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Planetes scene
A scene from the Japanese animated series Planetes. (credit: Bandai Entertainment)

Hardhats, salarymen and zero-g: a Japanese vision of humanity’s future in space

There is a category of Japanese popular culture that might best be described as techno-fetishism. Given Japan’s leadership in consumer electronics, it is not really surprising that a substantial segment of their population is obsessed with technology. However, it shows up in odd ways in their mass media. The most obvious example is the Japanese obsession with robots in their comics and cartoons, known as manga and anime, respectively. But it appears in other places as well and it is rather hard to describe. Suffice to say that Japanese hobbyists interested in cars, guns, or airplanes demonstrate a particularly intense obsession with hardware.

Japan’s space program is one of the largest in the world, but on a per capita basis the Japanese do not spend nearly as much as the United States does, even on robotic spacecraft. Nevertheless, there are Japanese space enthusiasts who are particularly fascinated with the technology of spaceflight, and their love affair with technology is evident in popular depictions of space travel. An excellent example is the anime series Planetes, which aired in Japan in 2004 and became available on DVD in the United States starting last year. Planetes is probably the most broad, detailed, and realistic televised vision of a near-term spacefaring future that has aired anywhere. Despite its acute attention to detail, though, the series is not primarily about the hardware. There are no laser beams or robots or aliens or warp drives: just humans, and all their problems.

Set in the year 2075, the series depicts a future where human spaceflight is relatively routine and several hundred thousand people live on the Moon or Earth orbit. Although this is an overly optimistic view of technological progress—it includes some substantial leaps of faith like plentiful fusion energy—the show tries to accurately depict the physics, economics, and even social problems of human spaceflight. (Note: this review contains several spoilers.)

Planetes is probably the most broad, detailed, and realistic televised vision of a near-term spacefaring future that has aired anywhere.

Planetes focuses on two primary characters and over a half-dozen secondary ones, and it is perhaps best described as a character-driven drama with spaceflight as the backdrop. The primary characters are Hachimaki Hoshino and Ai Tanabe. The other characters consist of their immediate coworkers as well as other people they come into contact with.

Hachimaki and Ai work for a company called Technora aboard a large space station in low Earth orbit. They work in the Debris Section, also referred to as “Half-Section” by Technora’s other employees, indicating its status in the social pecking order—half the budget, half the personnel, and none of the prestige of a real company division. Their job is to remove orbital debris, where a bolt traveling at 25,000 kilometers per hour can kill a spacecraft or satellite. Their section is perpetually downtrodden, despite its important job of clearing the spacelanes of danger, and the employees are a collection of misfits and underachievers.

Ai is the bright-eyed newbie, a young woman fresh out of college, who naively believes that all of the problems of the world can be solved with love—and who unfortunately has no reticence about vocalizing that belief. Hachimaki is in his late 20s. He’s jaded, impatient, and practical. He is assigned as Ai’s mentor, which includes teaching her how to spacewalk and to retrieve space debris, and he does not relish the task of working with the naïve young woman.

Ai’s character is somewhat poorly written at first, and her grating pronouncements about love in the first episode are fortunately quickly toned down in latter episodes. Her character does not show much growth over the course of the series, but at least some of that appears to be deliberate—throughout the series Ai’s purity of soul remains constant, and serves as the source of her strength. She does not compromise her ideals, even to save her own life, and she loves her enemies as well as her friends.

Hachimaki, however, does undergo a significant transformation. Years of hauling debris have eroded the dreams and ambition that brought him into space in the first place. But midway through the series he changes, although not necessarily in a positive way. A near-death experience threatens his sanity, and he begins a mental battle with a taunting alter ego and becomes emotionally detached from those around him. He also becomes obsessed with becoming a crewmember on the first human mission to Jupiter. Ironically, Ai’s observation that he has abandoned his dreams is one of the things that drives him to pursue them again, and to neglect her.

The series spans twenty-six 22-minute episodes, or about nine and a half hours of total viewing time, and follows a somewhat awkward story arc. The characters start out hauling space debris, but by the middle of the series they become entwined in a terrorist plot involving an organization that wants to end, or at least permanently cripple, human spaceflight. The so-called Space Defense Force sabotages the Jupiter project and plots mass murder, which naturally entangles Ai, Hachi, and their co-workers.

One of the themes of Planetes is that a spacefaring civilization does not change the fundamental fact that humans and the societies they create are flawed. The development of fusion power, for instance, has destroyed the oil-based economy and the societies that depended upon it, leading to human misery and unrest throughout the Middle East. But terrorism still exists, motivated by different grievances. Poverty, disease, and warfare still dominate the Third World. A pseudo-United Nations organization exists primarily to divide up the wealth of space among the rich countries, primarily the United States and Japan.

One of the themes of Planetes is that a spacefaring civilization does not change the fundamental fact that humans and the societies they create are flawed.

Even the people who lead humanity’s grasp for the stars are flawed. The head of the Jupiter project is a brilliant engineer by the name of Wernher Longstreet. Longstreet at first appears to be an admirable and bold leader willing to take full responsibility for the sometimes fatal failures of his project. However, it soon becomes apparent that his willingness to accept responsibility stems from his arrogant self-confidence that nobody else can lead the project, as well as his callous disregard for human life. All that matters is his project. Similarly, Hachimaki’s obsession with the Jupiter mission blinds him to the very real woman who has fallen in love with him, until he finally experiences a profound, spiritual awakening. The drawn-out ending is a surprise.

Unfortunately, the writing quality of the episodes is inconsistent. Some are very good, with strong character growth and philosophical themes, whereas others are somewhat slow, even dull, and at least one is embarrassing. At times the series may try a viewer’s patience, and anyone not sympathetic to the story’s themes may give up rather than persevere. Although the series is adapted from a graphic novel series, like any television show it is clear that it took the writers several episodes to catch their stride, so one should not be deterred by the first episode (where Ai is particularly annoying), or the occasional weak storyline.

Fortunately, the series is relatively free of many of the cliches of Japanese anime—no big eyes, exaggerated body features (particularly mouths and stomachs), intelligent animals, brooding teenage loners or silly “fan service” (look it up). It does contain a few of the less obvious anime cliches, such as characters who tend to yell at each other, contentious mentor-subordinate friendships, and groan-inducing, unrealistic comic-relief scenes. (An aside: I did not have much interest or knowledge of Japanese anime until a few years ago when a friend’s daughter, who is obsessed with all things Japanese, suggested that I watch Cowboy Bebop. That quite enjoyable series, with its amazing blues jazz soundtrack and intriguing backstory, so far has been the only show that I could tolerate beyond a couple of episodes. Until Planetes, that is.)

If you stick with the series through the end, however, you will be rewarded. Ai, Hachi, and the other characters demonstrate a nobility and steadfastness that is initially surprising, but ultimately consistent with their development over the course of the series. One of the messages of the series is that even the bad can be redeemed, and sometimes the weak possess surprising strength.

The animation is nowhere near the quality of major film productions. Fortunately, the animators have resisted the recent trend of using CGI for the hardware scenes and hand-drawn animation for the character scenes. Computer imagery is used sparingly. The technology, however, is remarkably accurate, as is the portrayal of spaceflight operations. Taking a cue from recent television series like Firefly, there is no sound in the space sequences other than the characters talking on their radios.

The series is currently available as six separate DVD packages, three of which are 2-DVD “special editions” featuring extras such as interviews with NASA debris experts, as well as the English language voice actors. There are also Japanese actor commentaries that are useless for anyone who does not understand the language. A six-disk series version, apparently lacking several of the extras, will become available in November. For any fan of fact-based science fiction, Planetes is worth watching.


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