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Anime Reviews: Planetes
Though it takes strange turns and ultimately plays it way too safe, Planetes is still an interesting and rewarding anime with some great characters.
Title: Planetes a.k.a. ΠΛΑΝΗΤΕΣ a.k.a. Wanderers
Production: Sunrise / Bandai Visual
Series Length: 26 episodes
Air Dates: 10/4/2003 to 4/17/2004
Age Rating: 7+ (brief mild language, dark or disturbing thematic elements)
Summary: In the year 2068, the high-altitude passenger plane Alnair 8 came into contact with a minuscule piece of space debris, ravaging the vehicle and sending it plummeting back to Earth. Since then, governments around the world have taken notice of the threat space debris poses and have created an entirely new field of vocation: the debris collector. Now, in 2075, a new recruit named Ai Tanabe, a young girl filled with hope and admiration for astronauts, joins the Debris Section of Technora Industries with the hopes of becoming a debris collector herself. Unfortunately for her, reality is always disappointing, as the Debris Section of Technora is manned by a strange and eclectic crew, including an unruly youth named Hachirota "Hachimaki" Hoshino. Despite her odd colleagues and the company's tendency to look down on her position, Ai is eager to work hard and keep space safe!
The Good: Looks and sounds solid; large cast of likable characters
The Bad: Some questionable story decisions; doesn't take any risks
The Ugly: Hachimaki's character is utterly ruined in the second half
I had first heard of this particular title during Otakon 2004, when it was getting its English release. The concept didn't strike me much at the time ("Garbage collectors in space? Meh, I'll pass."), but after having seen several glowing reviews of the series, I finally decided to hunker down and give Planetes a shot. Was it really as good as the reviews made it out to be? Nah, not really. Don't get me wrong--this is still a pretty good series--but it was not without its share of glaring issues. Sunrise's holy quadfecta (great action, great settings, great plotlines, and great characters) falls a bit short here. But let's not stall anymore and get to it.
First of all, while this is hardly Sunrise's greatest-looking anime, it's still tremendously solid in its art and animation departments. The character designs go for a more plain and semi-realistic style than you normally see, but for a story that's meant to be taken seriously with an emphasize on realism, there's no better approach. The mechanical designs are similarly realistically-designed; the machines are very futuristic and high-tech looking, but at the same time, it's very plausible that we'd have stuff like this in 2075. And it's not the plastic-y pristine stuff you see in a lot of sci-fi--rather, the equipment the characters use looks beaten-up and dirty and unceremonious, as you'd probably expect a space garbage collector's equipment to look. Oh, and I suppose it also helps that the animation is consistent and often quite fluid, maintaining the reputation of being "Sunrise smooth." All in all, it's not the most beautiful series ever, but it's nowhere even close to being visually unappealing.
For the aural side of things, the music is nothing spectacular, but it's nothing poor or distracting, either. The soundtrack does its job and does it well, and that's not such a bad thing. The opening theme, however, is quite memorable and catchy (if a bit odd), and showcases the various stages of space exploration in its animation. Pretty cool stuff. The soundtrack may merely be decent, but the voice acting is top-notch in both the original Japanese and the English dub. If I had to decide which one is superior, though, I'd side with the English dub any day of the week, mainly due to Julie Ann Taylor's wonderfully dynamic portrayal of Ai and Wendee Lee's legendary performance as Fee ("I AM GONNA SMOKE SO MUCH!!"). My personal feelings aside, both versions are more than competent and should satisfy your ears regardless of your language preference.
While it's all fine and good that Planetes is technically competent, the true shining feature of the series is its cast of characters. While their archetypes will be immediately familiar, there is no stasis--they very quickly break out of their molds and become unique in their own rights. Ai Tanabe, for example, begins as a typical high-energy girl with a strong sense of morality and shows compassion to all, but if you're expecting her to be a doormat, you'd be mistaken, as she is not one to shy away from giving others a piece of her mind (and her fist). And as the story takes its course, Ai is put through some tough situations and has to make some very, very tricky decisions (the ending of episode 24 in particular is a real nail-biter). While she is, of course, one of the main duo characters, she does get more spotlight than most of the others, but that does not mean the rest of the cast is neglected. They all go through similar changes and trials, and never once (okay, I lied, just once) does any of it feel contrived or false.
And to start off where Planetes went wrong, I will list that one exception: the other main character, Hachirota "Hachimaki" Hoshino. In the first half of the series, he's a very likable character with an obvious motivation and a dynamic relationship with Ai. Hachimaki was a cool guy, and I really enjoyed the series when he was in focus. And then the second half of the series happened. Now Hachimaki is an insensitive jerk and completely disregards everyone else. And he makes extremely stupid decisions. And his character is pretty much totally ruined.
But now, the next two faults with the series will sound contradictory, but they are true nonetheless. The first of these faults is that Planetes takes some very strange paths as the series progresses. Initially it's all about the debris hauling business, but then it becomes a tale of bureaucratic intrigue and finally ends up being a space terrorist crisis (none of these are really spoilers, so don't worry). These changes in the narrative's tone are very jarring and, if you're not expecting them, take you right out of the story. Not good, yo.
The second of the aforementioned faults is that the series plays it way too safe with the storytelling. In spite of its unique premise, Planetes doesn't set out to do anything unique with it, opting instead to take the well-worn path. Even when events become more intense and urgent (e.g. a space terrorist crisis), the writers can't come up with any conflict other than the broadest strokes of "these guys are good, these guys are bad" and make the story feel stale. How do you make space terrorists dull? By making them pure evil without any shades of gray, of course! While it sounds like a minor complaint, this extreme simplicity drastically hampered my enjoyment of the series.
But be that as it may, I can still say I enjoyed Planetes. I really liked the characters, the setting was unique and interesting, and I do like how even seemingly one-shot side characters became big players in the story as time went on. It truly makes it feel as though no episode was wasted, but given the jarring tonal shifts in the plot and the toothless handling of good and evil in the series' climax, I realize that it's more appropriate to say no character was wasted. Oh wait, they did ruin Hachimaki. Dammit all! J-Just check it out for yourself and see if it strikes your fancy or not!
Final Score: 7 out of 10. There is more than enough foundation to Planetes for there to be a truly great anime here, but the fact that there's no consistent flow to the story and that the writers took no risks whatsoever sadly holds this title back from being all it could be.