Science Fiction tends to portray the future in one of two ways: there’s the idealized, hang-the-expense future where doors are automatic and cars float. Alternatively, there are the dystopic or apocalyptic visions where humanity has slipped on the razor’s edge on which it is so precariously balanced into destroying itself and its environment – often over something as trivial as the best ways to get cars to hover.
Planetes eschews these approaches. Instead it presents a perfectly possible future where humanity has reached the stars but remains steadfastly tethered by the mundane realities of jobs, bureaucracies and workplace politics.
The Debris Section operates from the moon to clear earth’s atmosphere of orbiting space junk. These innocuous objects, ranging from screws to shuttle waste, orbit at eight kilometers a second and pose a potentially catastrophic threat to shuttle traffic operating between the earth and the moon. The staff of the Debris Section are perceived as little more than garbage collectors. Even though the job is highly challenging and dangerous, they receive no recognition and as a result of its lack of status, the section is staffed by geeks, loners and dreamers that deal with budget shortfalls, aging equipment, and the inability to win the lottery.
Into this jaded mix comes the idealistic rookie Tanabe. She shakes up the team, in particular the chain-smoking pilot Fi (who is always looking for a safe place to light up in the sensors-riddled, climate controlled environment of the moon station), and the cynical Hachi who is trapped between his minimum wage and dreams of buying his own spacecraft.
Space has long been the romantic goal of humanity. Planetes positions itself to explore what occurs to those dreams when people get there and the ambitions are no longer insulated against a far off future. Planetes explores the emotional impact when these dreams collide with a much more practical and mundane existence. There is humiliating reality of wearing adult diapers in zero G and, in mixed gender crews, the need to take porn on long shifts.
In the face of this Tanabe maintains her idealism. She sees greater beauty in an orbiting memorial plaque that celebrates the children of an African nation than the military satellite it threatens to destroy. When an orbiting object of great family value is discovered Tanabe demands that the family be contacted and the item be returned no matter what time and cost. The audience is left to determine where her naive stupity starts and the need to maintain personal integrity ends.
The battles of Debris Section are not against alien races where the fate of the world hangs in the balance. They are fought on a personal level. Some are won and faith in the ideal continues to burn. Some are lost and the members take their hits and carry on. Planetes looks at the ambitions that define us and goals that we set ourselves. With good humour, Planetes is an outstanding study of humanity using space as backdrop onto which people project their dreams. Dressed in the attire of an anime series, Planetes sits closer to the renowned works of Hayao (Howl’s Moving Castle) Miyazaki and Mokoto (The Place Promised in Our Early Days) Shinkai. And it doesn’t get any better than that.