Planetes: When anime gets it right.

Greetings, readers! How are you? Come inside, and sit down. We’ve got a lot to discuss. Would you like a cup of tea? I’ll switch on the kettle. Yes, yes, I know I’m a week and a half late. I blame exhaustion, plus Int’l Women’s Day, which kept me mad busy (and entertained and inspired) and away from my computer. (Next article will be up on Friday, though!)
I hope you’re comfortable, because today I’ll be telling you about an anime series called Planetes, released around five years ago. I’m still beating myself up for taking so long to get around to it, having now seen it in its entirety. If you’ve never watched anime, and you’re looking for something mature, not exploitative, intelligent and insightful to get you started, this series would be it. After watching it, you can always settle for the crushing disappointment that is 90% of the anime and manga world.
Now, let me preface by saying two things. One, as you may know, in most cases it is very difficult to figure out authorial intent in anime and manga. This is because most interviews and source material are in Japanese, and only few people have the skills/time/inclination to translate them. Add this to the fact that I don’t read anime magazines, and what you have is that I am a bit misinformed regarding the background of certain works. I am not the only one, either. Read anime blogs and you’ll find, time after time, deconstructions of the work with little to no reference to the authors and producers, unless they’re crazy famous. I also want to point out I have yet to read the manga, but since it is a separate production, I’m fine with that.
Two, is that I recommend Planetes because it hits all the right buttons in my head. My buttons mightn’t be everyone else’s, which is only a good thing of course. And yet… it deals with space exploration as well as the concept of privilege, international relations as well as love, the conflicting views of a capitalism for the few versus the needs of the many… In short, it’s not for everyone. But enough gushing, on with the article.
In the near future, year 2075, humanity has started colonising space. There are two small cities in the moon, and numerous orbiting stations which are like small floating cities (though nothing like the mammoth colonies of Gundam). Because of the spike in development, the issue of space debris has become crucial to the expansion of this new frontier. Its collection is entrusted to the space development companies themselves. We are put in the midst of Technora’s Debris Section, which despite its huge importance is seen as a bunch of failures and losers by the rest of the company. The story begins as Tanabe Ai, a graduate fresh from college, enlists with Technora and is assigned to the Debris section. Despite their unkempt, unprofessional look, these people are actually adept professionals, and soon Tanabe is part and parcel of the ragtag team.
What sets Planetes apart is its execution. The key word here is realism. Realistic science, realistic characters, and a realistic world. Many science fiction series touch on the problems humanity faces, but the viewer bears witness to these only fleetingly. Planetes, however, meets these head-on. The main themes are the meaning of space exploration, as well as its harsh realities: loneliness, disease… and privilege.
I’m not going to go into the scientific realism of the setting. This has been praised elsewhere, and while it is noteworthy, it isn’t unique. Planetes treatment of international privilege is one of its defining characteristics. That’s right, much like the more recent (and less realistic) Gundam 00, Planetes deals with the issue of international privilege head on. As episodes transpire, we slowly realise that this is not a bright new future for mankind, but rather the future of the world we live in. Disease and poverty are still widespread, with Third World nations falling behind drastically as they are denied access to the benefits of exploiting Space.
This isn’t an afterthought. The characters are actually affected by this reality. Two secondary characters come from the Third World, and they start seeing little by little what the reality is for them, being ‘others’. Their bitterness at the privilege others enjoy is portrayed perfectly, as well as the frustration with the biggest privilege of all: being unaware one is privileged. I’ll go as far as saying my only gripe with these two characters is that their home nations are fictional, although they are rather obvious stand-ins for Brazil and Conflict-Rife Middle Eastern Nation #32. I have seen this done in anime numerous times, and it feels like a bit of a ‘get out of jail free card’ for ignorance about particular national sensitivities, but still allowing the use of a specific national characteristic. Still, the characters are treated with such respect, and their motivations are so well-developed, that they are truly humanised despite the renaming of their very real nations of origin.
The other triumph of Planetes is in its characters. Admittedly, I was not impressed with Tanabe. She is not given much of a character arc, and comes across as excessively naive. However, despite being quite passive, she is shown as being a very capable individual, making her own choices. Hachimaki, like Tanabe, also comes from a cliché archetype (Tanabe is the shy short girl, Hachimaki is the rude antisocial boy). However, his development shows us a complex person with a deep anguish hidden behind his contrary behaviour.
Genderwise, though, the kudos goes to the characterisation of Fee Carmichael, an experienced astronaut who takes the astronauts of Debris Section out on their missions. Fee’s story has ended by the time the series starts, so she gets no arc, only what we can piece together. Regardless, she’s very well fleshed-out. Fee is married, happily so, and working away from home most of the time. She is not objectified, she is not chastised as being a bad mother for prioritising work over family, and she is highly, no, make that incredibly good at what she does. It is a common anime trope to depict tough women as being soft and weak on the inside, just waiting for the right man to come along and pry them out of their shell. Another common trope is that strong, capable women are somehow incomplete, due to their independence. Fee’s characterisation combats this stereotype quite beautifully.
What else? Well, fans of space exploration will get their due. The show is mega-realistic, as I’ve mentioned, with all the technology looking very plausible. However, the point of international privilege vs disadvantage is driven home quite frequently. This may make space exploration advocates think about what kind of world we would be exporting into the cosmos should we choose to do so. And yes, there is no sound in space, something used very well as a tool for dramatic tension.
Planetes didn’t happen in a vacuum. While it is a recent series, the 1980s fostered a new kind of science fiction anime, focused on realistic environments and realistic, mature characterisation. Planetes, thus, follows in their steps, proudly so. It’s well-written, it contains realistic female characters, and it explores privilege in a way no other anime is doing right now.
Planetes is available on DVD in both Regions 1 and 2. The manga is published in the United States by TOKYOPOP.