Planetes by Makoto Yukimura is the story of garbage collectors in space, those responsible for picking up leftover junk floating around. Yuri is trying to get over the freak death of his wife years earlier. He’s quiet and distracted, putting up with the desolation of the work by losing himself inside his head. Hachimaki is still young, dreaming of making enough for his own ship one day, and not realizing how prying simple questions can be. Fee is their driver, managing the missions.
The unusual setting provides life-and-death possibilities, with a stray piece of debris carrying the potential of sudden decompression if it hits a ship the wrong way. The emotions are equally high, with the mental states of the characters beautifully captured through expression and silent panels where necessary.
This isn’t a gleaming future vision but a grungy, unpleasant-but-necessary job. The art is detailed, building a realistic world that seems like it could happen tomorrow. Cluttered living spaces contrast with breathtaking open spacescapes. These small pages capture the immensity of space in stunning fashion.
The four-page color section at the beginning of the first book sets the mood of loss in the face of the unknown. Open faces allow for emotion as normal people face events much bigger than they are. Hachimaki injures himself in the second chapter, and the author uses his broken leg as a way to explore the nature of space illnesses and what “home” means.
Chapter three focuses on Fee’s attempt to get a cigarette. Smoking in space is a somewhat iffy proposition to begin with, and when terrorists protesting human abuse of the environment begin blowing up smoking areas, her quest is even more aggravated. It’s a wonderful short story about addiction and extreme dedication to something outside ourselves. Other chapters focus on Hachimaki’s younger brother’s attempts to teach himself rocketry and the nature of isolation in deep space. Overall, there’s a contrast between childhood dreams of space and the adult reality of the hard work to make something so difficult happen.
Volume 2 opens with plans for the first manned space mission to Jupiter. Hachimaki is beating himself up, training to be selected as part of the crew, when his astronaut father shows up. Although he’s highly sought after by the mission head, Dad just wants to retire. Lofty goals often conflict with everyday actions, and those who reach the top of their fields may lose touch with normal people’s lives, both those they care for and those workers they may not even know. The questions explored here include how much sacrifice should be made to achieve great things and what motivations are appropriate. Selfishness drives a lot of accomplishment, because without that stubbornness, no one would persevere past terrible problems.
For Hachimaki to be able to leave, he has to train Tanabe, a new recruit. Her motivations for working space garbage detail are different than his, which challenges both their perspectives. Tanabe’s support of family connections may make her unsuited for the essential solitude of space work, while Hachimaki supports passion for exploration over any kind of love. Then terrorists get involved, bombing the station and attacking applicants to stop further space exploration. I was reminded, during this action-based sequence, of the quote about staring too long into the abyss causing one to become a monster. Hachimaki’s exploration of the void, both physically and emotionally, drives the rest of this book.
That philosophical self-analysis continues in the third volume. On his week off, Hachimaki goes picnicking on the moon. Left alone, he looks into himself and has a mystical experience with a metaphoric cat. Cats also played a role in Tanabe’s unusual childhood, conveyed through a lengthy flashback chapter. Hachimaki finally comes to terms with his place in the vastness of space, allowing him to continue his training, through the courageous care of Sally, a fellow crewmember, and the love of Tanabe.
The fourth volume (published in two parts) opens with Tanabe befriending “The Baron”, a clueless, mis-socialized person who claims to be an alien. He seeks friendship, but he’s made fun of. It’s unclear whether he’s really a non-Earthling, or whether he’s so alienated from normal expectations that his behavior seems alien. That’s as intended, symbolizing the loneliness and separation many feel from society. Another kind of alienation is explored in the next chapter, where an executive attends a memorial service for those killed during development of an advanced engine for the space program. The question of the toll exploration takes on those left behind is a theme running through the series, grounding the space adventures and reminding the reader that no man is an island.
The rest of the book compares the behavior of Fee’s son and his tendency to adopt stray dogs to her civil disobedience when faced with the use of orbital mines and the promise of space war between various countries. When the military is determined to fight, regardless of fallout or collateral damage, what can small independent teams like the garbage collectors do? It’s a timely storyline, with the US threatening retaliation when a small number of their soldiers are blown up. The US is so obsessed with winning, with avenging the insult done to them, that they don’t realize that their actions will ruin things for everyone for decades to come. This is also contrasted, through flashbacks to Fee’s childhood, with Southern racism destroying innocent lives.
Although his quiet character-driven storytelling drew me to the title, when needed, Yukimura’s art explodes in impressive catastrophe or gripping action sequences. He plausibly creates a space war that matters, that winds up destroying a natural resource and causing far-reaching environmental disturbances. The series ends with a religious meditation on the mission to Jupiter, livened with comedy as the team searches for the right arrival speech. Ultimately, what drives us all is the basic human desire to be loved, no matter where we go or what we accomplish.
Planetes is often called the manga for people who don’t like manga because of its blend of serious science fiction, drama, humor, characterization, and a classically well-done art style. Anyone who’s curious about the format should check it out. These human-driven stories touch on big themes about one’s place in the universe.