Yukimura Makoto's Planetes is, as I've seen, hailed as a space odyssey that keeps itself grounded by its human elements. That much may be true, but the crucial point which prevents this manga from being great is that very element lauded as its strongest: Planetes is a manga which clearly prides itself on Moments, but which lacks the wherewithal necessary between those to make the Moments impactful. This highlights a pattern in Makoto's work (of which I've now read all, barring some more recent chapters of Vinland Saga) which I would call a fear of subtlety, a fear manifesting most strongly in his character development and progression.
Hachimaki: lead protagonist, loud, brash, myopic in terms of desires, unthinking in terms of the desires of others; essentially the archetypal shounen hero. I should note that this archetype doesn't automatically inhibit how great a manga can be — for instance, One Piece’s Monkey D. Luffy is just about the most cookie-cutter a shounen protagonist can get, yet I find little reason to criticize Eiichiro Oda's choice in making him that way. Primarily because One Piece is a manga driven more by its sense of unbounded adventure: keeping the main characters practically unchanging doesn't matter much when it's the setting and world which constantly changes around them. In other words, something has to change in a story for it to be compelling, and if it isn't the characters then it has to be something else.
Planetes of course follows this rule of change: the setting arguably never changes (what with the manga's very interesting assertion that even the planet Earth is in space — one I find very important in a society increasingly globalized by the very technology Planetes easily integrates into its prototypical space-crazed future), but the characters, particularly Hachimaki, usually do. However, Makoto fears his audience will be unable to follow the transitions characters undergo, and thus the character archetypes. Hachimaki is not the only brash, loud, overly charismatic cast member in this brief series, but as he's the most prominent, he is the most susceptible to analysis. So let's trace his character arc and see where Makoto faltered.
For one, this will have spoilers (but I don't think that necessarily matters: how can I really recommend or discuss this manga without divulging what about it I specifically like/dislike?), and for two, I want to preface that in terms of broad strokes Hachimaki's character progression is brilliant. But the steps between which connect Hachimaki in chapter 3 to Hachimaki in chapter 26 are quite erratic.
To begin, Hachimaki is, as stated, loud and brash, and happy enough simply being in space working as a glorified garbage collector (not to disparage garbage collectors -- I'm simply paraphrasing the manga itself, in that many of its characters seem to believe that just because a job is less desirable it automatically makes it less important or admirable). But, after an debris-sweep wherein he was incredibly lucky to survive at all, he comes to the conclusion that "Space loves [him]," and so decides that he'll become a true astronaut by putting thousands of hours of real spatial experience under his belt on joining a 7-year manned mission to Jupiter, so that he can purchase his own vessel and be truly free under the stars. Following this are various crises of character and realizations regarding the consequences his dreams have on others: he comes to understand his own weaknesses, what he means to others and what others mean to him, and finally to see the interconnectedness of humanity even when some of its members fly hundreds of millions of miles away from their birthing port.
This probably sounds like a great story, and that's because it is. But even the greatest stories can be shot by their execution. In this one, Makoto's presentation of Hachimaki's progression completely undercuts its inherent sublimity. Chapter 5, where Hachimaki undergoes testing for “deep-space disorder” by seeing how long he can last in a sensory deprivation chamber, more or less emblematizes the poor execution of this entire manga. He enters the chamber confident of himself, believing he can last just fine because he “knows what space feels like,” but it is found that based on the recent traumatic episode which landed him in hospital had some deeper psychological ripples: even after two weeks worth of attempts, the maximum time he lasts is twenty minutes, where to be an E.V.A. (the job he already has), he has to be able to last 6 hours straight through.
Obviously this would be frustrating: one being unable to do what one could do perfectly fine before. It would therefore be wrong of me to say that Hachimaki’s anger — at having the dream he’d just laid out be undercut — was illogical. It follows logic, but along a caricatural course. Hachimaki, embodying that classic case of over(tly)-expressive, young male protagonist, explodes at this news, and his idea of conquering his newfound phobia is to fight it tooth and nail — almost literally. In the sensory deprivation chamber, he hallucinates a version of himself which embodies all the pessimistic outlooks he bottles up and buries: not only does he scream at it, he headbutts it. When out of the chamber, he’s constantly dialed up to an 11 — the problem being he was already an 11 before, so where does that mean he can go?
The answer is that his base reactions can go nowhere, because from the beginning, due to the byline establishment of his being an archetypal shounen protagonist, he is already naturally inclined toward overreaction. In which case, how can his reactions toward genuine problems feel genuine? There’s no further way for his character to react, no way to escalate.
Following this chapter, Hachimaki falls into Dark Days. Shifting from happy-go-lucky everyman to brooding and self-centered (that is: space-gazing, misanthropic), we descend into the chapters wherein he trains and applies for a position on the Jupiter mission, distancing himself from friends and humanity in the process. And, physically, he earns it. But as a character, he has not earned this new groove of brood, something which settles by chapter 8 upon meeting new coworker Tanabe. That’s because he started at an 11, and when his character needs it most, he can’t go any higher. In fact, from Planetes to Vinland Saga, Makoto has a problem with actually regressing characters: soon enough Hachimaki sees the fault in his aggressively pro-exploration anti-caring ways, and very — I emphasize — very quickly dials back, recanting not only his anger but also any outward expression of passion he demonstrated as a youth. You see this also in Vinland Saga’s Thorfinn: I don’t disagree that characters can calm themselves as they mature, but when the bulk of your story regards the characters being suddenly closer to their state of maturity than their immature beginnings, that bulk better be good. And Hachimaki’s simply isn’t: the situations are set up perfectly, but because his character is created via the outlines of others (Naruto being perhaps a prime example), Makoto jumps the gun in bringing his character to the conclusion he wants.
Here’s to bring in an outside example, a manga which began curiously enough a mere two months after Planetes: Takehiko Inoue’s samurai epic, Vagabond. Vagabond traces roughly the same character arc: Musashi Miyamoto transitions from a hothead, nihilistic duelist looking for nothing more than to be the Strongest Swordsman, to a philosopher killer-turning-pacifist contemplating the very meaning of swordsmanship. Similarly also, Vagabond’s motif revolves around Musashi, lone-ronin, discovering not only his place and importance in the world, but specifically the consequences of his decisions on all the people around him. But Takehiko pulls Musashi to this conclusion with patience and poise, components Makoto is evidently deficient in. The two primary contrasts Vagabond has with Planetes: one, Vagabond is one of the greatest manga of all time (if unfortunately incomplete), and two, Vagabond is set in Edo-period Japan rather than Earth’s orbit.
Perhaps then the problems regarding Planete’s character arcs boil down also to an issue of manga length: Planetes finished its run at only 26 chapters, whereas Vagabond is a hefty and ongoing 300+. 300 chapters (primarily) following a single character allows much, much more room for nuance. But I can also think of manga of similar length and core-character-count that achieve nuance and poignance on a level far, far deeper than Planetes has (Solanin at 28 chapters; Buddha at “66” chapters; Pluto at 65 chapters — keep in mind that Planetes has 50-page chapters, whereas I believe all but Buddha have the usual 20). So it comes down more to something I said way up near the top: Planetes prides itself on Moments.
Moments don’t have a terribly strict definition, but if I were to give one colloquially, it would be “epic panels.” Panels, or, more frequently, full pages (and sometimes scenes spanning a few pages within a chapter), which enamor one with a sense of awe, signal the manga’s je ne sais quoi, encapsulate the manga’s entire meaning in single frames: cinematic moments. Full pages of Moments fill the chapters of Planetes, and part of that is because the manga is semi-episodic, with each new chapter usually holding its own separate three-act structure and characters unlikely to return to the foray in later chapters, but keeping the substructure of the story focused on the progression of its main characters (namely, Hachimaki). So just about every chapter you get undeniably brilliant and beautiful panels or pages which more or less summarize the manga as a whole: a character, bedecked in their bulky E.V.A. suit, staring wistfully to the stars beyond; foregrounded in this vast tapestry yet verily not the true focus, as Makoto clearly sees humans not as exploring space but exploring a whole (the universe — or maybe, more, the solar system) of which they make a small but important part just as those distant and ostensibly small dots have their own import. Those are Page Moments. Then there’s Scene Moments: more abstract concepts brought to the forefront of (usually) Hachimaki’s conscious mind via subconscious-attempting-to-tell-him-something-important, for instance chapter 14 which focuses on a Hachimaki’s strange recurring dream regarding an alien creature and him jointly musing at the Milky Way.
In concept, indeed in execution also, I love both these types of Moments. They’re either beautifully contemplative, strange and thought-provoking in their strangeness, or both. But does Planetes earn panels and scenes like these with the story and characters it pushes? No. They’re the saving graces of a manga that would otherwise likely by and by be considered subpar, because they’re the quiet moments desperately needed in a story too loud and in-your-face for the good of its own communal message. These Moments lack significance because they lack the context needed to be significant. The manga visibly eschews subtlety throughout, so adding it in in this manner feels, unfortunately, very forced. My guess is that maybe Makoto thought of all these panels and pages like those separately, individuals gazing into the breadth and depth of the world surrounding them, then structured the entire manga around them, and simply didn’t know how to adequately connect those important points them without rushing. And that’s a shame, because if he didn’t rush this (or, also, Vinland Saga — again a similar character arc for Thorfinn) I could very well see it matching up to the likes of Vagabond. But it doesn’t even come close. I’d wonder if it would fare better if it simply had the muted, nigh-dialogueless storytelling style of “Blame!”
I say that because of the visual presentation of space, interplanetary flight, smokers in a smoke-shunning biome, E.V.A. equipment, politics and anti-politicking, and so on with everything else. The majority of my review may seem negative, but that’s because I’m disappointed: this manga in many respects had clear and powerful potential.
For one, Makoto’s research chops regarding space travel is amazing. Even if the people in this manga don’t feel real, everything around them absolutely does. It’s an attention to detail that reminds me heavily of the recent novel (and recently film-adapted) The Martian. If Makoto had relied less on character archetypes and caricature, rushed less in terms of character progression, then exhibiting the way they so smoothly live in this future world would land phenomenally. Adding to that, his ability to crisply draw high-velocity motion in a world that measures itself in km/s means that when he isn’t focused on making his cast philosophic mountebanks in terms of countenance — I’m not a fan of how he draws people, as he has a tendency for facial non-diversity (compare: eyes, eyebrows, nose) and a penchant for making overreactions overreactive — you can bet that the equipment you see on each panel looks and moves very naturally (or seemingly so; I’m no astronaut).
For a popular culture so hellbent on nail-biting over technological dystopia — the West having that capitalistic fear of economic castration by machine-replacement — Planetes is a breath of optimistic fresh air. Manned interplanetary flight is an inevitability, along with interplanetary economy, transit, family, technology, culture — at this rate. Having all that potential rooted by people, just regular people, and how they’d live in Earth’s orbit in 2075, is something we need. Planetes is something we need: but it’s an idea that can be evolved on, and, especially in terms of characters, improved.