published in Empire No.72, Sydney
While the typical image of anime is persistently assumed to be a meld of cute dolls and sexy machinery, there is much anime that is simply drama animated. Planetes is one such series. Yes, it’s sci-fi, and yes ,there is an abundance of wonderful technical detail which makes Japanese anime stand out from American live-action excursions into the genre. But ultimately, Planetes is nearer to dramatic ensemble TV series like Law & Order or CSI. Except that it’s animated and set in outer space.
While Hollywood persists in cake-piping sci-fi into pompous yet flatulent spectacles, Planetes typifies the Japanese ‘anti-sci-fi’ approach to the genre. Set in 2075, the company Technora specialises in various forms of solar system interplanetary transportation. Its ‘lowest’ division is the Debris Collecting section. Ironically, it is also Technora’s most vital section: in the future space junk (abandoned satellites, spent booster engines, etc.) is a major bane to inter-planetary travel. Instead of depicting the heroics of space captains and pilots, Planetes forwards a sharply considered study of these garbage collectors of the future.
Humour abounds in Planetes, but it is grounded in a thoroughly convincing portrait of the bureaucratic reality of the Debris Collecting team. Centred around the turbulent partnership between jaded Hachimaki and his new female rookie Ai, we witness the good, bad and ugly of the whole team. Gradually we come to understand their volatile states, repressed tensions and hidden dreams. A surprisingly affecting tone guides the series through memorable moments of quiet contemplation during its tragic-comic evolution.
But perhaps most striking in Planetes is its realistic style of animation. Eschewing the iconic doll-like characterization expected of anime, Planetes opts for effective subtle touches of human motion which deepens the depiction of Hachimaki, Ai and the Debris team. An outstanding example of anime’s graphic artistry and human observation.