You can have your big bosomed bimbos and mecha warriors. Judge Joel Pearce prefers garbage collectors and has-beens.
In space, a bolt can screw you.
Let's play a little game of concept association. Here's how it's going to work. I'm going to write down a phrase, and you can figure out the first thing that comes to your head. Ready?
Anime science fiction.
Now, remember what jumped into your mind. Most likely, you thought of
something on the following list:
And that's the beauty of Planetes, which doesn't contain any of these. Instead, it follows a crew of hard working debris collectors, working in orbit during 2075 to keep space transit lanes clear. Planetes is a refreshing series that uses plausible scientific theory and realistic characters to create excitement, rather than the usual cheap thrills.
The first episode introduces Ai Tanabe, a young and enthusiastic employee of a space station. Unfortunately, she is also far too naïve and idealistic, especially for the department she is about to join. The debris collection team is known as the "half-section," since it only has half the staffing and funding that it needs. She is introduced to her superiors and pilots, as well as Hachirota Hosnino, a hotshot debris collecting wage slave. They don't get along initially, but they are going to need to learn to work together fast.
Planetes is one of those shows where everything fits together perfectly. It is exciting, touching, and funny, all stemming from the richly designed characters and the situations they get themselves into. It's fun to watch the crew of misfits try to get by as the most disrespected crew in the company. They are characters with dreams that never materialized, and they're easy to root for. This crew has the most thankless job in the solar system, because although their job is critical in order to protect the lives of pilots and passengers, companies don't make any money doing it. Things are just as exciting outside of the ship. The debris missions are thrilling, made more exciting because everything is so realistic. There really is space debris flying around up there at dangerous speeds, and intercepting them and sending them to be burned in the atmosphere is dangerous. These sequences have been filmed well, with all of the excitement of a Hollywood disaster movie without any of the ridiculousness.
Beyond concept and cinematography, what really makes Planetes shine is the script. These characters discuss the dangers of their jobs, their position in the corporation, and issues of life and death. However, it never feels like heavy philosophical nonsense. Ai's idealism and innocence clash delightfully with Hachirota's cynicism, as they don't see eye to eye on anything. Their relationship is enhanced because Hachirota was once idealistic too, and still clings on to hopes of owning his own spaceship in the future. Each character is well developed, and though most of them haven't been fleshed out too much in the first volume, it's clear that they will continue to grow through the series. The script is funny, too, and the situation based comedy is more consistently amusing than the shrill physical comedy that plagues so many anime series. In the third episode, the corporation is beset by insurance agents trying to sign the characters up for expensive policies. While it does get a little over the top, it's a hilarious episode that also highlights the disturbing side of the world's corporate outlook.
Fortunately, the show is bolstered by some truly great animation. Like the premise and script, the animation team has chosen a simple but detailed style that works perfectly for the series. The characters look unique, the backdrops are impressive, and the CGI only sticks out occasionally. The cinematography is fluid and natural, with a more film-like feel than most anime series have. Planetes could have been done live action, as long as there was a big enough budget to do the space scenes. At times, it's almost possible to forget that it is animation at all. Aside from the occasional compression problem, the video transfer looks pristine. The sound is just as good, with an option between Japanese and English stereo tracks. Although a surround track would have been great, the quality of the original language track and dub are about on par, and anime fans will quickly gravitate towards one or the other.
In a pleasantly surprising turn of events, Planetes is being released as two disc special editions. Although the second disc isn't exactly packed to the gills, there are quite a few extras to explore. The first up is an interview segment with people from NASA, which verifies that the debris in space could become a serious issue. This enforces the realism of the show, and will answer any questions that casual fans have about the science of the series. There is also a debris gallery, showing the current level of space debris. There is an interview with Tony Oliver, the ADR director of the English dub. He has a lot of anime experience, and his passion for the original version of the show has helped him create such a successful dub. There are also interviews with the English voice actors, which aren't quite as impressive. They understand their characters, of course, but character discussions often seem bland to me. Following that, there are two "audio dramas," which are basically two extended scenes created without full animation. They are entertaining, but far fetched enough that they wouldn't have fit that well into the show.
If this first volume is a good indication of what's to come with Planetes, it's a must buy for all anime fans. It's exciting, funny, thrilling, and touching. It's scientifically robust for serious sci-fi fans, but it's also human enough and character driven for the rest of us. I've been frustrated with generic anime shows lately, and it feels great to sit down to one that feels totally fresh and new. I would recommend this series to just about anyone, including people who don't normally care for anime.
They may not get paid much, but the members of the debris crew are worth checking out. Not guilty.
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• NASA Interview
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