Streaking across the skies above Manga Island comes "Planetes," a sci-fi manga full of heartfelt characters and a storyline that defies the clichs of the genre. I had heard of this series on various forums and press releases, and it came highly recommended. It wasn't until it randomly washed up on the shores of Manga Island (via my local library) that I decided to check it out. I couldn't believe I had missed such a fantastic series. After finishing issue 3 and preparing to find the final 2 issues (a chapter 4 divided into 2 parts) I am still in awe at how the story develops, the characters and their struggles and the genuinely heart wrenching drama that they go through. I expected a pleasant hard sci-fi story and got so much more. It's been a while since a manga grabbed me the way "Planetes" has. I am firmly a Makoto Yukimura fan, and would gladly read anything by this manga-ka. I also came to realize that most of the Tokyopop manga that I have enjoyed has fallen to editor Luis Reyes. This book is handled so well, I have to say that he must be my favorite editor that I'm not working under (my editor on "Psy-Comm" would have to hold the #1 position of course).
"Planetes" starts out as the story of a group of debris collectors working to collect the garbage and leftover materials floating around Earth, in an attempt to prevent serious accidents that can occur with this space trash collides with spacecraft, satellites, and space stations. On the debris collecting vessel DS-12 we meet Hachiroto Hashino (nicknamed Hachimaki because of his ever present bandana) an astronaut with dreams of owning his own spacecraft, Yuri, a man with a tragic past that he is trying to set right, and Fee, a tough girl, mother and mother figure, and pilot of the DS- 12. In the year 2074, teams like this are fairly commonplace, although their job is complex and dangerous. Even the shielded debris collecting vessels are not immune from the impact of small debris that create large holes in the hull of any spacecraft. And that is only the beginning of the dangers in the life of the space faring garbage man (or woman)! In the first issue alone, we see the effects of long-term exposure to zero-g, radiation exposure from solar flares and solar winds, and the psychological effects of the isolation and loneliness that the vast blackness of space is notorious for. As the story progresses we are taken away from this small craft, and into a larger scale story of man's quest for resources, the perils of the average astronaut, and the trials and tribulations of one man's quest to make his own destiny and own his own space craft. Amongst dealing with family, space ailments, and training for a proposed mission to Jupiter, the characters and events of "Planetes" unfold like the arms of a spiral galaxy.
"Planetes" is the perfect blend of hard sci-fi and complex characters. The harshness of space and space exploration are explored in depth throughout the manga. Yukimura definitely done his research in this area, and his attention to detail is astounding. From the effects of small debris and their devastating potential, to theories of how zero-g might affect the denizens of moon colonies, the realism of "Planetes" is tangible. Everything "feels" genuine and well thought out. In a sea of manga full of robots, dramatic space ships battles, and over the top high tech, "Planetes" sets itself apart in the realism category. I feel that I could easily recommend the book to people who aren't very familiar with manga, but dig a good sci-fi story. If manga was a more established art form here in the states, I would say that an ad for this should be shown before or after every screening of "The Right Stuff" or "Apollo 13." Although it is set in the future, and has a lot of tech that is clearly fiction, I can picture all of it being posited in an issue of "Popular Mechanics" or other magazines that have given us glimpses of what the future might hold for our exploration of the solar system and beyond.
Although "Planetes" definitely delivers in the hard sci-fi elements, with scientific theories, fact and various informative pages between chapters, Makoto Yukimara's ability to craft complex characters with a past as they strive towards their respective futures. I found myself easily attached to the characters. I genuinely wanted to know where their travels take them. Even characters like the protagonist Hachimaki, who is distant and full of angst has room to grow, to discover themselves and even fall in love. I was always pleasantly surprised at the realism that is so prevalent in the science and tech of the series spreads into the characters and their families, their motivations and their life. Yuri's struggle to overcome the loss of his wife, Fee's struggle with her piloting duties and her family life, and Hachimaki's growth from being a selfish young adult who rebels against his often absent father, to a man who finds his place in the universe all play out against the backdrop of space and the gravity of Earth. Background characters are equally realized. "Planetes" has all the characters that I would want in a series, bratty kid brothers, aging rockers, desperate eco rebels, smarmy business men with no regard for life, cats, and spiritual advisors. An amazing cast for an amazing manga!
As touching as the stories told in "Planetes" are, they also have a surprising amount of variety. One of my favorites involves the pilot Fee and how she deals with the stigma of being a smoker in space. I'm not a smoker myself, but with laws and regulations being what they are here in the states and the increasing stigma that smoking entails, I can only imagine a smoker writing this tale of the search for a pack of cigarettes, eco terrorism, trying to find a place to take a smoke break, and how one person's vice can save the planet. I can only imagine how this must touch someone in Japan, where smoking is perhaps even more prevalent than in the states, and how the average smoker must feel s they are pressured out of their regular haunts and into more and more cloistered areas. Although I don't condone the vice, this story is told with humor and suspense befitting of any "Cowboy Bebop" episode. Being one of my favorite shows of all time, this is high praise.
Tokyopop has also done a great job with the presentation of "Planetes." Included are color pages at the beginning of certain volumes, copious sidebar and footnotes on some of the more important signs, cultural points, and even tattoos. When characters speak in different languages important to the plot (for example, Hachimaki's teammate's mother speaking in Russian, or characters trying to learn Japanese or speaking in English that is not their native tongue) notes are made of this and special fonts are used. This and the other fonts and word balloons used for characters in space suits or speaking through communication devices add nice touches to an already well produced book. Tokyopop even kept the notes about famous space explorers and literature writers that dreamed of the stars. Of note is one poem that was included a volume later, by popular demand. The poem is by one of Japan's top literature writers, Kenji Miazawa, whose works often invoke the reverence of space and the Universe. His "Night on the Galactic Railroad" is a classic in many languages and was turned into an amazing (if a little slow) anime as well. This poem, an excerpt from "Black Flowers Called Sakinohaka" was originally in Japanese in issue two, but the editor did not want to spoil the complexity of the poem with a literal translation. Demand by fans was so great that a humble translation was done for the third issue. The poem is uplifting, and I am glad that the decision was made to include it. Other nice points of the "Planetes" manga are the four panel humorous comics at the ends of certain volumes, a side story, and some fantastic detail art with translated notes on the interstitial pages of the chapters. This is a quality work indeed!
As I go searching for volumes four and five across manga Island I find myself still touched by story and characters, their journey and hardships. I recommend this series for young and old, anyone who has dreamed of reaching the stars. Any fan of realistic sci-fi or drama in general should be able to enjoy this work. It makes me want to get it for my brother my step dad and numerous friends who are manga fans and many who would just enjoy a good story. I have a feeling that given the right presentation, this would be a great book to bridge the gap between people who just read novels and haven't bought into the "Gundam," "Evangelion" or "Stellvia" manga because of the more traditional manga/anime elements of those sci-fi series. After reading "Planetes" 1-3, I can't wait to see the anime (being released by Bandai) and I now hold this as one of the high bars of manga for other companies to step up to. Manga Island needs more series of this quality of story and production. And now I have to suit up and board my ship in order to rocket off of Manga Island find and read the final volumes!
Rating: T (Teen) 16+
Number of Volumes available: 5
Links of interest:
Tony Salvaggio has been a fan of anime and manga from an early age. He has been an animator in the video games industry and is currently co-writing an original graphic novel for Tokyopop. He regularly hosts anime and Japanese related shows in Austin and his passion for all things anime and manga related is only excelled by his quest to become King of the Monsters.