Somehow grounding a story about collecting space trash, Planetes is still the king of hard science fiction anime due to just how realistic it is.
Science fiction is a fairly common element in anime and manga, manifesting especially in the form of space operas and mecha shows. In the case of the latter, the designation of "real robot" shows specify that certain anime are a bit more realistic than others, but truly "hard" science fiction is still something of a rarity. When it does show up, however, it's quickly noticed, with Planetes being one of the best examples.
Beginning as a manga in the tail end of the '90s before receiving an anime adaptation, Planetes is considered one of the best hard sci-fi anime ever due to its themes, attention to detail and realism, and strong characters, not to mention in spite of its rather mundane premise. Although it involves taking out the trash, Planetes is anything but, showing just how imaginative even realistic science fiction can be.
Planetes began in 1999 as a manga by Makoto Yukimura, running in the magazine Morning until 2004. The anime adaptation would begin airing in late 2003, finishing in April 2004 after the manga had ended. The story involves the crew of the DS-12 Toy Box of the Space Debris Section. As their name might suggest, this group's role is to safely dispose of space debris and prevent it from colliding with space stations and satellites. Of course, this job as space trash collectors is merely a segue in the plot to develop the cast. Said cast members are looked down upon by their company as being mere garbage collectors, making their job even more thankless and thus harder.
The Planetes anime was produced by the studio once known as Sunrise, whose other well-known works include anime such as Tiger & Bunny, the original mecha anime Code Geass and the isekai-adjacent series Accel World. Running for 26 episodes, the series quickly became acclaimed among critics and fans, winning a Seiun Award for science fiction in 2005. There were several other well-received sci-fi anime releasing around that time, so what made Planetes stand out from among the crowd?
To put it simply, Planetes was great due to how comparatively boring it seemed next to many sci-fi anime. Whereas several science fiction shows would use their elements and concepts to go into utterly unrealistic territory, Planetes strived to be as grounded (for a space series) as possible. This meant that several misconceptions about space travel shown in the media were nonexistent in the anime. Not only did the spacecrafts make zero noise in the vacuum of space, but crew members would also experience some of the biological and psychological negatives of their jobs, such as radiation poisoning, brittle bones and even cancer.
JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, even served as a consultant for the series, which only bolstered its attention to detail and realism. Of course, none of this would be interesting if the story and characters themselves were dull. Planetes ensures that its cast is just as interesting as its scientific elements by having a well-rounded crew from all walks of life. These characters suffer highs and especially lows as they deal with the difficulties of taking out the outer space trash, with each experience developing them further. To bring home the fact that they're mere corporate peons, some conflicts are completely out of their hands to solve, adding to the sense of existential dread.
This combination of scientific realism, sociopolitical commentary and character development made Planetes a sci-fi anime that's still seen to this day as the best of its genre. Sadly, this mundanity netted it only a modicum of success in the West, with sales of the manga in particular being fairly low. This was, however, all before the current wave of manga and anime popularity spawned by series' such as My Hero Academia, Boruto and more recently, Demon Slayer. Now, seemingly any anime can become a hit, but that unfortunately hasn't given Planetes the due it truly deserves. Unavailable on any streaming platforms, this grandmaster of hard science fiction is hard to come by in physical form as well.
Timothy Blake Donohoo is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he majored in Communication and minored in Creative Writing. A professional freelance writer and marketing expert, he’s written marketing copy and retail listings for companies such as Viatek. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, playing video games, watching documentaries and catching up on the latest Vaporwave and Electro-Swing musical releases.