The idea behind Planetes is so simple yet so brilliant – make a sci-fi series which take a serious, highly technical look at the very real problem of orbital trash and the people who collect it. Yeah, we're really talking about a series about not-so-glorified space garbage collectors, but the fact that this is
space adds entirely new dimensions of complexity and importance to their travails. The indispensable nature of their jobs does not elevate their status amongst their peers, however, because collecting trash, while necessary, isn't profitable. (Whether on Earth or in space, garbage collectors just don't get any respect!) To keep this from being too much of a drag, the series takes on a light-hearted tone when its members aren't buckling down to business. The result is a volume of five episodes which is occasionally funny and often utterly fascinating, though it sometimes gets bogged down in the annoying behavior of its characters.
The true beauty of Planetes lies in its realistic future vision and attention to detail. Its story assumes that, while there have been substantial gains in space travel, mankind is still traveling within its solar system without the benefit of hyperspace or warp gates or anything of that nature. Yes, you can take a vacation trip to the moon in the year 2075, but it's still a four-day trip. Artificial gravity is only achieved by spinning in space, so ships or areas of space stations which don't spin are strictly zero-G. Space stations and ships take common-sense adaptations to this reality, such as having bars on floors, walls, and ceiling for people to pull themselves along or hook their feet under when they want to stand in place. The rookie member of Half Section isn't able to just automatically jet around wherever she wants to right away, either; she actually has to (gasp!) practice at it.
When the Debris Section crew is out in space doing their job the laws of physics are actually applied, and in a distinct rarity for sci-fi series, no sound is heard in space save that which comes over the suit intercoms. When in zero-G parts of space stations or spaceships, characters are shown as being at least slightly in motion if they had any initial momentum, a detail often ignored in other sci-fi series involving zero-G environments. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency is listed in the credits under the heading “Research Assistance,” and it shows. It's no wonder that
NASA itself took an interest in this series.
This first volume of Planetes guides its plot along as an exploration of what Half Section does through a focus on Ai Tanabe, their naïve and idealistic rookie member, and her foil, the cynical and jaded Hachirota. The series is always at its best when members of Half Section are shown doing their jobs, attending to matters specifically related to their job (such as Ai's training with her suit jets), talking about the hows and whys of what they do, or going through the daily aspects of life in space. The story sometimes gets bogged down when focusing on other matters, especially the silly and grossly overplayed business about pushy insurance salespeople in episode 3 or the tendency of arguments between Ai and Hachirota to overstay their welcome. The highly practical, chain-smoking Fee is effective as the voice of reason between the two, while even-tempered, animal-loving Yuri has little that's meaningful to say in an undeveloped supporting role. Supervisor Arvind Lavie and Assistant Section Manager (aka Chief) Philippe Myers, are more tedious than funny in their look-out-for-their-careers pandering. Most guest-shot and supporting roles are reasonably interesting, though a spoiled company president's son in episode 4 is also overwritten.
As with the writing, the artistry is at its best when showing characters in space or exterior shots of objects in space. The level of technical detail is exceptional and impressive, making this one of the best of all anime series to date in that regard. Character designs, while always very distinctive and realistically-proportioned, seem just a little flat, as do the color schemes and artistry in general. (And what's up with Ai's maroon-colored eyes?) Background detail is good, however, as is use of CG effects, while the integration with character animation is so flawless that the viewer is unlikely to notice. The frequent use of zero-G environments necessitates a much greater degree of motion by the characters than would normally be seen in a block of episodes with a relatively small amount of true action scenes, but the fluid, consistent animation proves well worthy of the task. The series also gets a lot of mileage out of the animation of facial expressions, though it does not resort to the use of hyper-exaggerated expressions seen in many light-hearted anime series. The opener, which features (and names) the central characters against a backdrop of animated versions of important scenes and people from the history of space exploration, is an artistic winner, while the closer, which features Hachirota progressing on a path toward space as he grows up, is also well-handled.
The soundtrack, which is suitably light-hearted or dramatic as the scene warrants it, supports the artistry and storytelling well. The opening and closing numbers, both performed by Mikio Sakai (probably best-known for singing the themes to sCRYed) are both solid numbers, especially the uplifting opener. Most significant about the sound on Planetes, though, is when it isn't heard. No sounds are heard when thrusters fire or object collide or debris is dropped to burn up in the atmosphere while in space. I applaud the restraint of the production staff in this regard, as I can name on one hand the number of other anime series with outer space elements which also keep outer space scenes silent. So that there does not seem to be dead space (pardon the pun), the writers have cleverly arranged for the ongoing dialogue between characters to continue via suit speakers while they are performing their outside duties.
The script for the English dub is as tight to the subtitles as it could realistically be expected to be; it even retains the uses of “sempai” by Ai. The same cannot be said, however, for some of the English performances. A couple of roles are outright miscast, especially Hachirota's friend Cheng-Shin; I have enjoyed Steve Blum's work in many other anime series, but he does not sound right here, nor is his voice even close to that of the original seiyuu despite his efforts to subdue his tone. Yuri does not sound at all Russian even though he's clearly supposed to be, but he doesn't sound that way in the original Japanese vocals, either. Many of the performances are a little overdone in their argumentative or whiny aspects, causing some characters to sound more irritating at times than they are probably supposed to sound. Unfortunately the English performances for the two administrators are dead-on (i.e. they really are that annoying in Japanese, too). Overall this is a somewhat disappointing dub, especially considering veteran cast involved.
The only extra on the main disk is a Japanese audio commentary for the first episode, which is located on the “Scenes” menu for episode 1 and features obviously (and deliberately?) drunk members of the Japanese vocal cast. A second included disk contains a substantial list of extras, including company and series trailers, a gallery of images of orbital trash which have made their way back to Earth, two rather funny audio dramas which stem off from scenes in the series, and an array of interviews. English vocal cast members Kirk Thornton (Hachirota) and Julie Ann Thornton (Ai) each get some screen time, as does ADR director Tony Oliver. These interviews are rather inane and provide little real insight, but it's always interesting to associate faces with the voices. The feature interview is with two members of NASA's Orbital Debris Section, who outline the current state of affairs about orbital trash and what is being done about it, which is much more interesting. Conspicuously absent is a clean opener which allows a viewer to see print on the screen without the subtitles in the way, but hopefully that will show up in a future volume. As with the volumes of Otogi Zoshi recently released by Anime Works, both disks of this Bandai Entertainment release are included in a normal-sized DVD case, a trend I dearly hope continues. The slip cover for the case contains all the print, allowing the actual case cover to display unblemished artwork – a nice touch.
Although not a flawless production, this first volume of Planetes is still a strong start to a series which has the potential to be one of the better releases of 2005. Its appeal lies in its ability to cut to the heart of what many fans like about anime: the realization on the screen of scenes which could not be duplicated in a real-life production. If it's been a while since a series set in space has truly excited or intrigued you, then this is a series you need to see.