It is a time... when collecting space debris... is very important! Really seriously business here, guys!
STORY - I laughed when the narrator said that at the end of the introduction, but I can definitely appreciate the realistic approach to space in Planetes, especially when so many other sci-fi series completely disregard the issues it presents. Radiation exposure and space debris in particular are hugely important real life topics concerning space, and it was both interesting and educational to hear and learn about them. Planetes starts off pretty episodic, but while each episode contains a more or less standalone adventure, the events that take place and the people they meet are revisited and remembered, so you still get a feeling of relevancy and continuity.
Most of these adventures center around the technicalities of space life and exploration, but there's also a lot of company politics, global politics, and environmentalism that comes into play, making for an even more realistic portrayal. It's honestly one of the most realistic glimpses into the future I've seen, and it was very impressive. Taniguchi's direction is excellent, and there's never a dull moment. As the series progresses, more and more of the episodes connect and the storytelling becomes more linear. After all their Gundams, it isn't surprising to see a confrontation between Earth and space from Sunrise, but it was really nice to see less of an all out war and more of the personal conflicts and struggles within individuals. Being realistic, there are no fancy explosions and shiny mecha (that would cause way too much space debris!), but the story is nonetheless engaging and very satisfying in the end (the romantic subplot is well done, too). The realism is definitely superior, and I'd love to see more series like Planetes in the future.
CHARACTER - Most of Planetes' characters are reasonably convincing, though I did feel that they stood out a bit against their hyper-realistic environment. Ai Tanabe is pretty much your typical anime heroine with self-righteous and idealistic morals that she tries to push onto everyone else (everything can be solved with love!). In general, I really, really dislike these sorts of characters, and thus, Tanabe rubbed me the wrong way more than once. Thankfully, the rest of the cast was much more down-to-earth and balanced her very well. And while her morals never really change, the rest of her character does manage to grow and adapt, so I'm happy to report that she's not so hard to sit with by the end of the series, and the progression is good.
Hachimaki is arguably the real protagonist of Planetes and who I felt to be the most realistic of the lot. He was the easiest for me to relate to and just all around convincing with his sarcasm, bluntness, obliviousness, and outlook on life. His character was also the one that grew the most, especially in the latter half of the series. The secondary cast was pretty top notch too. At first, many of the members of the Debris Section seemed very gimmicky, but as you expanded on their backgrounds, histories, and families, they all felt more real. It was a good chance of pace to have adult characters with families, spouses, and children back home. The other employees of Technora were similarly interesting, and I really enjoyed the interaction, tension, and politics between different members of different groups. It's a solid cast all around.
ARTSTYLE & ANIMATION - I'm no expert, but all of the technological aspects of the art felt very convincing to me. Space ships and stations are very reminiscent of what we know to be real life designs, and nothing was taken for granted. Picking up space debris with mechanical arms is no walk in the park, and everything was taken into account, including the shine of the sun and the incredibly high velocity of objects moving in space. The art really reflected these details, and it was really fun and dramatic to watch.
The character designs were awesome because they matched the realism of the environment. I loved that there were ethnic differences between the characters and that all hair and eye colors were natural-looking. Everyone was distinct and recognizable, but no one was over-the-top or ridiculous. And that isn't even to say that there weren't some ridiculous shenanigans now and again: Technora's mascot is kind of lol, and there's a hilarious episode with some ninja otaku. Planetes' art really suits its story: it's cold and serious when need be, fun and light-hearted when need be.
MUSIC - I like the opening, "Dive in the Sky," by Mikio Sakai, because the mood suits the series really well. It's inspiring and far-reaching, and Sakai's voice is pretty soothing to listen to. The end theme, "Wonderful Life," also by Sakai, is a bit more upbeat, which is kind of surprising because it's usually the opening that's more energetic and the ending that's more mellow, but it works out anyway. "Wonderful Life" feels like a good follow-up to the opening's inspirational theme because it has that "everything's going to be okay" feel to it. There is a different insert song for the ending to the last episode, and it really surprised me because I've come to associate Hitomi's very distinct voice and sound with Code Geass even though Planetes was before its time. "PLANETES," the insert song, fits this series pretty nicely though. Hitomi's style provokes a thoughtful and poignant mood, which is fitting here too. Space is a deep place.
The soundtrack for the series is mostly average, but I do remember particularly liking a few tracks played during the high tension and serious business scenes. Nakagawa is also the same composer that later does the music for Geass, so I think it's safe to say that his forte is the suspenseful and dramatic stuff.
VOICE ACTING - Thanks to dual audio, I saw about a third of this subbed and the rest dubbed, which might be a testament to how good the dub actually was. Julie Ann Taylor as Tanabe was kind of irritating at first, but as that really seemed to suit the character, you get used to it pretty fast. Her range of emotion is also pretty well played, so I guess the voice is only really annoying when the character is really annoying. I don't have any complaints whatsoever about Kirk Thornton as Hachimaki, but my favorite dub voice is probably Wendee Lee as Fee. Her voice matched up surprisingly well with Fee's original voice (Ai Orikasa!) and just all around suited the character wonderfully. It was really weird for me to hear Lara Jill Miller as Nono, mostly because her voice is identical to her role as Kari from Digimon Adventures, but those two characters are pretty similar in age and personality anyway, and the rest of the cast is similarly appropriate and effective.
The English dub incorporates a few Japanese honorifics into the dialogue, most notably "senpai," but while they never explicitly define the term, it flows in and out of the speech very smoothly. After a while, you don't really notice it at all.
Tanabe isn't nearly as annoying in Japanese, and I was pretty impressed with Orikasa's performance as Fee because it didn't sound much like her other roles, but most of the rest of the cast is pretty average. Because of the international nature of space, I found it a bit hard to tell what language people were supposed to be speaking at times, especially when Hachimaki's mother notes that Yuri's Japanese is pretty good considering he's Russian, or when they throw in Engrish phrases like "Do you copy?" / "I copy!" (This seems to come up a lot in sci-fi and military series though.) I get the feeling that they aren't actually supposed to be speaking Japanese most of the time and that the series is "dubbed" in Japanese. It's really not that big a deal though, and I'm not sure what the best way of dealing with this issue would be anyway.
OVERALL - Planetes is easily the most realistic portrayal of space I've ever seen, whether in a cartoon or live action series, whether from a Japanese or American (or other) production. I think it's important for sci-fi fans to see series like this because it really, really drives in the fact that a vast majority of other series are completely unrealistic. I love Gundam, but all that blowing up of mobile suits in space would realistically make it impossible to exit (or enter) the Earth's atmosphere after a while because of all the debris it'd create. Sure, Gundam's merits don't necessarily lie in its realism, but the change of pace and perspective that Planetes provides feels invaluable to me. I've definitely learned a lot about space from this experience, and I was thoroughly entertained as well. Everything about this series is solid: the story is fantastic and relevant, the characters feel real enough, the art is beautiful, and the music and acting is pretty good too.
For the sci-fi fan, I would consider Planetes a must-see.