Highly detailed and comprehensive world settings do not a story make. Nonetheless, combined with a humorous cast and a poignantly contemporary narrative, the use of detailed realism can be the clincher for maximum entertainment. Planetes happens to be just that kind of anime. With its well-versed futuristic take on timeless human struggles, it doesn’t just look like science fiction; it feels like the world of tomorrow.
The most important fact to note about Planetes is that it is not a slice-of-life in the ‘random nonsense’ tradition. Here, the meaning strictly refers to its focus upon realism, its everyday, strip-back-the-gimmicks level of drama. What it portrays is a situation that is more than just idle speculation, but a plausible future context and characters with ordinary ambitions and believable struggles. This doesn’t imply the plot lacks excitement or genuine surprises, but simply means identifying with the characters and events becomes that much easier. Furthermore, this fact reveals the true extent of Planetes’ achievement: unlike so many sci-fi shows, it undertakes the difficult task of revealing the extraordinary in the ordinary rather than using ostentatious production values to hook the audience.
Unsurprisingly, there are kinks in its technique which hamper the enjoyment for the first few episodes. During its early phase, Planetes relies on episodic developments to lay important groundwork, and, as such, feels slow and tentative. One moment Tanabe frets about the meaning of death in the great vastness of space, and the next she frolics around on a low-G planet dressed in corny ninja gear. Only later does it become a more serialised, cohesive whole with a powerful climax. While this method means its characters attain a commendable level of depth before the main adventure kicks in, the initial lack of focus will likely prove gently amusing at best and somewhat frustrating at worst.
Either way, the wide-ranging build-up avoids nosediving into dry scientific lectures – an achievement in and of itself. Instead, Planetes explores the politics behind the science through the characters’ natural cumulative experiences. From war to eco-war, from death to the evolution of humanity, all of these conflicts reveal something fundamental about the role of science in society and are handled with great sensitivity. Most of all, Planetes rewards its patient viewers with a phenomenal payoff in its latter half as impeccably fleshed-out characters face the reality of where technological advancement has brought them.
In the end, Planetes always focuses upon the poignant human tragedies; the content and the humour with which it portrays this are always refined and insightful, leading to intensely gratifying conclusions.
The character designs generally lean towards realism, the direction offers few flashy effects or severe camera angles, and any CG animation only crops up to add realistic detail to the machinery and environments. As such, Planetes effects a simple, clean look that is also engrossingly apposite given its condensed drama. Occasionally, whenever key scenes permit, Planetes will add romantic details to amplify the ambience: as Tachimaki converses with a girl native to the moon, for example, the switch to a theatrical concept involving glaring lights, shadows, and the deep black of space works beautifully.
With a mix of funky beats, choral harmonies, and breathtaking instrumentals, Planetes’ soundtrack is an aural bag of All Sorts. In truth, with such a solid plot and amusing set of characters, the music inevitably takes an incidental role. However, even its covert achievements form a part of Planetes’ attention to detail; while only a few of the themes stand out in their own right as worthwhile singles, every melody delicately enhances the impact of its respective scene.
The characters and their development rank amongst some of the most involving in any drama. These are vibrant characters that leap off the screen the moment they walk across it. Every one of them has their emotional depths, their ambitions, and their humorous edge, and fans should easily find a favourite amongst them.
Surprisingly, the lead character Ai Tanabe turns out to be one of the weaker personalities on offer. As protagonist, she seems more like an accessory in her own story – the moral mouthpiece reminding everyone to love – than the person who drives it. Moreover, while most of the others are explored to a great degree fairly quickly, Ai’s background and personal struggles remain a mystery until the final handful of episodes. Still, on the whole, she remains consistently enjoyable to follow, if not exactly rousing.
Mostly, Hachimaki, Tanabe’s new partner and temperamental foil, occupies the spotlight with his intense personal dilemmas. Also amongst the best is Fee Carmichael, the Debris Section captain, who will fascinate on first sight because of her laid-back attitude and gung-ho leadership style. Finally, Yuri Mikhailkov, the reticent and secretive first officer, in defiance of his initial banality, ends up offering one of the most emotional plotlines of the entire show.
For those who like their sci-fi hardboiled and their drama subtly stirring, Planetes will constitute that one in a million viewing experience. Its uniquely realistic conception of space, physics, and engineering feels as concrete as taking a course in all three subjects, while its theme-oriented presentation and humanising comedy ensure it remains gripping for all the right reasons. Indeed, leisurely build-up aside, Planetes manages to keep the human tale close to heart in a vast and impassive landscape filled with dead objects. As such, it is an exercise in ingenuity.
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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