It is the year 2075. Decades of space travel have caused the accumulation of space debris that poses a potentially deadly threat to space craft and satellites. Private corporations now have taken up the task of cleaning up space. This is the story of the debris collection employees of Technora Corporation.
Garbage collection in space, I'll admit, on the surface doesn't sound like it would make for compelling drama. However, Planetes ends up being so much more than simply a show about people who collect debris in space. Like many good dramas, it starts itself small in scope with what amounts to simply the futuristic version of salarymen and manages to develop those characters well along with communicating larger themes about humanity in general.
In a sense the initial few episodes of this show are a bit misleading as they mostly consist of tangential stories that serve mostly to help the viewer understand the current state of the world and the Solar System along with doing some general introduction to the personalities of the characters. A lot of them have strong comedic undertones, that initially, make the show seem a bit more like a sit-com than a drama. Some of this has simply to do with exploring certain issues without seeming too overly didactic. Even later on as the series gets more steadily dramatic, humor is used to good effect to keep the theme of an episode from being too overwhelming. I was particularly amused by one episode that, while about terrorism, also showed the follies of picking on smokers.
As the show progresses, there is an increasing focus on characterization, with a particular emphasis on Hoshino Hachirota (nicknamed "Hachimaki" because of his tendency to wear a head band). He becomes a sort of everyman, through which many issues concerning the path of humanity's future and space exploration can be examined. This is not to say that he functions purely as a symbolic character as he is a solidly well-developed, believable, and likable, if gruff character.
Though Hachimaki gets the most work, this isn't to say the other characters in the show are neglected. Excellent characterization work, in general, helps bring alive every character in this show whether they are other main characters like the naive trainee Ai to even characters appearing only for an episode. No one is forgotten in this show or introduced simply as a prop. Everyone has their part to play in the narrative and they even go the extra step of letting us know the fates of almost every character introduced in the show by the end of the show. Every character in this grows and changes in a believable and engaging way.
While the first half of the show is mainly character development and background work, it ends up being vital to the more plot intensive second half. Small details alluded to, characters introduced, and decisions made in the past all combine together for an engaging and dramatic finale. It was intriguing, to me, how the show started with such small scope and ended up expanding into something more universal in scope without sacrificing while still keeping itself firmly focused on the relatively normal and unremarkable characters of the debris section. Also let me note that Planetes has a good and well-handed ending, something that, unfortunately, many anime titles seem to lack.
The attention to detail in the design work for this show is rather impressive. This is perhaps one of the most realistic depictions of what space colonization might be like in the near future that I have ever seen. Rather than general scientific and engineering accuracy being a burden to the story, it is used to good effect to help enhance the drama or explore other character related issues. That particular aspect of the show pleased me. Though Planetes is very much a hard science fiction show, it uses its setting to enhance its character drama rather than focusing exceedingly on the setting itself as many pieces hard science fiction do at times.
Despite the overall dearth of high-end action (toward the end there is a bit more), the realistic way that space is treated makes for more than a few tense, engaging, and exciting scenes. Space is a hostile place and even with the technology of 2075, a simple mistake can cost an astronaut his or her life. That is before you even consider that some people might antagonistically want to take advantage of the very nature of space to inflict harm on others.
The technical aspects of the show are fairly good. Character designs and colors are a bit subdued but that is rather fitting with the general setting and feel of the show. There is a bit of CGI used but it fits in well with the 2D work rather than being obtrusive. While the opening and ending themes aren't particularly stunning, there is a lot of good orchestral and choral work used effectively in the course of the show particularly in some of the more dramatic scenes. Though this is a show that also knows the value of background silence as well.
Though the show never loses its character focus, it does spend a lot of time exploring political, moral, and philosophical questions about the nature of humanity, economics, and a wide variety of subjects. Part of this does just naturally stem from the highly realistic setting and in some cases is necessary to understand the motivations of certain characters, particularly later on, but some viewers might be a bit off-put by that if they like their anime a bit more thematically straight-forward. In some cases Planetes doesn't even present answers to some of the questions its raises. With its focus on its central characters, it is a bit more concerned about how normal individuals can survive and prosper in a chaotic world rather than attempting to proscribe the best path for humanity. The world presented in 2075 is a lot like Hachimaki, it has its merits and its flaws, but above all it is not simple.
One of the best shows I've seen in a while, Planetes is an excellent and engaging work that while addressing a number of thematic issues, never loses its character focus. If you absolutely positively must have high-end action in every episode, you might want to subtract a star. If you like your anime completely free of political or philosophical exploration, you might want to subtract a star. Everybody else, enjoy! — Jeremy A Beard
Recommended Audience: There is intermittent violence and toward the end there is actually quite a bit in a few episodes. There isn't much actual sexual content but sex is discussed on a few occasions. There are a lot of more adult concepts, in both the intellectual sense (economics and politics) and the age appropriateness sense (an episode focusing on a woman forced into prostitution). Overall, while I think this show is fine for teens and above, though a lot of it will be more interesting, overall, I think for older teens and adults.
Version(s) Viewed: digital source
Review Status: Full (26/26)
Planetes © 2003 Bandai Visual / NHK / Sunrise
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