This was a very silly episode of Planetes. How silly? Well, a running subplot involves an amateur film production of “Space Wolf Goes to the Moon,” a pickpocket at one point laments that his “nimble pianist’s fingers are only used to steal other people’s stuff,” and the climactic scene involves a pair of parents verbally underlining the lesson they’ve learned about parenting, each gasping, and then turning to stare at each other, their eyes filled with daytime soap opera wonder. Planetes can be a hammy and broad show at the best of times, but this episode pretty much reveled in a kind of archetypal TV storytelling that reminded me more of something like M.A.S.H. or the A-Team than anything anime genres approach. And for all that, it was a really good time.
The premise of this week’s episode was as “serial episodic adventure” as you can get. Finally having gained a few days off, Tanabe, Hachi, and Fee get together for a trip to the moon. On their way there, trouble consistently ensues, as Tanabe has her wallet stolen, Hachi gets roped into a movie production, and a pair of debt-ridden parents decide to end it all and take their daughter Sia with them. Weird little subplots bounce back and forth, a central conflict focused on a murder-suicide receives remarkably little dramatic weight, and eventually everything comes together in a fairly low-key hostage situation.
I have to assume Planetes is well aware this episode is silly, and is intentionally leaning into its own daytime soap opera affectation. After all, many of the overt comic beats here basically made pratfall material of the central conflicts; Hachi accidentally knocks out one of the movie stars and gets punched by Tanabe in turn, etcetera. The movie thread is a particularly silly one – the director’s quest to make some kind of nebulous film placed him more in children’s cartoon territory than actual characterdom, and his presence in the end seems intended to deflate the hostage situation (“don’t take the little girl hostage, use my actress instead!”).
But beyond the clear, overt jokes, there’s also a sense of archetypal goofiness to the whole murder-suicide conflict. The beats of this thread fall like thunderous dominoes – the parents’ situation is established, they fight over taking Sia with them, Sia bonds with Tanabe and Hachi, and ultimately the hostage situation causes them to realize they want Sia to live after all. The perky horns played against these well-worn beats heighten the sense of cheesy daytime television, and the ending is so on-the-nose that it seems hard to believe it’s entirely earnest. In contrast to the gracefully articulated personalities of the show’s actual characters, basically all of this episode’s one-off roleplayers feel like comic devices.
Speaking of actual characters, much of this episode’s legitimately good material comes down to the strong banter between Tanabe and Hachi. Tanabe’s initial wonderment at taking a space vacation, and Hachi mocking her for it, sits comfortably in their usual senpai-kohai wheelhouse, but the introduction of Sia lets both of them demonstrate more of their complexities. Tanabe at first comes off as the one who’s good with kids, as she humors Sia on her level while Hachi acts like a grumpy kid himself. But by the end, Hachi’s inherent kiddishness means he can’t help but like the little girl who’s as awestruck by spaceships as he is. Tanabe and Hachi have a chemistry that actually benefits from the introduction of other parties, who help reveal both their individual complexity and the multiple sides of their evolving relationship.
Finally, this episode also featured a few more excellent demonstrations of how Planetes truly grasps the mundanity of space flight. The passengers’ voyage to the moon seems wondrous to them, but only in the same way a cruise trip might be a refreshing change of pace. Sia pays a toll to stare at the moon through giant binoculars, a choice that feels like it’s accepting a kind of anachronism for the sake of emphasizing the relatability of this vacation. Passengers ask questions about how you use the bathroom when the ship is moving, and Cheng-Shin’s main supervisory conflicts involve stuff like catching pickpockets and chatting up the stewardesses. Planetes doesn’t want space travel to be magical for its own sake. You can find a magic in it, but space travel is actually kind of boring.
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