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.