resulting explosion left no survivors. It is a rude wake-up call to all the mega-corporations who exploit outer space from their space stations for economic profit. In a knee-jerk reaction, these companies establish debris collection departments, whose job it is to clear space of dangerous objects in orbit. Over time, budgets for these "space-cleaning" efforts dwindle, as one company looks to the next to shoulder the huge financial burden of cleaning up the ever-growing mess.
This is the stark and grimly realistic backdrop of Planetes, the story of the debris collection department of Technora Corp., told through the eyes of the department's newcomer, Tanabe Ai. Each episode shows the audience what life might be like for an average space worker in the not-so-distant future. Because the anime itself is hard science fiction, technical details are exceedingly accurate, and the portrayal of the different environments of a space station and a lunar colony are all extremely believable.
Few slice-of-life anime are as comprehensive and authentic as Planetes. The level of detail is sublime. The events of the anime do not occur in some sort of isolated bubble; rather, the socio-political environment on Earth and in outer space is constantly changing and affecting the lives of the characters. So masterfully are all these minutiae worked into the story that a person watching Planetes casually may not even notice them, beyond remarking how "naturally" everything fits together in this fictional world.
My high regard for the realism and authenticity in Planetes is also due in part to the fidelity with which the animators have brought to life Yukimura Makoto's vision of humanity's future outer space. It is no small feat to introduce an audience to the many facets of the futuristic world they see on screen, with the same casual nonchalance of someone telling a bedtime story.
Unfortunately, the visual quality of Planetes is let down by some truly bizarre colouring choices. For an anime so obsessed detail and realism, I was surprised that a many Earth-born characters were drawn with strange features such as purple pupils or green eyebrows. Furthermore, the characters in Planetes have horrendous fashion sense. I recall being distracted at least once per episode by the questionable appearance of the characters.
The seiyuu fail to deliver outstanding performances, but also refrain from detracting from the rest of the anime. There is one notable exception: the supposedly humourous moments are made even more cheesy and obnoxiously out of place by the poor delivery and timing of the "punchlines".
The soundtrack draws from various styles to create the diverse spectrum of musical moods needed to accompany a slice-of-life series like Planetes. Despite the anime's fair share of dramatic moments, the music is always understated, never amplifying the intensity of the events on screen. Rather, the musical selection seems geared towards letting the visual animation do the communicating with the audience. Particularly noteworthy is the anime's title song, Planetes, which really complements the scenes in which the piece is played.
As is the case with many hard science fiction stories, characters are treated with far less importance than the technical accuracy of the plot. Planetes is no exception to this rule. It is not so much that the anime's characters are poorly designed, as they are bland and generic given the rich background of the story which permits for them to be so much more interesting and unique. Surprisingly, it is a supporting character which ends up being the most fully developed, while unanswered questions about the main characters still remain at the end of the series.
I have to confess that I started watching Planetes with the wrong expectations. Perhaps this is a function of the highly captivating manner in which the director set up the first episode, but potential viewers of this anime should not expect the plot to culminate in some sort of brilliant climax. It is a straight-up slice-of-life anime. Period. End of story. It is great at what it aims to do, but does nothing more.
As such, the anime shines in the way it draws the audience into its world. If all anime brought the level of detail and consistency displayed in Planetes to the creation of their worlds, I daresay the quality of anime will rise a notch or two. Few anime of this length can convey so much insight into the way their characters live, and how their lives change when the social, economic and political values shift over time in reaction to new events.
For lovers of true science fiction, this is an automatic must-see. For those who enjoy slice-of-life, Planetes will open your eyes to the definition of detail and immersiveness.
In the year 2075, humanity has spread to the stars, along with their technology, colonies, and... waste? At such great speeds in orbit, even a tiny bolt can cause a tragic disaster. Enter the team of the half division. Their job? To gather the garbage and debris that circles the Earth, in order to keep space safe. From broken-down satellites to bolts and nails, there's nothing that the underpaid and underappreciated staff can't salvage. Join Hachimaki, Tanabe, Fee, and the rest of the gang as they risk their lives to keep space clean, and keep their wallets... empty.
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