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.
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.
Perhaps the most interesting anime to compare Planetes to is Last Exile - not for the similarities between the two, but for the differences. The two animes both attempt to show an alternate, futuristic world with a large cast of characters, but the actual approaches are radically different.
With Last Exile, we are plunged into a chaotic world of war, intrigue, and power games. The first few episodes are incredibly bewildering (albeit in a good way), and we feel totally enveloped in the fantastically imaginative world that the anime is taking place in.
Planetes, on the other hand, seems to almost be hiding its ambition. Rather than the flashy introduction that Last Exile treats us to, Planetes chooses a humbler but equally effective beginning. In place of a fantastically developed setting, we are treated to… garbage collectors in space. Furthermore, rather than the absolutely amazing animation and the excellent OST of Last Exile, Planetes delivers an animation and sound combo that manages to be competent, but nothing more.
More importantly than any of these elements, however, Planetes chooses to at first eschew a linear storyline and instead focus on a series of self contained vignettes. I have always personally been wary of self-contained, episodic plots (see my reviews of Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex and Kimagure Orange Road). Not only is there very little incentive to keep watching the show, but character development seems to be completely forgotten as the writers concentrate on maintaining the status quo.
Fortunately, Planetes manages to avoid these pitfalls by refusing to allow its characters to stop developing. In each and every episode near the beginning, at least one of the characters will either grow into someone more interesting or show a side that was completely hidden to us until now. This, combined with the fact that the individual episodic plots are surprisingly engaging, make the show work. In the end, this has some of the best self contained episodes since Cowboy Bebop.
…and then, without any warning whatsoever, the plotline ceases to be episodic altogether. All of the previous, seemingly unrelated episodes tie together brilliantly, with the well developed characters becoming overshadowed by the emerging storyline.
It is then that one realizes that the anime’s supposedly humble beginnings are merely a device to set the stage for the fantastic final act. Instead of introducing us to the amazingly well-conceived world all at once, the anime inches us in slowly. The world is then carefully developed through a series of almost anecdotal episodic plots. Finally, near the end, the safety guards are lifted and we are plunged into the deep end. All of the previously unnoticed themes that had been shimmering underneath the surface of the anime (idealism vs. practicality, the price of progress, the fragility of human life) are brought into focus, and combine into an amazingly beautiful storyline.
In the end, Planetes, unlike Last Exile, is an example of an epic story done right. Last Exile carried with it a distinct lack of planning; even as I was wowed by the amazing cgi, the fabulous OST or the breathtaking setting, I always felt as if Gonzo was improvising as it went along, with no idea where the storyline would take the characters next. Planetes has no such feeling. From the very beginning, Sunrise knows exactly where the show is going, and even more impressively, trusts that viewers will have the patience to watch through the entire show. The result is astounding. I’ll be the first one to admit that the first episode of Last Exile is miles ahead of just about any anime’s, but when judged as a complete work, Planetes is a superior series.
Planetes (the Greek word for “planets” literally meaning drifters) combines hard science fiction with corny coming-of-age storytelling while having a high budget. There isn’t much plot, since to its core the series is the daily lives of garbage men in space. Although many episodes seem to be standalones, they usually spend time in fleshing out the characters and the world, so nothing is going to waste. It is not one of those unbearably boring school based settings, where there is nothing to explain, and it’s not a road movie type of show, where the events of one episode do not matter in the next one.
Unlike typical slice of life, there are stakes here, as it’s pretty easy to get killed if an accident happens and you don’t fix it in time. There is far more tension compared to a bunch of teenagers trying to win in a school competition, or form some school club where they play videogames all day. Not only there are no schools, but also there are almost no teenagers as well. The major characters are all adults, they have a job which can kill them, and they have the freedom to smoke, drink, and have sex. How thought-provoking is that for a medium that is not supposed to be holding back?
I even liked how the stories feel like a shounen series which subverts expectations. And yes, I know it’s not a shonen and the word subversion has lost its meaning, but it’s done almost deliberately in this case. The writers did not stop at making the main characters super idealistic underdogs who want to prove their worth to those above them, while occasionally yelling and blushing over peanuts and sexual frustration. Despite most of them behaving in a very immature way and yelling all the time, they are still adults, dealing with adult problems. Despite feeling like cranky old maids with cartoony voices at times, the show is still more mature than 99% of all anime in existence.
In the same way, most of the missions play out like a simple fairy tale with an obvious moral message at the end, yet in many cases there is a dark twist which breaks the formula. The negative consequences are never devastating since the heroes clearly have a lot more plot armor than they deserve, but the threats they are facing are engaging nonetheless. No crappy shonen full of angsty teenagers with superpowers and edgy violence can beat that.
Although it lacks brainless action, it makes up for it with aesthetics and cinematics. The shading of the sun on the ships, the motions in zero gravity, the wonderful previews, all of those pull you in and never cease being creative in presentation. The art is close to perfect and is easy to see the passion in the attention to detail, leading to a work full of heart. And yes, I am praising the pretty colors not only because they look pretty but because they are adding to what is already good about the show, instead of just hiding its problems. Space stations, workspaces, uniforms, mechanical gears, motherboards and even drifting screws in space look and feel real. Even the new turbine they build at the end, is not that relevant to the plot and doesn’t wave hands at your disbelief. It’s the plot armor you are mostly going to be struggling with.
So yeah, as a whole it is a lot more interesting that almost any other Earth-bound slice-of-life thanks to its setting, and a lot more captivating than a cheesy sci-fi adventure. Plus it offers some good life lessons and does have a satisfying conclusion for a change. How many shows have a proper ending these days? It’s worth the ride almost all the way.
I really tried to like Planetes a lot more than I actually did. It received great reviews from some of this site’s toughest critics, and for some very understandable reasons. The production values are solid, and the show is incredibly well-researched, complete with a fresh theme/premise. Still, in the long-run I found this show to be an example of a show that was incredibly well-made, but not incredibly entertaining. Let’s dig deeper:
Art: 9/10 – I have almost no complaints about this show’s aesthetics. It’s already over eleven years old, and the show’s attention to detail puts even newer works to utter shame. The ships, the tools, the space suits were all well-animated, not to mention fully detailed. Buttons, and levers were where you would expect them, everything about the show’s appearance felt well-imagined, and thought-out in its placement.
The character figures were a little bland, if I’m being honest – especially since the cast was fairly multi-cultural, they seemed a bit on the mundane side. I’m not saying that I wanted more anti-gravity purple hair, per say, but I would have fancied a cast that had a slightly more distinctive look. It’s a minor complaint, and the only one I have about this show’s art.
The backgrounds were fantastic, especially the frames out in space with the entire Earth in the background. The ships and space stations were incredibly well designed as well. Again, no complaints here!
The animation and special effects all seemed good to me as well. The way the characters were animated in zero gravity was fluid, the debris hauler’s operations were smooth, everything about this show’s production values just seemed incredibly well-done to me
Sound: 7/10 – The show’s sound section was ok for the most part, especially the sound effects.
The voice acting was a little corny for my likes, though I thought the characters were mostly well acted – especially Fee and Yuri. Like most animated shows, the smaller the character’s role, the more steeply the quality of the voice-acting goes, and Planetes proves to be no exception. Still, I only deducted a single point because Ai was just a little too annoying 95% of the time.
I really do not have much to say about the show’s music – the bgm was entirely unremarkable, I cannot recall even a single theme from the show’s background. As for the OT, I thought it was ok, but again nothing spectacular. Same with the end theme.
The sound effects on the show were solid, through and through. What sticks out most remarkably to me, was the quality of voice when transmitted over intercoms, for via radio (when in space suits). It was just incredibly well-done and realistic sounding.
Story 6/10 – The premise of the story is fresh and interesting, with a near-futuristic insight that feels very real. The workplace feels very organic – like a real workplace, it is hardly romanticized, or overly theatrical at first.
Still, the story quickly loses steam, as the events from episode-to-episode aren’t really that interesting. There’s the predictable sexual-tension-turned-love-story thing happening between the male and female lead, and even the development of that is moderately interesting at best. Some of our secondary cast, such as Yuri, Fee, and Edel are interesting, but they each only have a singular episode pseudo-dedicated to them, with the rest of their interactions feeling more back-dropped.
The pacing is just so slow, it took me weeks to finish this series, because there was rarely anything that kept me from wanting to flip from one episode to the next. It isn’t until the last few episodes that the story seems to find itself (with Hachi applying for the Jupiter mission), and I will admit that arc was actually very interesting – but it felt too little too late. I had already wasted too much time on the first three quarters of the series. Where the first three quarters were slow, with too much fluff (and not enough plot), the last quarter tries to cram some really heavy issues, such as inequities on earth, the species-wide imperative to develop space, classism, racism, terrorism, self-actualization, and love. While the show starts to tackle and integrate these very serious (and relevant) issues, it does so too late. Planetes took too long to take itself seriously. If it would have found itself from the beginning, (like what started at around episode 19), or at least worked up to that point more quickly, this show could have been one of the best anime series I’ve ever watched.
As I had touched upon above, Planetes does address some incredibly heavy issues. The problem is that the show touches complex issues in the most simplistic ways possible. It uses a lot of classism, where the highest ranking capitalists are greedy, self-centered, and corrupt – which, while perhaps overdone, is very relevant and realistic – but attacks it with shounen-like protagonists, who blatantly tell their superiors to f*ck off with their “love conquers all” and “you can’t tell me what to do” attitude. And they do so regularly without ever facing any meaningful repercussions. This dismantles the severity of many of the issues the show attempts to address, and just feels lazy from the writing perspective. It would have been more clever if the characters had to be clever about doing the right thing, instead of just constantly disobeying instructions and getting away with it.
So while I think the plot-specific plausibility left much to be desired, the plausibility of the world itself was outstanding. Honestly, Planetes is, in my opinion, the gold standard of a well-researched anime series. They did space right. They included less-than-romantic aspects like astronauts wearing diapers. As well as the blatant dangers (such as cancer-causing radiation, or weakness from prolonged exposure to low/zero gravity). Absolutely fantastic. If they created any drastic scientific errors in their world-building, then they fooled me.
The ending of the story was ok, even though I found it to be a bit predictable, and perhaps a little rushed. Again, the final few episodes tried to cram too much into them, when there was so much time prior that felt more or less wasted.
Characters 6/10 – I thought the characters were fairly interesting at first. They each had a couple quirks at the outset, and their presence in the story was strong. The story was more or less character driven, which is typically a preference of mine – it keeps the choices the characters make relevant to what happens around them. And Planetes does well to deliver.
The personality of the characters, while pronounced, seemed a little too over exaggerated to me. Ai was just insufferably annoying; taking optimism and “do-gooding” to another level. It got old fast; especially since her naiveté never punished her or got her into any trouble (until a little at the very end, and it was terribly contrived). Hachi was better written, for sure. At the very least, he seemed a bit more well-rounded. Though this is not to say that he is not without his flaws in writing. He still has that overly shounen-like “believe it!” attitude where he is too cool to ever do anything other than follow his gut, and break the rules. When well-timed, or in more calculated doses, these traits can be interesting for characterization, but in Hachi’s case, it just felt preachy (much like with Ai). I’m not sure how Fee never pimp slapped them for being immature children every time they didn’t get their way, but it played out how it played out.
To be fair, Fee and Yuri were sort of in that same shounen-like mindset, though it normally took a bit of Ai and Hachi’s insistence before they set in motion to continually break their company’s rules. I did think Fee was perhaps just a little more well-rounded, and I would have liked her to have more limelight, but she seemed stuck as a supporting character.
Likewise the class portrayal of other characters; especially wealthier characters who are higher in rank within the organization were more or less steadily portrayed as the villains of the show. While this is not a bad theme, necessarily, and while it might often be the case in reality – it seems like a really tired theme in anime. The wealthy are always greedy, lazy capitalists who are out to screw humanity as much as possible for the sake of their goals. It’s an ok theme – but only when it is well portrayed. Planetes makes the ever-common mistake of making these antagonists wear their greed and corruption on their sleeve – which is not how it works. I don’t mind a show trying to tackle these issues, but for anime as scientifically well-researched as Planetes, it serves as a colossal disappointment with how overly simplistic most of the antagonistic characters are.
There is absolutely no backdrop to speak of for Ai (our female lead), very little for Hachi (our male lead) and Fee. Yuri, who is truly a secondary character, probably has the most compelling back-story in series. Followed by Edel, who is even a less significant character.
The only main character that seemed to undergo development was Hachi, and even his development felt lukewarm. To be fair, Claire (a secondary character) and maybe Robbie (a tertiary character?) had some character developments as the show progressed. I gave a point to this section for those developments, and because of how interesting Hachi’s final arc – and revelations within – were.
I found the catharsis, namely of Hachi, to actually be very brilliant. It became clear that his focus was on his struggle between his love of space, and his love of Ai, and the way he reconciled the two felt very well-written, realistic, not terribly cliché, and for the most part, satisfying. Thanks to Hachi alone, I grant this show a full score on the catharsis subsection.
Overall 6.5/10 - The theme was fresh, interesting, well-researched, and plausible. If the writers would have been bolder and more mature with their characterization, and added a little more flair to the storyline and character interactions, this show would have been amazing, as opposed to well-made - but mediocre, and often uninteresting.
Excused scorings (thanks to Roriconfan for the template)
ART SECTION: 9/10
General Artwork 2/2 (well done)
Character Figures 1/2 (kind of mundane)
Backgrounds 2/2 (realistic/aesthetic)
Animation 2/2 (good)
Visual Effects 2/2 (outstanding)
SOUND SECTION: 7/10
Voice Acting 2/3 (kind of corny, but well acted)
Music Themes 2/4 (ok, but not remarkable)
Sound Effects 3/3 (great)
STORY SECTION: 6/10
Premise 2/2 (fresh)
Pacing 0/2 (slow)
Complexity 1/2 (over-simplified themes/exaggerated situations)
Plausibility 2/2 (well-researched, solid)
Conclusion 1/2 (ok, but rushed)
CHARACTER SECTION: 6/10
Presence 2/2 (strong)
Personality 1/2 (simple and over exaggerated, but interesting)
Backdrop 0/2 (very weak)
Development 1/2 (so-so)
Catharsis 2/2 (smartly portrayed)
VALUE SECTION: 6/10
Historical Value 2/3 (well reputed, but not huge)
Rewatchability 1/3 (slow, with too much fluff)
Memorability 3/4 (well done and fresh enough to leave a print)
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 5/10
Art 1/1 (great)
Sound 1/2 (good)
Story 1/3 (hollow)
Characters 2/4 (powerful, but overly simple)