By Hugh David.
“Abandoned artificial satellites. Tanks jettisoned from space shuttles. Refuse generated during space station construction. Debris of all shapes and sizes is travelling around the Earth at speeds of up to eight kilometres a second. Should this debris collide with a spacecraft, it could result in a terrible accident. For this reason, mankind has been confronted by the necessity of collecting this debris. This is a story of 2075, a time in which this space debris has become a major problem.” [Opening voiceover to the English language version of Planetes.]
The 2003 anime adaptation of Makoto Yakimura’s superb 2001 manga series Planetes rearranges characters and narratives into something that initially is much funnier than the moodier manga would have suggested. Indeed, the reframing of the story around rookie spacer Ai Tanabe and away from the manga’s lead Hachirota Hoshino, as well as the greater emphasis on the Debris Recovery Section’s office staff, shifts the anime into the style of the great Patlabor. It turns it into a workplace comedy full of quirky human characters that uses anidealistic young female lead as a witness to greater issues that more cynical, hardened veteran characters ignore or take for granted. Admittedly, this might also be because of the benefit to the production; by spending more time in the office rather than out in cockpits with space and the Earth outside, moving the show ‘indoors’ allows for more static backgrounds, and traditional animation as characters type, eat and bicker.
For the first half of the series, some of the manga’s finest chapters become riveting episodes of human drama. However, as the series progresses, larger political issues finally come to the fore. There’s the big arc of the Space Defence League, extremist enviromentalist terrorists against the exploitation of space. However, another running theme is the prevalence of cancers in veteran spacers, in part due to the risks they willingly took given they had ‘the right stuff’, but also due to the relative quality of the suits their wore and the ships they worked in. Rather than simply offering a serious contrast to the office comedy, this is where the fundamental issues of deregulated capitalism and privatised spacefaring rise to the fore, as the concerns of accountants, HR people and ‘company men’ come up hard against the scientific realities of spacefaring.
How does this vision of 2075 reflect our present day? Surely, given the state of national budgets, privatised space exploration is the only way we as a species will be living and working off-planet before the end of this century? If the words of the wealthy in 2020 such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are to be believed, that is the only case. Musk’s SpaceX, in particular, has become a crucial element in moving forward towards such a future, especially with is focus on colonising Mars. However, another major theme running through Planetes is that of financial desperation. A couple are seen gifting a space journey to their daughter with the intention of committing suicide. Illness and disease can lead to unemployment with all that that implies. The disparity between the haves and have-nots has not only increased on earth, it has been exported into the heavens. And it’s easy to see how we could end up there when Musk has openly talked of providing loans to would-be Martian colonisers, which they would pay off to him through working for SpaceX once there, presumably in mining of resources to provide fuel for return trips. Musk’s timeline is a million people on Mars by 2050; how many will risk the hazards of longer-term space flights to escape this pandemic-ridden Earth? Planetes suggests Musk will find his initial hundred thousand, but the personal costs as well as the risks are going to be high indeed.