Reviews of Planetes (1999) and related work

Planetes (1999Sequential art with text)

Yukimura Makoto (writer-artist).

Read in 2022.

In 2075, orbiting debris is a direct threat to the commercial development of space. Hachimaki, who got his nickname from the headband he’s always wearing, is a garbage man. As such he is the lowest of astronauts. He says he dreams of getting his own ship, but he doesn’t put in the effort. Then he hears of a manned expedition to Jupiter, thought to be rich in 3He. Critics say that the seven-year pioneer mission would reinforce existing inequalities.

A humanistic SF drama. It’s extrapolative and hard science fiction, which is great, but Yukimura does take short cuts. It’s a stretch to imagine so much manual labour in space junk retrieval in 2075, but junk retrieval as such is still a fine topic, used well as a foundation for strong themes. The gags also stretch credibility from time to time; in volume 4 there’s a colonel in the US Space Force (est. 2019, in the real world) who looks like and is named after KFC’s Colonel Sanders.

The metaphors in Hachimaki’s evolving inner life get wild. Yukimura is clearly influenced by Miayazawa Kenji, referencing three of his works: “Black Flowers Called Sakinohaka”, “Spring and Ashura” (title poem of the collection that “Spring and Chaos” is named after) and the children’s novel The Life of Budori Gusuko (1932). One panel in volume 4 spoofs Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) with a mad scientist in a summary of Gusuko, but despite his poetic flair and his humour, Yukimura does not forget the harsh realities. Fusion propulsion works for major ships, but the smaller ones still run on liquid-propellant (e.g. LOX-LH2) rockets. The terraformation of Mars is still many decades off. The author acknowledges cosmic rays, microgravity and psychological pressure as major hazards to human health in space, and while he isn’t 100% realistic in treating them, he never screws the pooch like Star Trek did in “Explorers” (1995).

There are many good things about Planetes, but the best of them is that it places a competent, empathetic drama in a believable middle-distance future. It does not have a central thesis, not even to the extent of Neuromancer (1984), but it is emphatically not a space opera, a horror story, or military SF. I am tempted to say that it is an uncommonly original graphic novel: It is certainly genre SF, yet does not feel like an imitation of other SF. Instead, it’s in Neuromancer’s vein of thinking well about the future in a literary form for popular entertainment.

References here: The Orbital Children (2022).

sequential art text Japanese production fiction series

Planetes (2003Moving picture, 10 hours)

At a large corporation’s low-status “Debris Section”, a newly employed idealist starts doing the dirty work of dealing with the biggest threat to the commercial development of Earth’s gravity well.

The strong opening, which casts its shadow over the whole series better than the corresponding scene does in the comic, echoes the Columbia disaster, though Columbia was not caused by space junk. Like the comic, the series starts out deceptively episodic. It spawns a larger cast but then weaves itself back together.

It’s a faithful adaptation. Realism still rules with forgivable stretching for humour. The symbolism and the characters are still good. Tanabe Ai, who is introduced in the second of the comic’s four volumes, takes a larger role as a relatively ignorant point-of-view character for the audience. The adaptation includes material from volume 1 up through through volume 3, which is all that had come out in 2003. The leading couple’s game of shiritori, which concludes the series, happens as early as chapter 16 of the original. It does not reach as far as the comic’s threat of war, and there are many minor differences; I interpret some details as minor alternate history elements

Much of the music is excellent; the ED is an exception but it’s no “Fly Me to the Moon”. The greatest flaw is the stiff digipaint animation. As a whole, the series is is a luxurious modern descendent to Wings of Honneamise: Royal Space Force (1987), as Last Exile (2003) is to Castle in the Sky (1986).

References here: Aniara (2018).

moving picture adaptation Japanese production animation fiction series