In the year 2075, humanity continues to follow its dream of branching out into space. Unfortunately, the final frontier is not as glamorous as some would believe, and among its many hazards is space debris- the accumulated junk over a hundred years of space exploration.
Hachirota “Hachimaki” Hoshino is a debris hauler living and working in space; together with his somewhat eccentric colleagues in Technora’s Debris Section, it is his job to clear up all the unwanted items floating in Earth’s orbit. As he works hard at his job, Hachimaki dreams of one day buying his own spaceship, but how will the arrival of fresh-face rookie worker Ai Tanabe affect not only his daily life, but perhaps his future as well?
As Twin Spica once showed us, space is not as glamorous as exciting as some would like to believe, and what could demonstrate this more effectively than a series which is effectively about garbage men in space? Despite this unpromising sounding premise, however, Planetes should not be overlooked, for its compelling character drama and well-realised world ensure that it ranks as one of the most enjoyable sci-fi series available.
At the heart of the series lies its eclectic bunch of characters, with the idealistic Tanabe and ambitious Hachimaki leading the pack. This is their story, a coming-of-age journey that puts both of them through the wringer, but sees them emerge stronger for their experiences. Although the series does dip into the realms of the cloyingly sentimental at times, for the most part it manages to weave a convincing tale of human drama set against the backdrop of space. In comparison, the supporting characters may seem like one-joke personalities at first, but whilst there isn’t enough time to give them extensive development, many of them are slowly fleshed out as we come to learn more about their families and motivations over the course of the series.
Where most sci-fi series are content to give broad strokes of a universe that ultimately reveal extensive plot holes, Planetes manages to go one better by actually creating a more realistic setting. The politics are hardly complex, but they are nonetheless key to the plot, as the major Earth powers stake their claim on space, whilst various fictitious third-world countries are left behind- much as I hate to throw around phrases like this, it’s not too hard to identify this with certain contemporary events.
Visually, Planetes opts for a more realistic look, with somewhat simplistic character designs; the animation is technically well done and suits the tone of the series, but it is unfortunately not the most aesthetically pleasing series around. Similarly, the background music works well in context, but does not seem good enough to stand on its own.
Aside from the moments where it loses points for being overly saccharine, Planetes is an absorbing character drama set in a rare well-grounded sci-fi universe. If you want flashy explosions and non-stop action, this is not the series for you, but if a more down to earth (figuratively speaking) account of life in space appeals, then this series should be top of your list.