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Planetes (2003)

Orbiting the Earth are layers or clouds of stuff. Some of that stuff is live in-use satellites but a significant amount of it is junk from old non-functioning satellites, rocket stages to small things like screws, nuts and bolts. It is 2068 and sub-orbital passenger liner is full of travellers and appears to be descending into Earth's upper atmosphere. A piece of that junk, a screw, tumbles through space and against the backdrop of the Earth smashes at great speed into the shuttle. This tragedy catalyses an effort to clean up "space" with corporations having teams dedicated to the collection of space debris. Planetes follows the exploits of one such debris collection team who do an unglamorous but very important job.

From the outset, Planetes sets up the world and the problems that it deals with and from that opening I could tell it was going to be something a bit different, a broad-ranging show full of human drama framed in science fiction. With Anime Limited announcing they would be releasing it later this year as part of their 12 Days of Christmas, I thought what better reason is there to dive back into the world of the Space Debris Section of Technora to explore the hopes, dreams and lives of the crew of the DS-12 Toybox?

I first heard about Planetes *many* years ago in an Anime World Order podcast. They likened it to Patlabor which I loved. This was my "consume as much information as I can" phase and I hadn't realised they meant the Patlabor TV series (rather than the movies) which I had not seen at that point (I did eventually see it and it is a show I return to again and again). I totally see why - there is a science fiction world and framing in which the stories, which are much more about the human characters, take place. It is a show that switches from drama to comedy, to thrillers, the absurd and to something very heartfelt and poignant. If you do enjoy Patlabor (the TV series) it is *definitely* worth giving Planetes a look.

Planetes aired from 2003 to 2004 and was brought to us by Sunrise. As I normally associate Sunrise with Gundam this was a bit of a surprise as Planetes was very far removed from the majority of Gundam I had seen to that point. Now the Planetes anime is based on a manga created by Makoto Yukimura (the creator of Vinland Saga) which started early 1999 and finished early 2004 ... shortly before the very last episode of the anime aired. Its 26 episode run was directed by Gorō Taniguchi who over the last 30 years has directed many shows but I knew him as the creator and director of Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion. Also involved were JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency) who acted as technical consultants on the anime, giving it some technical weight and credibility for the space-based elements.

It is kind of impossible to do justice to the story of Planetes in a short synopsis there is just so much going on with different elements resonating and staying with different viewers. We follow the crew of the Space Debris Section who work for Technora, a large corporation with their own orbiting space station. The purpose of the team is to collect space debris to prevent (as much as possible) collisions between satellites, spacecraft and even space stations. The team is composed of Fee Carmichael (American) the pilot of their debris collecting ship Toy Box, the quiet and stoic Yuri Mihairokov (Russian), Hachirota "Hachimaki" Hoshino our Japanese protagonist and Ai Tanabe the new recruit to the team. Around them are a set of support characters including Hachimaki's pilot friend Cheng-Shin, Claire Rondo who works in mission control on the station and even Hachimaki's space-exploring father.

The stories take in the mechanics of debris collection, team dynamics and how they are a bit of a family, space exploration, the relationship between humanity and space and even asks the question "can space ever be owned?". Woven between these are tales and themes of politics, betrayal, terrorism, mental health, obsession, ambition, loss, isolation, joy, friendship and love. Quite something for any show to knit together. If I was to make a comparison to a live-action show Star Trek would come to mind as for me that was less science fiction and more exploring humanity, which is what I think Planetes does too.

As you can imagine the bulk of the show takes place in space, whether that be on the Moon, in Toybox, the crew room of the debris section or the myriad other locations aboard ISPV-7 (the Technora operated space station). Once you get past the look and feel of the animation that was being done in the early 2000s one of the first things you notice is just how smooth and realistic the human motion in space is. Animation is one of those media where zero-gravity can be shown easily but at the same time forget basic Newtonian mechanics in a bid to make something look cool. 

There was very little in this show, from any perspective but particularly a physics perspective, that had me jumping up and down and saying it was wrong ... or that anything looked wrong. So many shows set in space have jarred with me because the physicist in me just reacts to the bits they get so wrong. At no point did I feel taken out of the world they had built in Planetes. Space is quiet with no background hum, just silent and at times it is quite unnerving. Even when they started to talk about a journey to Jupiter on the nuclear fusion-powered Von Braun it didn't feel wrong or implausible. For me, I felt that they had so many other plausible details around astronauts and space such as their exercise regimes or even smoking rooms that I was willing to go with the idea that *perhaps* they have addressed the challenges around that as a source of power. The details on the suit designs - the HUD and the spacesuit interface embedded into the palm of its glove and the way things moved - either by being dragged/pushed or manoeuvred on pressurised gas all drew me in. This is the result of a wonderful mix of creatives and consultants from JAXA. Had I seen this when I was younger it would have been an inspiration for the future career.

There are a couple of long-running narratives that feature in Planetes which form the core of the show around which there are side stories that take us in interesting directions to explore other ideas (a bit like the way they show the space station is constructed!). Some of these seem like one-offs like a visit to the Lunar in Episode 5, or Episodes 11 that explores who can go into space or Episode 16 where one of the Toybox crew is adrift in the vastness of space. None of these are filler episodes - they all have significance later in the series. Whether it is a single line uttered by Nono the Lunarian near the end (with the foundations laid much earlier) or a whole narrative arc that had me *hating* one of the core characters it all adds and enriches the human dynamics of the show.

Each of the core characters get their moment in the show with a careful and thoughtful build up so it never feels like "oh that's a Yuri episode". There is a journey that takes us there and there is a suitable emotional payoff. Where these stories take place, be that in the debris section office, Lunar, Toybox or Earth does not matter as characters feel like real people with real world, relatable hopes, dreams and fears. I found myself liking, then disliking and liking a character again or actively willing another on to achieve what they want. For example, whilst I did not gel with Tanabe initially but as the show progressed I warmed to her, went on the ups, downs and nail-biting moments with her.

Whilst Planetes has a grounded and plausible view of space in the near future (especially interesting with SpaceX launches of late), has characters that look like regular humans, in a world that is believable, what set it apart for me was that I actually cared about these people and that world. I looked up space debris and saw some of the visualisations which was quite scary in a way. Yes, some of the side-stories were short and perhaps a bit simplistic or superficial but they conveyed an idea or theme that stuck with me time and again. The idea of countries on Earth having borders but that in space they almost cease to exist was fascinating and the idea of whether space was for the big countries or conglomerates or corporations or for ... everyone resonated for me. 

It is not all space - Earth gets a look in too. It is the one place that grounds everyone in the cast (except the Lunarians). Being set in the 2070s you would think that the Makoto Yukimura would have gone to town on the human-tech side of things but refreshingly it is absent of ideas or concepts that might date it - though in some respects that decision dates it. Typically it is things like automation (driverless cars for example), hand-held/personal communication devices or other timely ideas or fads that were around when it was being written that really date a show. On the one hand, it is odd to not see everyone staring at a phone but the absence of the overt human-focused technology developments apart from those in healthcare make Earth a familiar, comforting and hopeful setting. It is all kept at a local and personal level, once again the characters and their interaction take centre stage. 

And that is the thing about Planetes. For all its interesting vision of the future and its articulation of science and technology *something* about this show really resonated with me and I got very emotionally involved going on the same roller-coaster that the characters did, laughing and crying along the way. Characters were flawed. They had relatable hopes, dreams, ambitions coupled with personalities. There are three moments (one very close to the end) which hit me hard, triggering a mixture of reactions in me because something about it felt so "real" (and that I wasn't being manipulated). It is for that flawed, hopeful humanity on display that I return to this show to watch an episode or two.

I can't talk about Planetes and not mention that theme tune or the opening. The opening song is Dive in the Sky by Mikio Sakai. Often I would pick anime to watch based on their theme tunes and opening credits and this one is a thing of wonder. There is something incredibly uplifting about the vocal line, the melody and the percussion stays with you long after you've heard it. Of course, they sync a neat opening animation with the music and in this case, give you a detailed if rapid journey through the history (and suggested future history) of humanity's journey into space. It gives a few hints as to where the show might be going and of course, Hachimaki is front and centre chasing after ... something. It never fails to cheer me up and put a smile on my face.

From the very first scene of Planetes, I was hooked. I didn't know what I was about to get into but I knew it was going to be good. I just didn't expect what followed for the next 26 episodes. Very quickly the show introduces you to a cast of characters that could be overwhelming but is well managed and paced - a balance between the main story and the side stories, some of which have significant impact on the show or give a bit of depth to a particular character. Taking in subjects such as politics, family, the economy, big corporations and human relationships it is easy to forget and miss the science and ideas that are being presented. Having JAXA involved helped create a plausible future vision against which the story plays out. I laughed, cried, got behind characters and disliked others and the final episode left me feeling thoroughly uplifted. Whilst the animation does look a bit dated by today's standards the story and how it is told is exceptional. In short whilst I already have a copy on the shelf I will definitely be picking this up again on blu-ray once it is released.

 FORMAT: SERIES AVAILABLE ON: BLU-RAY  FROM: Anime Limited RATING: NOT RATED [US] 12 [UK]  RUNNING TIME : 25mins x  26 episodes [series]

IN A NUTSHELL:  Part slice-of-life, part science-fiction Planetes is simply out of this world. From the opening sequence to the final credits you will be inspired and entertained.