Thursday, February 23, 2006

Salarymen In Space

from Kolchak:

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far-- no, wait; let me try that again.

In 1978 (I told you it was a long time ago), a short-lived TV series called Quark ran on NBC. It was, of all things, a science fiction comedy, starring Richard Benjamin as the captain of a starship that collected garbage discarded by other planets. It poked gentle fun at things like Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey and quickly established itself as being too hip for the room. It lasted only eight episodes.

Now, more than 25 years later, there’s another spaceship out there collecting trash. This one, though, is part of the Japanese series Planetes. There are some laugh-out-loud funny scenes in the series, but it also has some very serious things to say about space travel and its cost--social and emotional, as well as financial. The result is a real rarity: a genuine, hard science fiction story, in visual form. In Japan, Planetes received the Seiun Award, which is roughly equivalent to the Hugo in this country.

Created by Makoto Yukimura, Planetes is available here in America both as a
manga and as an anime DVD. (For the record: Tony Oliver, writer of theEnglish script and English voice director for the DVD, pronounces Planetes“planet-tis.” I’m going to go with that until I hear otherwise.).

Planetes follows the crew of the Toy Box, a ship that collects outmoded satellites and other, potentially dangerous man-made debris. In this world--roughly 70 years in the future--the human race has a strong presence in outer space. The asteroid belt is being explored, and the first generation born and raised on the moon is nearing adulthood.

At the same time, extremist groups are trying to keep man out of space, sometimes through violence.

As you might imagine, the work done by the Toy Box’s crew, while important, gets little respect. This is particularly grating to Hachimaki Hoshino. As Planetes begins, Hachi (Hachimaki--or Hachi--is a nickname, which refers to the headband that he constantly wears.) is trying to save enough money to buy his own ship.

Before long, though, he decides to apply for the first expedition to Jupiter, which will be captained by his estranged father, in order to earn the money that he wants.

Goro Hoshino is a veteran astronaut, but somewhat lacking as a human being, a womanizer who has all but abandoned his family. He’s not about to welcome his son with open arms.

As Yukimura chronicles Hachi’s journey, he also creates backgrounds for theother members of the Toy Box’s crew. Yuri Malakoff is trying to deal with hiswife’s dying from--and his surviving--an accident caused by space debris. For a long time, the most important thing in Fee Carmichael’s life seems to be finding a legal--and safe--place to smoke on the moon. However, she eventually finds something else to fight for.

The stories in Planetes range significantly in tone. In an early sequence, a well-known resident of the lunar colony walks out on the surface and waits for his life support run out, rather than returning to Earth. In another story, Tanabe--a later addition to the crew-- befriends a young man known as the Baron, who claims to be an extraterrestrial. (Nobody except Tanabe believes this, but nobody thinks this disqualifies the Baron from working in space.)

On the visual side, all the characters in Planetes can be identified as coming from a manga. They look positively naturalistic, though, compared the highly-stylized characters in such recent series as Mobile Suit Gundam SEED and Heat Guy J. In addition, vehicles and astronomical scenes are rendered with meticulous attention to detail.

Yukimura seems to have done his research in other areas as well. The story includes numerous references to the history of space travel and rocketry, going all the way back to ancient Japanese fireworks. Also, the fourth and fifth volumes of the American manga--which are labeled 4/1 and 4/2, for the record--have articles that explain the social trends and the science behind the world that he’s created.

The Planetes DVDs makes a lot of changes in the series, both cosmetic and significant. Tanabe is the viewpoint character now. The crew of the Toy Box is based on a space station, rather than on the moon. Hachi and the others are now working for Technora Corporation (they were independent contractors before), which gives the anime’s creators a chance to have fun with Japanese corporate life.

In the first of 26 episodes, Tanabe is greeted by a creature that looks like a pink version of Cousin Itt from The Addams Family. It looks like it could be an alien, but it’s only someone dressed as the corporate mascot.

Several new characters are added to the cast, primarily as comic relief, including two managers and a clerical worker who seems to be a tribute to Janine Melnitz from Ghostbusters.

The anime takes its own sweet time getting to the Jupiter expedition, though. Although Hachi’s father is seen in the credits, the first time the expedition is mentioned is Episode 14. In addition, turning Hachi and Tanabe into a romantic couple takes longer than it has to.

On the other hand, some of the original sub-plots are very similar tothe spirit of the manga. In ‘The Lunar Flying Squirrels,” a group of residents of the lunar colony decide that the moon is a great place to restage scenes from their favorite ninja movies. In “Boundary Line,” the anime’s creative staff takes what could be a mind-numbingly abstract question-- how do Third World countries get access to outer space?-- and turns it into a genuine human drama.

The opening credits show a montage of the history of space travel, reflecting Yukimura’s interest in that aspect of the field, and, ironically, creating a feel similar to the credits of Star Trek:Enterprise.

The visual style of the anime of similar to that of the original, with fairly realistic character and vehicle designs. The space station appears to be a computer-generated image, but the rest of the series seems to be traditional animation.

The DVDs do contain some unique extras. Along with mini-documentaries on real space debris, there are “audio dramas:” scenes performed by the English voice cast and illustrated by still drawings.

I haven’t been able to determine how or why these dramas were created. The best theory I’ve heard is that the voice actors recorded the dialogue for these scenes, but they were cut before the episodes were animated. I have to admit, though, that I haven’t been able to find out for sure.

The Planetes anime is divided among six DVDs. The final DVD in the run is scheduled for release in March.

1 comment:

Mitch H. said...

Audio dramas are generally recorded separately for radio programs or just for sale as CDs. There are manga & books which make the jump first to audio dramas, and then to TV anime, or never make the jump at all. Think of the old Star Wars and Hitchhiker's Guide radio dramas. I got ambushed by one of these CDs back when kanji-ignorant I thought I was buying a soundtrack for the Weathering Continent movie, and it turned out to be an audio drama based on the books, instead.

I wasn't particularly taken with the anime of Planetes, which I encountered before the manga, which was much better. The anime drops a lot of the quietly intense whimsy of the manga, especially where Tanabe is concerned, but keeps the seriously annoying sanctimony & left-Japanese political correctness. So, while the manga is both exhilerating and annoying, the anime I found just plain annoying.

But Your Mileage May Vary.