I’ve been more a fan of anime in the past than I have been more recently, but normally the best of what I watch of anime ends up being some of my favorites of media in general. My tastes in anime pretty much align much with my tastes in books and film, so basically anything that is even remotely entertaining with a sci-fi or space theme will get my attention. That’s how I first came to know of Planetes, after watching Cowboy Bebop for the first time (Sunrise produced both titles, go figure) and being on the hunt for other great space anime. And not to spoil things too much for this review, but Planetes is a fantastic anime. Which is why I always wondered why such an amazing work hasn’t been seen by more people. Well this review is here to tell you why you should hunt down this show despite it not being very common on the market.
I honestly cannot blame people for having not heard about Planetes, with it being out of print on DVD and the Blu-ray collection being a Japanese only release. It, like a lot of anime, was based on a manga of the same name that started it’s run in 1999 (it is equally well reviewed, though I still need to read it). The 26 episode anime adaptation aired in 2003 and was produced by none other than Sunrise. Direction was left in the very capable hands of Gorō Taniguchi of s‑CRY-ed fame. Charismatic characters, suburb voice acting and music, absolutely artistic framing, polished pacing, and animation that bordered on Disney quality during zero‑g segments combined to make a consistently high rated production since it’s release for those who can find it.
So just what is Planetes? Planetes is what happens when a well researched (the shows production was advised by the Japanese space agency JAXA) hard science anime meets a deep character drama. The shows focus is in the near future where space travel is much more a commercial affair, and the normal traffic of humans over the decades has caused a problem with space garbage. Planetes follows the diverse employees of the trash division (derisively called “Half-Section” due to having half the budget, half the employees, and half the space of other divisions) of Technora Corporation, and their new recruit Ai Tanabe. Tanabe’s idealistic expectations of employment in space come to terms with the reality of life working in “Half-Section,” while the team learns and grows during the course of the shows events.
That summary is doing a disservice to the character and plot threads that interweave in this tale, but that gets you the door without spoiling anything. The themes running in the show go from light to deadly heavy in the course of its run, and touch on things ranging from the divisions among upper and lower classes to specific characters existential dread. This anime spends an equal amount of focus on developing the characters and working on making its science entertaining and realistic. In fact, in the commentary on the DVD, NASA employees really only fault the feasibility of efficiently spending that much energy on collecting smaller space debris. It’s interesting trivia to note that the idea of space trash causing issues with future ventures in space was proposed by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler, with the effect having the apt name of the Kessler Effect.
Those who can find this show are in for a fantastic ride. Planetes can easily be placed as a contender for one of the best produced animes I’ve had the pleasure of watching. The general animation is already excellent for an anime, but they then go the extra mile of going with even more frames of animation per second on the scenes involving zero‑g so they have the right feel of people flowing in that environment. The character designs are something I enjoy a lot as well, with each character being distinct and fitting very well with the overall characteristics and motivations of their personality. There were also no characters that grated on me during the show either, which is a feat in and of itself. Though I could understand if Tanabe’s over the top optimism at the start of the show could be a little saccharine for some tastes. But it gets offset by the gruff Hoshino, and it all evens out as the story progresses and the two opposites start to rub off on each other.
Planets also has the benefit of being paced extremely well. The story flows near flawlessly from humor, to tension, to character building. Each episode deftly fits into the overall story, and with zero filler (some argue the moon ninja’s episode is filler, but I say it fits well with the character building, as well having a place in the anime to take a breath from more serious arcs) the story pushes you along in a pleasurable way.
Taking a listen to the audio department doesn’t disappoint either. This happens to be one of the rare animes where the English dub version is as good as the Japanese w/ subs version. Every one sounds as they should, they emote and act so well for their characters, and the only changes to the dialog from my viewings were slight changes to make the grammar more natural for English. I’d say it’s on par with Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi’s dub. I still prefer the subtitled version overall (the Japanese way of saying “I copy!” is just great), but you will not be missing anything either way. The OST for this anime also deserves a shout out, and is this sweeping orchestral affair composed by Kōtarō Nakagawa, and fits the themes and visuals of the show like peanut butter and jelly.
It’s just a damn shame that this show is nowhere to be seen on streaming services and the DVD release is out of print, making finding this show harder to find. The DVD collection on eBay tends to price $60+ for decent condition copies, with each disc of the box collection going anywhere from $6 to $50. There is a Japanese only release Blu-ray, but that will set you back $350 at least. It’s been hard to track down just why this show isn’t licenced on any streaming or digital purchase services, and I hope that changes in the future. Though getting the DVD or Blu-ray versions is something I would suggest for fans of extras. I can’t speak for the Blu-ray, but the DVDs include some great commentary from NASA employees.
Planetes is one of those animes that I wholeheartedly recommend to anime fans, space geeks, or people who just plain like good stories. This anime is one that I would feel safe recommending to non-anime geeks to show that it’s not all just magical girls and mecha. Find it, watch it, and be better for it.