Moonspeak is a Harsh Mistress: Planetes

When I first saw Sunrise’s 2003 television series Planetes I called it the future of anime. The direction, tone and attitude that seemed to inhabit every inch of the show was a new proposal for a more mature, conscious and/or conscientious breed of Japanese animation. On second glance the show falls short of its own ideals on several occasions, but is only slightly less compelling because of it. The pity is that the fate of Planetes seems to be not as an animation trendsetter but a curious fluke.

The unorthodoxy hits you immediately, starting with the show’s premise: the near future finds most of the world inherited by the International Treaty Organization, a sort of U.N.-as-government with a NATO-style military arm. Simultaneously, profit-minded multinational corporations inherit the space program and, consequentially, the orbital space around Earth. This deregulation of space might be the reason it’s the corporations that organize and deploy teams of debris collectors to follow and dispose of lethal patches of junk in orbit around the planet and its moon.

I’ve not read the Makoto Yukimura manga the series is based on, but reliable second-hand reports tell me Yukimura’s vision is far more minimalist in scope and even more down-to-earth (so to speak) in the level of technology portrayed. Interesting, since the show, despite its liberties with the manga, is an uncanny example of more focused scope and feasible technology for sci-fi anime.

Most everything in Planetes is feasible; downright unusual for a science fiction anime. There are exceptions though; part of the story arc central to the series is a sprawling long-range science ship, staffed with a crack international crew, named the Von Braun. Part of the hulk’s size is to house the super high-tech fusion drive that propels it. The entire thing is a step away from the low key, almost naturalistic take on technology and characterization the show had been taking up until then. Unfortunately, the story of one debris collector’s all-consuming mission to earn a spot on the Von Braun does not involve the homicidal insanity of an onboard artificial intelligence and its subsequent decision to invite a species of ferociously parasitic annelid aliens to come onboard.

Planetes obviously had a budget attached to it. Mechanical director Seiichi Nakatani’s mechanical designs are fairly realistic and realistically varied for a deregulated, privatized outer space, from all-but-mothballed junk heaps like the lead cast’s Toy Box to the sleek silver corvettes of the International Treaty Organization. Art and animation retains a crisp, consistent quality throughout 26 episodes.

The show focuses on one team of debris collectors and their colleagues, all working for the multinational corporation Technora. It’s a colorful cast and I use that adjective with a modicum of actual meaning behind it. The Debris team is a swath of nationalities including American, Indian and Russian. Of course, the most central of the central characters are the two Japanese crew members, but the simple fact that none of the characters are gross ethnic caricatures—fully developed well-adjusted individuals even—is one of biggest and best surprises in Planetes. Like I said, a fluke of anime.
Realism being a central axiom, a recurring theme is that of the cast’s idealists butting their heads against the realists and the realities of living in space and working on the corporate dole. Planetes shows on which side it throws its sympathy very early, but strikes a more or less believable ratio between the two.

Hindsight is 50/50 and the staff Sunrise pinned onto this show is not one that has gone on to distinguish itself as an A-team in the service of naturalistic, believable science fiction. You may recognize director-writer team Goro Taniguchi and Ichiro Okouchi as the duo behind Sunrise’s recent obscure, underexposed and little-known series Code Geass and that masterpiece of directorial and writing virtuosity, second season Code Geass R2. Taniguchi’s pre-Planetes directorial work includes S-CRY-ed. The only thing approaching approximating a Planetes style in his directorial credits is Infinite Ryvius. Writer Okouchi does not even have that much of a reference point sticking out in his past work: scriptwriter for Turn A Gundam, Stellvia and Negima! along with credits for individual episodes of multiple other series’. On a tangential note, you can see mechanical designer Nakatani’s design work in Gundam 00 as well: lots of spindly, delicate needle-shape space ships.

Originally I was going to compare and contrast Planetes to Patlabor. The idea was revised when it was obvious there was too little go on in that direction, but they do have one commonality: both are TV series’ that excel despite a weak central story arc. Funny, isn’t it? In most every review of a long-form anime you see it’s always “great story, pity about the filler.” I already mentioned the Von Braun. It’s the weakest part of the show. The quest to earn a spot on the ship creates a multi-episode tight focus on one debris collector to the detriment of the stories of every other character. Much like Patlabor, you’ve got a great cast of characters, one of the best in anime really, yet, divided and singled out most every character is much less than the sum of all of them together functioning as a unit. It’s one of the greatest strengths and weaknesses of building any story around the travails of a bunch of coworkers.

Part of it is that Planetes’ one-episode stories are so outstanding, not just in the “for an anime” way, but as science-fiction stories, period. In particular, episode 11 should have won some awards if it hasn’t already. I don’t know whether the story is from the mind of Yukimura or Okouchi, but it’s as much an example of excellence in short-form science fiction as most short stories I’ve read in the genre. Without spoiling it: an entrepreneur from the hardscrabble South American country of El-Tanika spends his savings getting up to space with a prototype of a new space suit he wishes to sell to a corporate space division in the hopes of pulling himself and his factory workers back home out of abject poverty. Though mechanically superior to the industry standard “EVA” suit, his product is not what you would call aesthetically pleasing and all but Technora have rejected his sales pitch. Technora looks set to buy, but there is one problem: the International Treaty Organization has just declared El-Tanika to be a rogue state.

This episode sums up in a neat 22-minute package so much of what is great about Planetes, and Planetes sums up in 26 episodes so much of what is great and, more enticingly, what could be great about anime. Colony Drop Florida correspondent Jeff tells me Planetes was a high-budget flop for Sunrise. Three years later, Code Geass becomes a cross-Pacific phenomenon, under the hand of Taniguchi and Okouchi no less. A curious fluke indeed.

8 Comments

  1. I think the interesting and positive thing about the anime market over the last ten years is how many of these “curious flukes” have been able to sneak by.

    For all the dreck that we’re subjected to over the course of an average year, the sheer volume of anime produced nowadays means there’s always a handful of thoughtful, off-the-wall series that make it by, which I don’t think really happened in the 80s or 90s.

    Plus, you just know that if Planetes had been a hit, they’d have completely missed the point and made dozens of pseudo-realistic shows about astronauts instead of what they should have done, namely applying its principles to completely different types of stories.

  2. Planetes amazed me on many levels (including, disappointingly, the fact that it flopped so hard) — not just as an anime, but as a show, period.

    Hard SF is fucked up so often by Western TV and film — to see it gotten right by anime, of all media, is a sight to be seen. Everything from the lack of sound in space, to the invisible laser beams, to the physical/physiological problems of zero gravity — Planetes manages to be astonishingly realistic (minus the silliness of trying to collect space debris thru manned EVA) and yet still exciting.

    In terms of the anime vs. the manga, the manga focuses a lot more on the human element and downplays the geopolitics that the anime focused on. Still, even the anime’s somewhat silly geopolitical understanding was kinda sadly sophisticated compared to most anime (particularly the resolution, which I thought was a nice twist).

    And yes, episode 11 was superb and surprisingly touching. Definitely the highlight of the series.

  3. dotdash: I respectfully disagree.

    Sure, you have a much greater production volume than previous eras, but to me that doesn’t seem like it would necessarily imply more gems in the rough. Anime today is more commodified than it ever was before on BOTH sides of the Pacific — you export the high-profile stuff and occasional foreigner-market, foreigner-funded stuff like Afro Samurai to the filthy gaijin, and you placate the slimy Akiba hordes with pandering nonsense filled with slutty little girls with no pants.

    The advent of digital technology has also kind of cheapened the production values of shows more than I would like. Digital shortcuts allow a lot of shows with questionable cinematography/other fundamentals (never mind giggling at off-model inbetweens) to cut corners, and provides shows with incredibly weak writing/structure to rationalize their shortcomings with dazzling CG prettiness.

    But the commodification is pretty much the biggest issue, as it bankrupts creative values in the pursuit of milking money out of pandering tripe like Code Geass and Strike Witches. I know TV anime has never been the first place one should look for innovation/experimentation, but with the relative dearth of anime films/OVA these days, the lack of originality becomes much harder to ignore.

  4. >Ben Reed

    Greater production volume doesn’t necessarily mean more gems; however, I would humbly suggest that a search over the last 10 years of anime will still produce more of these “curious flukes” than the decade preceding it.

    If there were some way of my, here in Japan, putting my money where my mouth is, I’d be happy to do so. My 1998-2008 beats anyone’s 1988-1998 for sheer number of great anime series. 88-98 has some good shows, including Evangelion. They can also have any OVA series they want as extras. I still think 98-08 beats them hands down.

  5. dotdash: Speaking of astronaut shows, around the same time as Planetes was another space-oriented show coming out called Twin Spica (In fact there are several references to it in Planetes). It’s by Group TAC, the people behind the new Area 88 anime, Captain Tsubasa and Those Who Hunt Elves. I hear it shares similar traits with Planetes, but I took a look at the character designs and ran screaming.

    Ben: I’d agree with the generalization that commodification is draining TV anime of some of its quality. But “greater production volume doesn’t necessarily mean more gems” is definitely true too. Just look at Sunrise’s output alone, not just in the 00s, but the 90s and 80s too. Like Dave has said before, a lot of people probably have beer goggles placed on their heads by U.S. publishers when looking at Sunrise; they were producing a lot of dreck while putting out Votoms, Zeta Gundam, Patlabor on TV too.

    I’d venture that it’s partly to do with the fanbase itself as well. I don’t just mean in terms of snapping up those UPoPs (Useless Piece of Plastic) attached to and branded with the name of __ shonen fighting show either.

    It’s what I call the Beatles effect: people wonder at the ceiling-shattering commercial and creative success of the Beatles, then wonder why there has never been anything to equal it. The reason is that the fanbase for pop music at the time was not nearly as segmented and niche-ified as it is today. In a much shallower pool it was much more possible for an act like the Beatles to cross a lot of points of intersection. (Now the question is what is the Beatles of anime? Yamato?)

    What the problem definitely isn’t is a creative brain-drain in the anime and manga workforce. Like I said in the article where CD offered a handful of modest proposals to the anime industry, I don’t really see the so-called evaporation of Japanese creativity when looking at the (admittedly sparse) seinen manga that are coming over via publisher or scanlator.

  6. I loved PLANETES not just for the fact that it was an anime, but also because of my own life-long interest in the space program.

    It was a damned good show, and after reading this article and the comments, I’m shocked that it was considered a failure. It did everything right, and was a fine adaptation of the manga (I had read the first three volumes).

    As a science fiction series, it was also one of the few “hard” SF stories that, while staying true to the science (especially in terms of the real problem of space debris), never gave the characters the short end of the stick. I am glad that it was brought to the ‘States; it was certainly one of the best anime to hit these shores in some time.

    To Ben: You are spot on about the lack of originality in anime series/OAVs/movies, but that’s true for pretty much everything. The sad truth is that when something original (or something that takes a tried and true concept in a different and original direction–say like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) does come along…it will be ignored by the very people who have been screaming for it.

    At least, that’s what I’ve seen time and time again.

  7. The moral of the story is that what ultimately matters in this business is profit. That was true back then, that is true now. There’s nothing to be done about it other than enjoying what we can.

    Planetes was a critical success for all the reasons mentioned, but that alone isn’t going to change the nature of TV anime as we know it, especially if the show doesn’t make a profit. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. In fact, it usually doesn’t. Witness the fate of Kaiba, for instance, if you want yet another example.

    I wouldn’t say that people like Taniguchi and Okouchi are incapable of making great shows, regardless of commercial success, but that essentially depends on both necessity and opportunity. Sometimes they work on one kind of project, sometimes they work on something else. Not all creators have the same level of almost unrestricted creative freedom that some of the more famous directors like Miyazaki enjoy.

    Something like Code Geass was never meant to be naturalistic or believable. It was never going to be the next Planetes nor did anyone really expect it to be. It was meant to be a commercially successful show, period. Other factors were also involved along the way, of course, but the second season only confirmed the above. I could say more, but I don’t really want to go on that tangent right now.

    There will always be great shows like Planetes, once upon a time, but only a few of them will ever enjoy both critical and commercial success. In this particular case that wasn’t meant to be. Life goes on, perhaps there will be other opportunities in the future.

    Interestingly enough, here’s a translated excerpt from an interview Taniguchi himself gave some months ago. It’s a pity that the whole thing hasn’t been translated, so context is lacking, but it is certainly relevant.

    “I don’t deny the idea of making a “good” anime which doesn’t make profit. I did make such a series before. But we have to keep it in mind that as long as we produce our creations in the high-cost low-return industry we should be ready to confront the drawbacks: receiving lower salary for several years and compensate the loss by doing part time jobs or something. It’s a lofty idea but don’t expect you’ll be able to be paid on each month. If you are not ready for that, keep on producing anime which does make a profit.”

    Source (in Japanese, unfortunately):

    http://business.nikkeibp.co.jp/article/life/20080902/169503/?P=1

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