Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Mankind has fallen. In their hubris and greed, they brought calamitous destruction down upon their own civilization. Now only embers and wreckage remain, and what few humans survive eke out a meager existence in the ashes of this empire. The Junker is one such survivor, scavenging among dead cities for usable junk. But when he stumbles across a planetarium in an abandoned apartment store, he meets Yumemi, a robotic assistant who still somehow functions. Yumemi knows nothing of the destruction outside; sworn to her duties, she still advertises for a starry performance that will never come. Their unlikely meeting will reveal that no matter how dark our skies become, there is always starlight beyond.
Planetarian is based on a visual novel of the same name, composed by unimpeachable nakige (“crying game”) experts Key. Originally released just months after the sprawling and tragic Clannad, Planetarian was a far more modest work, and in fact was originally a “kinetic novel” that possessed no choices at all. This lack of decision making meant it was far more naturally suited for adaptation than most visual novels, but the story wouldn't actually get an adaptation for over a decade, when David Productions and director Naokatsu Tsuda would tackle both a five-episode ONA adaptation of the story, as well as a companion film expanding the scope of the narrative. Planetarian's early 2000s character designs and tragic narrative both speak to its long gestation period; but feeling like a character out of sync with its era actually feels appropriate for this story, and fortunately, Planetarian's narrative is utterly timeless.
Planetarian first introduces us to a character known as the Junker, who trawls through the ruins of decaying cities for usable scrap. The golden era of humanity has emphatically passed in this world; global wars have left our cities broken and abandoned, and the few remaining humans struggle to get by, hunted by the violently programmed robots of their old grudges. Pursued by these robots, the Junker ends up hiding away in a department store, where he encounters an active robot named Yumemi that wishes only to advertise the store's rooftop planetarium. “The presentation will be starting shortly,” she chirps - but of course, a projector with dead bulbs, dimming power, and no audience can offer no performance at all.
Planetarian's five episode running time essentially demands it tell its story as crisply and efficiently as possible, as the Junker moves from being initially annoyed by Yumemi to ultimately helping her achieve her dream. In spite of this, the relationship that develops between these two feels convincing from start to finish. There's simply not much left for the Junker to actually care about in this world, while Yumemi's firm insistence on the importance of hosting her exhibit is such a small and earnest request that he can't help but assist her. The two develop a very natural rapport over time, as the Junker's efforts to fix the projector are accompanied by reflections on what it's like to feel rain or tears, the current state of the world, and whether robots might have their own god to pray to.
In spite of opening with the most tragedy-ripe premise imaginable, Planetarian actually demonstrates consistent restraint in telling its story. There's no need for this story to hammer on the sadness of its setup; Yumemi's optimism contrasted against the dilapidated state of their world accomplishes that all by itself. The show smartly leans on this contrast, turning Yumemi's preprogrammed focus on her role as a projection host into a kind of prayer spoken against the world around her. Through Yumemi, the fact that robots must stay true to their programming becomes its own kind of faith, a prayer that one day humanity will return, and her purpose will return as well.
Ultimately, Planetarian offers a rousing (and yes, heartbreaking) argument in favor of human hope and ambition, all couched in the direct consequences of humanity's prior ambitions. Even Yumemi's joyous reflection on humanity's grasp for the heavens is accompanied by images like Icarus falling from the sky, a constant acknowledgment that what makes us great is also what makes us terrible. This contradiction is only bested through hope for a better future, a hope that Yumemi's creators instilled in her, and which she at last passes on to the Junker. Planetarian's clever use of programming as characterization enriches both of its leads, resulting in a tiny story that is heartbreaking, heartwarming, and utterly worth your attention.
Most of Planetarian's strength comes from its fundamental narrative material - in terms of execution, this production is relatively modest. The show leans heavily on slow pans across decaying scenery to avoid highlighting its lack of animation, which works well enough, but also results in a somewhat stiff experience. Those backgrounds are likely the highlight, and their detailed decay makes for an evocative counterpoint to Yumemi's optimistic speeches. The series' music is likewise relatively mediocre, and characterized by too many songs that actually feel ripped from visual novels. These songs are the type designed to work on repeat when played through long conversations, meaning they stick mostly to “pleasant but unobtrusive synths,” though highlights like the finale are elevated through unique orchestral tracks.
Along with the original five episode series, this collection also includes the Storyteller of the Stars “sequel film.” I put both sequel and film in quotation marks because it's only partially either of those things. While the film begins by detailing the further adventures of the Junker many years down the line, the bulk of its running time is taken up by lengthy flashbacks that pretty much retell the entirety of the ONA story. The original content offers a welcome epilogue to the Junker's story, but it only comprises a third of this film's running time, and frankly felt like like a not truly necessary addendum to an extremely self-contained story.
This collection comes in a standard slipcase and bluray case, housing the series and film on both DVD and bluray. There are no physical extras, and the digital extras are limited to the basic trailers and clean ending song, along with a dub for both the film and series. That dub is strong for the most part, with the specific caveat that Cynthia Cranz' take on the film character Ezra felt oddly monotone throughout. Aside from that, and some occasionally clumsy adaptive script choices (“”we live here, awaiting our imminent doom” is not a line any human would ever speak), it's a very reasonable dub.
On the whole, while the Planetarian film is far from essential, this collection is worth it for the original ONA all by itself. Telling a thoughtful, emotionally rich, and beautiful story in five short episodes, it's a testament to how fundamentally strong storytelling can overcome basically any limitations. Planetarian is a story about the importance of hope transposed against the darkest possible circumstances, a reflection on the brilliance of humanity staged in humanity's ruin. It takes a robot's faith to demonstrate that there is still goodness in us, and that hope is a power whose strength can move mountains. Don't miss out on this modest yet very special show.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : C+
+ Tells a thoughtful and heartrending story that makes great use of its brief running time
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