Monday, November 16, 2009


Let’s face it, the concept of life in outer space doesn’t lend itself too easily to being depicted as mundane. Being set in a vast void full of intrigue, wonder, and infinite possibilities far away from the confines of humble civilization, life in space is generally seen as extravagant and exotic escapism. If there happens to be dissent leading to large scale conflicts, there’s always pitched spacefleet showdowns and intergalactic massacre to fall back on to keep things howlingly melodramatic. And if that doesn’t work, just play off the mystery angle and crank up the paranoia of being trapped in a distressingly dark and enigmatic vacuum of emptiness, à la 2001. After all, everything is better…in SPACE.

Having said that, however, is there any particular reason that a story set in outer space can’t focus on the more unsophisticated and unidealistic side of life? Enter Planetes, released in 2005, produced by studio Sunrise and directed by none other than Gorō Taniguchi, best known for his work on the recent commercially successful colossus known as Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion. A far cry from the likes of Geass, however, Planetes is a tragically overlooked sci-fi marvel that paints an unflinchingly convincing picture of what life in space would be like for one of the most under-appreciated professions known to mankind: garbage collectors.

This totally works and I am not even kidding.

You see, in space, even the tiniest unfettered scrap of detritus could have devastating effects if allowed to breach Earth’s atmosphere; therefore, a diligent clean-up crew dedicated to monitoring and scooping up the monstrous clutter is needed in order to avert such a disaster. As on planet Earth, it’s a monotonous and brutally thankless, yet indispensable job.

So, how exactly does one take the concept of “garbage men…in SPACE” and make it work? Simple. Craft a well-written narrative with a strict adherence to technical and logistical realism, magnificently fine attention-to-detail, and a remarkably sympathetic cast of characters, then let the breathtaking backdrop of outer space work its magic.

Ai and Hachi

While the weight bears down crushingly hard on the cast of characters, there’s fortunately a fine, if unspectacular line-up to be had. Much of the focus is on the perpetually grouchy and disgruntled Hachi Hoshino and how he contemptibly views chirpy, naïve, and eager fresh recruit Ai Tanabe as a neverending nuisance. While their disparaging banter is nothing original, it nevertheless is enough to imbue the story with likable, lighthearted charm and can make for some authentic, though still easy-going, romantic drama from time to time.

Planetes admittedly does occasionally wander off into farcical territory when it comes to life and living conditions in space, but it still manages an incredible job of staying true to the laws of physics. There’s no noise in space, for example, and the series puts heavy emphasis on delineating the oft-trivialized rigorous training processes required to even survive, let alone function in an occupation, aboard a space station.

Courtesy of i09

Additionally, the plot also doesn’t feel forced or far-fetched, proving once again that Planetes likes to stay well within the bounds of realism. It’s your typical “spotlight on one or two characters per week” deal as the focus bounces between their strained relationships and how to deal with the crisis at hand, be it recovering errant pieces of debris that happen to possess MacGuffin levels of plot significance, putting a stop to a hostile kidnapping, jeopardizing the entire garbage collecting outfit by attempting to teach the higher-ups a lesson in morals and etiquette, and even quelling a political uprising.

None of these scenarios seem particularly fresh or new, but against the mystical backdrop of space, the series makes us look at every tense sequence from a new perspective. There’s no need to flaunt flashy firefights when a humble little hostage situation or spate of heated political unrest is all it takes to remind us how the wonder, thrill, and danger of everyday occurrences is drastically magnified in the vacuum of space. We often take for granted just how exciting simply existing in space can be and Planetes clearly goes out of its way to restore the inherent sense of wonder that has long since been worn away by decades of bombastic space shootouts.

Whereas most shows are content with the trickle of new ideas from the dried-up and depleted husk of the sci-fi genre, Planetes manages to breathe just a little bit of life back into the deteriorating carcass with a slice-of-life spin like no other. While it’s not deep or particularly pretty to look at, Planetes will undoubtedly still tickle the fancy of anyone even remotely interested in sci-fi. I’d go as far as to say that even bitter cynics may have their faith in sci-fi renewed after a viewing.

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