Planetes – Episode 21

Planetes’ twenty-first episode is called “Tandem Mirror.” It’s an appropriate name for this episode, which focuses on both Locksmith’s great invention in an overt narrative sense and also on various other mirrors in a metaphorical one. Both the gleaming new Von Braun and the tandem mirror of the original, wrecked craft come into play this episode, but this episode also investigates how members of Planetes’ cast mirror each other in a variety of ways. How Hachi and Tanabe still have so much in common, even as they’re drifting apart. How Hachi is still haunted by his own reflection, in spite of succeeding in getting on the Von Braun. And how Hachi isn’t mirrored by those he’d once believed in, like his rival and ambiguous friend Hakim.

The Von Braun’s third test begins this episode, a far longer and more involved test than either before. This time, the remaining candidates will be spending six whole months on the Von Braun itself. They’re all given level 6 keycards, which grant them access to the vast majority of the ship, and are expected to actually handle the real-time duties of preparing the ship for launch. Hachimaki is on the cusp now, and he knows it. Early scenes here see him finally embracing a sense of victory, secure in the knowledge that he clawed his way back to the Von Braun engine with his own hands.

And yet, Hachi still isn’t satisfied. Curled up beside his bed in the dark, Hachi finds himself visited by the doppelganger that once mocked his dreams, and seduced him towards a conventional life on earth. Hachi is more confident now, and seems comfortable waving away those old thoughts of married life. But the way his mind frames these thoughts in the first place reflects the poisonous worldview his father and culture have burdened him with. Hachimaki has so fully internalized ideals of tangible success and proud pioneer dreams that his mind frames the alternative as “giving up,” as sacrificing something fundamental to his sense of self-worth.

It’s this assumed worldview that forces him to believe in things like Locksmith’s theoretical meritocracy, or the beauty of the Von Braun mission in a general sense. Hachi can only see success in the terms his role models and economic circumstances have defined it. In a way, Hachi’s privilege has actually emotionally crippled him – because he was born with the tools to actually succeed in the global economy’s rigged game, he’s never been forced to question the fundamental assumptions of that game. Hachimaki is unhappy because there is ultimately no way for more than a handful of people to be happy given the assumptions of his economic environment, but he has been programmed to believe that only success according to that environment’s assumptions is real success at all.

While Hachimaki is bound by an assumed faith in global capitalism as the way the world should be, his crewmate Hakim has no such illusions. As the two are working on the tandem mirror itself, Hakim seems more earnest than before, and slowly probes Hachi on the assumptions that brought him to this place. Hachi frames his ideals in the simplest, most childish possible terms: “I thought I wanted a spaceship, but it turns out I just wanted to ride on the fastest ship there is.” Hakim points out that this is basically all the Von Braun is – in contrast to the “future of humanity” rhetoric that often accompanies the project, it’s clear that only a small handful of nations will benefit even if the Jupiter mission succeeds. The Jupiter project isn’t just dangerous and difficult, it’s also morally suspect; and to this, Hachi can only respond with his father’s canned “space is never going to be developed by those who are afraid to put their dreams first.” Hachi may not even have a meaningful dream at this point, but that just means he has to cling all the harder to the assumed lessons of his father.

Hakim’s oddly philosophical questions are given clearer context later on, after Tanabe and the debris crew haul in a piece of the original tandem mirror. They find evidence of tampering on the debris, but it soon becomes clear that this was actually planted by INTO. The first Von Braun blew up due to negligence and Locksmith’s inhumanity, but the Space Defense Force offer a far more convenient and media-friendly scapegoat. And even Tanabe gets to play a part in this cover-up, her role as the face of INTO’s hero debris team politely selling the company’s new line.

After Tanabe’s new brush with fame, it’s Claire’s turn to give the ignorant dreamer a dressing down. When INTO’s Chief of Nepotism Colin mocks her work, Tanabe responds with starry-eyed thoughts about the importance of debris cleaning, and how they’re clearing the path for a future that will raise everybody up. Claire’s response is swift and merciless: “do you have even half a goddamn idea what you’re saying?” All the debris teams really do is clear up the messes of earth’s existing winners, and make them look better while widening the overall wealth gap. In the end, debris cleaners are just another tool of oppression.

Tanabe isn’t really equipped to deal with these truths, and can only return to her classic “take some love and pride in your work!” That just makes Claire even more angry, of course, because it pretty well perfectly embodies Tanabe’s political solipsism. Tanabe always tries to do the “right thing,” and will at times become incensed by this or that directive of Technora, but her concerns exist on an entirely local level, and her empathy can’t extend to acknowledging the inherent violence of the system she supports. At a certain point, one’s social and political ignorance can become a moral failing – even if you’re always polite and try to be kind to others and are good with kids, if you’re enabling a system that oppresses people on a global scale, you are to a certain extent morally culpable.

Of course, even though Claire is right, Tanabe is not particularly exceptional. Most people in inhumane economic systems (i.e. nearly all of them) live this way. What alternative do any of us have? Even if you disagree with the assumptions of your society and economic system, you still live within that system. You can’t just choose to secede from society and go live in the woods somewhere, and most of us can only affect society in general in the most tiny and incremental of ways. That’s part of why the small-scale kindnesses are important – because those are the acts of kindness that are actually within our hands. Tanabe’s kindness may be inconsequential in a societal sense, but it is still reflective of her better nature.

Planetes’ twenty-first episode doesn’t come down harshly on any one side in these conflicts. They are intractable riddles of the modern world. It is important to be kind to others on a day-to-day basis, but if our immediate moral satisfaction blinds us to the moral callings of seeking a better world, then we are ultimately perpetuating violence in spite of ourselves. Hakim, who perhaps sees these conflicts the most clearly of anyone, arrives at the most stark of answers: match Locksmith’s globe-spanning violence with his own violent agitation, and blow the Von Braun to hell. The Von Braun is a symptom, but it’s an important one: promising a new line of income for history’s winners, its trip to Jupiter would signal a massive widening in the wealth gap between the first world nations and places like his own home. Hakim may not be able to destroy capitalism, but he can swing a wrench directly into its weakest joints.

In the belly of the tandem engine, Hachi confronts Hakim, and attempts to stop his bombing. In one more mirroring, Hakim echoes Claire’s speech, and once again describes the base inhumanity of INTO’s mission. Hachimaki’s ability to think INTO’s monstrous goals are “someone else’s problems” is itself a truly monstrous quality, something Hakim interestingly describes as a “lack of imagination.” A lack of wide perspective, and inability to see the validity of the people this system is oppressing, is almost a prerequisite of being a successful capitalist. To be happy in a world built on the backs of the less fortunate, you have to be able to shut out their cries – or be like Locksmith, and simply not care at all.

In the end, Hachimaki actually has a better response to this truth than Tanabe did. While Tanabe attempted to rely on her local morality, and resorted to the “nice things are nice” simplicity of the morally complacent, Hachi resorts to a far more poignant and true argument. “You think you’re the only one who’s miserable in this world? I… I am too!” If this world were built for people like Hachi, why can’t he find happiness? Ultimately, this system chews up even those who were given all the luckiest breaks, if they don’t personally find its inhumane metrics of progress fulfilling. Hachi had believed his inability to be content reflected something wrong with him, never guessing the wrongness was in the world itself. But as the tandem engine ignites in revolutionary fire behind him, Hachi is forced to admit a painful truth. Even standing with his hand on that gleaming coil, there is no joy to be found in this world.

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