Planetes – Episode 16

Planetes’ sixteenth episode opens with heavy, panicked breathing, thick gasps presented to us before we even understand what’s happening. That’s intentional, as we soon learn – Hachi has spun free in space, and so in order to simulate his immediate confusion, we are left in the dark as well. Extreme closeups convey the claustrophobia of the situation, mixed in with shots framed to highlight the vast emptiness of space. And the sound design remains important throughout, that breathing soon finding itself accompanied by creaking, hissing noises from Hachi’s suit. As his breathing accelerates and pulse becomes audible, those mechanical noises impress on us a constant and oft-overlooked truth – that for all his confidence and security, Hachimaki is only separated from disaster by the thinnest layer of human engineering.

Planetes

This is not an easy episode. In the aftermath of that oppressive cold open, we learn that Hachi was cut free accidentally due to a solar flare, and that odds are high of him suffering irreparable damage. Hachi survives, surprisingly, and is physically fine – but as we soon learn, he hasn’t truly escaped the consequences of his accident. Trapped in a pitch-black isolation chamber, Hachimaki’s confidence breaks down, and we learn he suffers from Spatial Loss Disorder. Shaken by a near-death experience, Hachi can no longer fly. With “family” standing as Planetes’ single most lauded variable, Hachi is now traumatized by the opposite – the loneliness of space has become his literal adversary.

That conflict guides the framework of this episode, as Hachi works to regain his confidence and position. There are only the slightest of gestures towards other narratives – a quick scene of Dolf suffering from exactly the kind of political brinkmanship he despises, and a moment of sad Lavie wearing some butterfly wings. Planetes has a lot of narratives on its plate, but in this episode, Hachi’s relationship with his past and future are all that truly matter.

Planetes

The bulk of this episode takes place on the moon, as Hachi once again finds himself trapped in their hospital for recovery. There are small pleasures to be found here; I particularly liked one sequence of character animation, where Tanabe’s efforts to cheer Hachi up see her running through a poignant and wholly parsable series of visual emotions. But the true heart of this episode arrives when Hachi once again attempts to enter the chamber, after two weeks of rehabilitation.

Standing in the darkness, Hachi looks around and finds himself in an unexpected place – the shore of earth, at his old home town. While earth’s visual presence is often used to convey comfort from space, in this episode, earth is a villain – it’s the prison he escaped, and can’t imagine being forced to return to. The difficulty of escaping into space has long been relevant to Planetes’ side characters, but this is the first time Hachi has had to reckon with that fear. And so the earth hangs overhead visually, staring down at Hachi, willing him back.

Planetes

Of course, the earth doesn’t really have a will of its own – but Hachi himself is not wholly confident in his dreams. As he reviews his past in the deprivation chamber, he’s confronted with his own doppelganger, a classic instrument of anime psychological review. And that doppelganger presents Hachi with the most painful possible version of the truth: that far from being devastated by losing his license, this accident might just have been the escape he wanted.

Hachi’s dreams are utterly insubstantial. His career track, such as it is, could never possibly lead to having a spaceship – if he wanted to pursue that, he’d have to start over, and quickly. But Hachi doesn’t do that; instead, Hachi laughs and hangs out with friends and generally enjoys his repetitive days. Hachi claims he’s going to have a ship one day, but his words are more faith than plan – as his doppelganger cruelly puts it, “the reason you kept spouting that crap was because you wanted to stay in your little dream world.”

Planetes

It’s hard to argue with anything that Hachi’s doppelganger says. He’s right, frankly, and his rightness here could apply to most people pursuing impractical dreams through uncertain actions. Most people will not become astronauts, or rock stars, or great leaders of any kind. We have to compromise on those dreams not only because they’re unattainable, but because we have enough problems in our immediate lives to not really be able to focus on such nebulous concepts. Hachi is not totally detached from reality; he may dream of buying a ship, but he knows he’s not moving closer to that goal. And in the voice of his greatest anxieties, it seems likely that an accident like this would allow him to settle for a life on earth without acknowledging he never could have succeeded in the first place.

Framing Hachi’s accident as an escape route is callous, but Hachi wouldn’t be wrong to accept it. Hachi’s a proud man, but pride doesn’t always mean “sticking to your guns” – it can also mean, “only accepts compromise when able to save face.” Calling this an escape route is only important insofar as it caters to Hachi’s inherent pride; most people have to make Hachi’s choice without the benefit of circumstance, and simply come to terms with the fact that our dreams are larger than the world we live in. “Having dreams that are too big will ruin a man” cautions Hachi’s internal self, as the camera returns us to the man so wedded to space that he missed out on the family left behind.

Planetes

Even Tanabe suggests Hachi return to earth, in one of this episode’s most quietly cruel moments. Tanabe’s exact words are “space isn’t going anywhere” – but when it comes to this fundamental life question, that’s really its own kind of evasion. As adults in a work-to-live society, we understand that opportunities to make drastic shifts are rare and traumatic, and that the more we attach ourselves to certain jobs or people or life circumstances, the less likely we’ll be to change ourselves in the future. We live for a vanishingly small amount of time, and even less of that time can be used to decide who we actually want to be. When we choose to compromise and simply live, the chances become very high that we have chosen the people we’ll always be.

This episode can’t offer a rational answer to Hachi’s anxieties. That’s not a failing of the writing – the simple fact is, there isn’t a rational answer. Economic hurdles exist, lucrative careers aren’t handed out freely, and impractical dreams will often let you down. All Fee can offer is the siren call of all dreamers: “at times like this, the world needs fools.” It is foolishness that leads anyone to seek something so practically unattainable, and thus history is replete with those lucky fools who tried their damnedest and actually got away with it. That doesn’t make those fools correct to make their choices – far, far, far more fools try than succeed. But if so few fools succeeding against such long odds doesn’t discourage the next generation of dreamers, then perhaps the foolishness of ambition is written into our souls.

Planetes

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