For the 2011 edition of the Reverse Thieves Secret Santa, I was given three excellent titles to choose from. Given that I have been hearing good things about Planetes for a very long time though, I felt that it was the right and proper choice to make. After having watched through all 26 episodes, I find the series to be one that is difficult to pin down because of how it handles so many of its elements extremely well, and asks a great deal of its viewers without making it necessarily a “challenging” watch. It is a show which eases you into its difficult, mentally engaging portions but also doesn’t let up on them either.
Planetes takes place in the early years of space colonization, when mankind is utilizing resources found outside of the Earth and has established cities on the moon and on orbiting satellites. In this era, space travel is naturally common, but decades of collected junk (old satellites, garbage launched into space, etc.) around Earth’s orbit have made it potentially dangerous. Even a seemingly harmless object becomes deadly when controlled by the unrestrained laws of motion. In order to combat this serious issue, mankind has developed the profession of “debris hauler,” a job which is absolutely vital to space travel but is treated with about as much reverence as a janitor. The story of Planetes focuses primarily on these debris haulers, especially the brash-but-serious veteran Hoshino “Hachimaki” Hachirota, and the new recruit filled with lofty ideals for people and space, Tanabe Ai. Together, they work for the Debris Section of their company, derisively referred to as the “Half-Section” for being perpetually understaffed.
Though I cannot comment on the accuracy of the science in Planetes, I can say that it plays a large role in the series, particularly how inertia works in space. It is taken seriously, and though the show feels light-hearted, the seriousness of their respective positions is also made immediately apparent. As space debris is dangerous, so too is the work of a debris hauler, as they have to be prepared for the fact that every time they are out on the job could be their last.
The challenges of space travel are not simply limited to the tasks at hand, either. When it comes to expanding humanity further into the universe, there are very real consequences. Space development is seen as a way to benefit all of mankind, but the truth is that the wealthiest nations, the ones that have the funds to develop space programs, are the ones that profit the most. The gap between nations grows ever wider. Planetes is an anime that questions progress and development, the interaction of politics and science, personal motivations, the nature of human interaction, and even the way we view ourselves individually.
The beauty of the series, however, is that it does not give a clear winner in the conceptual battle of “cynicism” vs. “idealism,” nor does it say which side is which. Planetes does not push one side over another, as if to say that once you weigh all of the advantages and disadvantages of space travel relative to the state of mankind, you can figure out which is right. The answers are as myriad as the the show’s cast of characters, all of whom are fantastically developed and who contribute heavily to the unlikely combination of feel-good comedy, political intrigue, and genuine speculation, balanced in a way that very few works of science fiction are able to accomplish. Even when you disagree with them, you cannot deny their convictions.
Hachimaki decided to go into space because he wanted to go faster and further than ever before. Fee Carmichael, the pilot of the Half-Section debris ship “Toy Box,” is a chain-smoking pragmatist whose skills are the best in the business, but who shirks at the chance to get promoted because she feels her skills are most needed out in the “field” instead of being behind a desk. Werner Locksmith, the developer of the first inhabitable ship to Jupiter, is a brilliant mind whose emphasis on science over humanity can be shocking to those who expect empathy, but his attitude is also necessary for pushing space development technology further. Tanabe herself strongly believes that the key to everything is love, and that actions without love are lesser for it, an attitude which can be grating to those who see reality as a much harsher place. And yet it must be asked, who is truly naive, the one who believes that love connects humanity, or the one who believes that people are forever alone?
Similarly, some problems are seen as trivial when faced by issues of a larger scale, seemingly insurmountable ones which affect entire countries, but those in turn are dwarfed by the vastness of a perspective with the entirety of the universe in mind. Suddenly those “small problems” of the individual start to play a much greater role. In the end, Planetes never leaves you with a definitive answer to any of the questions it posits, leaving you to decide for yourself.
Before I finish, I feel that I must emphasize once again that somehow through all this, Planetes is fun and even a bit romantic. It takes itself seriously, but it also doesn’t neglect the personal joys that can be found in life. There isn’t anything quite like it.