Oh man, what a premise. So, in an age of bountiful space travel, humanity has discovered a new threat lurking in the atmosphere – its own accumulated garbage, courtesy of many decades of letting dead satellites and junked ships and various other machine parts all just kinda float there. So in order to avoid having more and more ships and satellites get damaged by ultra-fast flying garbage, companies begin to create debris gathering departments, the most high-altitude janitors in the business.
Meaning that, even though this is ostensibly a science fiction series, the first episode proceeds a whole lot more like an adult slice of life episode. The show uses the classic trick of focusing on a rookie, in this case the starry-eyed Tanabe, as she (and we) are introduced to her not-so-glamorous duties and fairly underwhelming coworkers. Her dreams run into the hard realities of debris collection being an underpaid and unrespected business, and her go-getter attitude and fantasies about the dignity of astronauts bang harshly against the worldview of her coworker Hachi, who seems so cynical you have to believe it’s a performance.
As far as first episodes go, this one rides entirely on premise and polish. The actual plot here is as mundane as they come – Tanabe’s introduction to her new department runs through all the classic “welcome to the new office” beats, and her emerging relationship with Hachi is about as classic “upbeat newcomer, jaded old hand” as they come. There’s even a scene where they outright bicker with each other about their character types, ending in the predictable “You’re taking this too seriously!” “You don’t take things seriously enough!” And in the end, Tanabe’s hopes are lifted slightly by just a tiny glimpse of beauty in her work, a classic conclusion to exactly this sort of episode.
And yet, in spite of this episode hitting very strict genre notes, it’s utterly successful as entertainment. A great deal of this comes down to the visual execution, which impresses in terms of art design, direction, and animation. This is the most highly praised show Goro Taniguchi (he of Code Geass and Maria the Virgin Witch, along with the lackluster Active Raid) is associated with, and watching this episode, you get a clear view of a very confident director in total control of his gifts. The opening scene, which vividly demonstrates the danger posed by space debris, is a perfectly staged hook; the later scenes, where the team fumbles around in their pre-mission briefing and then go out on the job, smartly juggle the mundanity of the work and the startling, alien beauty of space.
The art design does the show as many favors as it possibly could. Not only are the character designs grounded but expressive, but the actual settings here feel completely lived in, in the way you might traditionally associate with something like Genshiken. The debris team’s office isn’t just messy, it’s full of personality, and the ships and space stations of the show possess a utility-oriented complexity that makes them feel utterly real. On top of that, only the circular space station is rendered in CG – everything else is traditionally drawn, making for a strong, cohesive aesthetic. And the rich character animation layered on top of this brings characters to life even when they’re just hitting classic genre beats. Planetes is one of those rare shows that, at least in its first episode, has animation strong enough that you can legitimately praise the character acting.
The writing is also solid overall, though again, this was 100% a standard first episode shell. The classic bickering of Tanabe and Hachi doesn’t really give the characters all that much to work with, but more effective was the final argument on the job, where Tanabe’s dreams about the apolitical justice of astronauts runs into the realities of her salaried, low-tier position. Tanabe is desperately naive right now, but given how thoroughly this episode came down against her perspective, I can’t imagine the show is going to let that stand. Then again, the credits are wholly focused on revealing the dreamer Hachi used to be, so I guess we’ll have to see just how idealistic this show gets.
Anyway. As far as first episodes go, this was a very standard story wholly lifted by its spotless execution. Planetes offers a great template here, and the show’s reputation is stellar, so I’m eager to continue it. If the characters and their relationships gain a bit more texture, this show will be right up my alley.
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