Planetes 4 (Makoto Yukimura)

The Plot
With Hachimaki off to Jupiter, his former crewmates (and current wife) are left to deal with the garbage in orbit around Earth on their own. Fee, the captain of the Toy Box, is feeling adrift. Some time spent with her family gives her a new perspective and she begins trying to prevent an environmental disaster threatened by a war between two factions on Earth. Meanwhile, the trip to Jupiter continues and the crew is aware of how momentous their journey is. Sort of.

My Thoughts
Ugh. These last two volumes are a real let down even compared with the averageness of the first three. At least 1-3 had a sort of cohesiveness — they were tied together by the thread of Hachimaki’s quest to join the Jupiter team and his journey to make it. But all that goes out the window for these last two volumes (which are clearly only one volume, padded out by extra materials to make two. For more profit? Who knows.)

Volume 4.1 takes place some time after the prior volume. Hachimaki and Tanabe were married and he has left on his mission to Jupiter. But we see none of this, because it all happened off camera. Instead, the whole of the manga portion of this volume is taken up by a nearly incoherent story starring Fee and to a lesser extent, Yuri and Tanabe. (Very much lesser.)

We start with Tanabe, who makes friends with a Tek Jansen looking dude who claims he’s an alien who’s been punished for his bad behavior by being made into a human. She tries to help him make some friends. And that… is the end of that story. I was pretty confused, because it seemed like it was leading somewhere, but then the whole thing was abruptly dropped. We see the guy again, briefly, but his alien nature (or lack thereof) receives no further discussion.

We move quickly on to the next issue. Apparently, the space around Earth is mined, and the garbage collectors are (naturally) not allowed to collect these mines and must leave them floating there. Now, all of these mines belong to different nation states down below, and are there just in case. Though this is poorly explained, one has to assume there’s some new sort of cold war and philosophy of mutually assured destruction which forms the political backdrop of how this situation developed.

We see some bickering between military types, one of whom is named Colonel Sanders and yes, looks exactly like Colonel Sanders. There’s even a fried chicken joke. I’m not sure if it’s the translation or the original writing that makes this section unclear. But apparently, even though there is a 100% probability that using the space mines will create a debris field that will pretty much cut Earth off from space, two countries (The US and some… very vaguely named Republic. China? A coalition of Arab states? Never explained) have decided to screw everyone and escalate tensions to the point where blowing stuff up seems like the only option.

Meanwhile, Fee is visiting her family, and her son, whose father apparently is incapable of training or disciplining him, has a bunch of unruly dogs living in their small apartment. The neighbors are unhappy. But even though she knows the dogs should be trained, Fee cannot stand up to the power of sad looking puppies and children and gives up on the whole business. Somehow this gives her an epiphany that children rail against that which ‘does not make sense’ rather than accepting it and so she goes off to try and stop the debris field from cutting off the world. This goes about as well as one might expect, and eventually they are all captured by the military. But there doesn’t seem to be any consequence for their actions — they aren’t deemed terrorists or thrown in prison or executed.

In fact, I never quite figured out what happened with this war at all. Did the dreaded Kessler Syndrome take place? Was Earth surrounded by an impenetrable debris field? I have no idea.

Hachimaki finally reappears in volume 4.2. The Jupiter mission is either being deliberately kept in the dark as to what’s going on back at Earth, or else they’re so wrapped up in themselves that they don’t care, because none of what’s going on seems to be a concern to them. The captain is too busy angsting about needing to write a memorable and pithy statement for when they arrive on planet. I admit that this is a legitimate concern, to know that your speech will be immediately part of history and to feel the pressure of making it good. But this worry consumes a very large portion of the final volume. And in the end, he doesn’t even write it at all, but forces the task upon Hachimaki who makes some trite speech about how love is the most powerful force in the universe.

The other plot thread which winds through these two volumes is that of the driving force behind the Jupiter mission. He’s been visiting memorials for those who died in an accident during the original testing of the spaceship’s propulsion system. But really, he feels no guilt or sadness, he just wants to improve his public image a bit so he can move on with his next big idea which is a mission to Saturn. We never do find out what his interest in Hachimaki actually was.

Since these few stories aren’t nearly enough to fill two pretty thick volumes of manga, there are large sections of each which are devoted to notes and world-building materials. These are interesting, and it’s nice to see how much thought was put in to the development of the setting. I just don’t feel like the setting was exploited to its full potential. The author really seemed to get distracted by a desperate desire to make some big statement about life, the universe and everything and forgot that the first and foremost point of writing fiction is to TELL A STORY. The story grew more and more secondary in these last two volumes and it contributed to their lack of cohesion and the jerkiness of the plot. Motivations were not properly attended to, and there was next to no resolution of anything.

In Short
The author of Planetes started with a pretty cool idea (the sort of jobs and ‘common people’ who might end up in space if space-flight becomes routine). And then, as happens pretty frequently, he was unable to execute it to its full potential. So in the end we have a relatively short manga series that shows flashes of greatness but is mostly a muddle of lost plot threads, exposition and random character actions that seem to come from nowhere. I had heard pretty positive comments about Planetes before reading it, so I was disappointed to find it like this. Perhaps the anime is more coherent?