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Planetes: Garbage-men and Socialism in Space

Cleaning the Earth's orbit of space junk is a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it

I had a feeling.

It started that simply. I wandered through the not-so-crowded dealer room, taking in all the insane mercandising of 'One Piece' and other Shonen Jump trademarks, vaguely searching for something new to jump out at me.

The text of the spine beckoned me, a Russian-inspired font that prompted me to pick it up, the lone volume among the rows of manga at a dealer's room.

Love Hina. Love Hina. Love Hina. Planetes. Love Hina. Love Hina...

A quick flip-through of its pages revealed extraordinary artwork, the character designs speaking of a more mature, realistic style, creating not only intense, intricate backgrounds and settings, but setting a mood markedly different from most the manga currently marketed in America. Intrigued, I turned the book over, skimming over the back to find out the purpose of this little space odyssey.

Garbage-men in space.

This book couldn't become mine fast enough.

In the near future, Earth has achieved the scientific achievement of practical travel and development into space. While Earth still remains to be a hospitable environment, space stations and colonies have become part of the daily background. There are kids being born and raised in space stations, even on the Moon, creating an almost new species of Lunarians who develop at a different rate than their Earth-raised counterparts. Humanity is expanding and evolving, marking a vastly exciting period for exploration and change.

However, a century of space travel and usage has left behind a twisted legacy; debris left from old space stations, forgotten satellites, and lost space ships have created an atmosphere of danger in space. Miniscule pieces of debris, such as bolts or nails, have been known to smash through space stations or ships with amazing velocity, causing damage, injury, and most commonly, death. In an effort to lessen the amount of the debris present above the Earth's atmosphere, a new breed of space-farers have been created, the new working class of space.

This is the setting Makoto Yukimura envelopes us into.

The manga centers around the crew of one such debris scavenging vehicle, the Toy Box. The small crew of the Toy Box comprises of Japanese national Hachimaki, who is headstrong and rough, yet daring; Yuri, a quiet man coming from a Russian heritage, and the feisty captain-pilot Fee, tomboyishly adorable and exuding a comforting toughness. As the three go through their missions, their vacations, and their heartaches, each discovers more power and beauty in the dark reaches of the beyond.

Hachimaki, nicknamed by the eternal headband "maki" he wears, dreams of owning his own space craft. While hating the fact that he can only get into space as a garbage man, he dreams of a time where he can somehow save up the astronomical amount needed to purchase a space craft and fulfill his dream. Sure, he's not pleased as punch to be a garbage-man, a dead-end job that offers virtually no path to achieving his lofty dream, but for Hachimaki, even cleaning up space still brings him to the stars. It takes him some time to appreciate his lot in life, taught to him by a Lunarian girl, his brother on Earth, and his co-workers in space.

Yuri harbors considerable reason for his stoicism and solemn manner. The manga opens with Yuri and his wife on a space cruiser, arguing in the way only newlyweds can get away with. After leaving to go to the bathroom, the spacecraft encounters some debris, which rips the ship apart. Yuri survives his wife. His cheerful sobriety is a testament both to the burden of the loss he carries, carefully mixed with his generally good-natured and attentive nature. When Hachimaki stares out into space, he views the long road to his future. Yet when Yuri stares into the never-ending blackness, one can't help but feel the loss he contemplates through each day of his continuing existence.

Fee. Ah, Fee. The cigarette loving, hardcore tomboy ship captain. Seemingly, she serves as a sort of comic relief to the determined Hachimaki and the somber Yuri. She's crude, tough, able, strong and smart. Resourceful enough, in fact, that in her simple, yet constantly thwarted quest for a place to grab a smoke, she ends up saving the planet from some imminent disaster. The news of her heroism does little to faze her. The aftermath of the incident sees the ship captain on a boat at sea, smoking down to the nub. "Life is a wonderful thing." The words twirl in the wind as the rising smoke from the cigarette, looking towards the horizon.

Smoking isn't supposed to be so beautiful. Normally. This is a testament to Yukimura's craft of making the mundane appear grandiose and magical. Yukimura utilizes a mature art style, combining a realistic edge in character design, coupled with great tone usage and detailed backgrounds. Importantly, he draws space itself to feel like a breathing, touching plane, a place where life continues on in a sort of harmony. Considering how much of science fiction treats space as the cold vacuum, it becomes a refreshing change of pace.

The inherent majesty in Yukimura's storytelling becomes as clear as the space where his fantasy takes place, masterfully portraying these three characters as deep, multifaceted, yet flawed characters in such surprising depth considering the short time he has introduced us to the crew of the Toy Box. While his work does hark back to earlier achievements in animation, such as Patlabor and Cowboy Bebop, he still successfully creates a piece that is both wonderfully individual and amazingly endearing. Never before have I been so enraptured by three characters in such a short amount of time.

After finishing this brilliant first volume, I sat back, envisioning the still images coming to life, contemplating how a good transfer to the animated form could really do this series justice.

Then came a joint production with Bandai Visual, Sunrise, and NHK to try and prove my secret most-inner thoughts.

The opening animation is noteworthy, providing a sort of road-map to space, a visual history of man's quest for the stars. From the drawings of ancient cultures till past the Apollo Eleven, Hachimaki and the debris crew of the Technora Corporation run through these events, importantly, running forward to a new space-faring future.

The series introduces an expanded cast of characters not present in the manga, or at least, up to the first volume released thus far. Instead of setting the show within the small debris ship, Hachimaki and company work as part of a larger debris removal team, of which they represent the hard labor to their office components. In their small debris division within a much larger space consortium, the gang contends with two bosses, a surly temp secretary, and a new recruit to the debris collection unit, the na´ve and headstrong Ai Tanabe.

Ai is another star-struck girl, intent on experiencing space for herself. However, the completion of the aptitude tests to be hired by the company put her placement not in piloting or in office work, but as part of the ramshackle debris collection unit. She enters her new position to find her trainer to be the crude Hachimaki, her bumbling bosses, the quiet Yuri, and the rambunctious Fee smoking in a special smoking chamber in the corner.

The anime shifts the perspective more on Ai and Hachimaki, following Ai's training as Hachimaki's kohai, as she learns the ropes of debris collection and experiences the irregularities of office life. Taking on the role of an Office Lady (OL), she splits her time with her work-team and other young ladies working in the organization as a whole. Her presence reflects the lives of many women in Japan today in the OL field of employment, showing the mundanity of space, while also showcasing her own idealism in the face of what others consider to be a truly boring, working class existence. In a way, Ai becomes a new center of the anime series in contrast to the manga, as not only does she control much of the perspective of the anime, but her seemingly na´ve idealism seems to echo the sentiments of the series creators.

The series functions on a different wavelength from its comic origins. While the manga deals with the personal struggles and dreams of Hachimaki, Yuri, and Fee, and the consequent adventures they face as they live their lives and float towards their eventual goals, the anime series is used as a vehicle to comment on the issues of class structure, as well as the social interaction atmosphere of the office space. The Toy Box and the debris unit function as part of a large space-based company, the Technora Corporation, in which those in the debris section occupy the lowest rung of the ladder, their managers looked down upon and given the most menial of tasks, with the workers being ignored or insulted. Some of the episodes, when not dealing with the personal journeys of the characters, deal with the clashes between the crew and the upper management. The crew end up on top, however, with their hard-working, honest natures, and their devotion to space and to each other.

The only fault to this formula is the anime's tendencies to try and take the moral high ground, to espouse lofty ideals of how life in space and in a company should function. While of course I'm not one to disagree, it does come across as a bit cheesy. Of even greater interest, is the extreme leftist views Ai attests to, and which are generally agreed upon by most of the office staff, an almost socialist view where all workers of a company should be on equal footing, and a wish to do away with the harsh structure that puts the debris unit in the worst position within the company.

However, the anime is remarkable for discussing the life of the white-collar "salaryman" without actually placing it within the contemporary office. It succeeds in creating something that's markedly different in the landscape of animation in Japan today, not only remaining to be the only anime in my own memory that deals at all with the struggle of the "grunt" in the face of social stigma, but also one of the few that tackles the problematic hierarchy of the office structure of the Japanese company. While this doesn't seem to be at all the same ground of which Yukimura's comic is built on, it remains an excellent usage of the characters and landscape. Afterall, media adaptations are supposed to be different from the works they are based on, and the anime succeeds in using it as a space to entertainingly discuss the issues around office employment.

Both forms of Planetes are exceedingly charming, different, and amazing, you can't go wrong with following either. You can only go wrong, seriously wrong-turn-off-a-cliff, if you decide to not experience Planetes at all. Think about it.

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