No doubt about it, 2005 was a good year for anime. In the same year we got Galaxy Railways, Samurai 7, and this awesome gem. If you boil it down to it's basic components, Planetes about the lives of people in the not-so-distant future who work in outer space collecting garbage from the Earth's orbit (the literal translation of the Greek word Planetes is "Wanderers"). In actuality, this show is so much more it's very difficult to describe. You could say it's more like a traditional television show (or even documentary television) than most anime (no fan-service, giant robots, exaggerated body types, over-the-top action, ect). It's so grounded in reality that you could be forgiven for wondering why you would even want to animate it in the first place. The characters are ordinary people, their working environment is very realistic, much of the drama comes from the personal struggles of the characters, and there is NO sound in space. Furthermore, under the the tight direction, superb dialog, exquisite characterization, detailed artwork and smooth animation, you will find the soul of outer space arguably not glimpsed since a certain Gainax classic.
If I were to try to describe the spirit of this show, I would say it is very like the legendary Wings of Honneamise. In both that film and this series, we are presented with a world that has lost it's idealism, its hopes and dreams, and is being swallowed up by greed, laziness, and self-interest. Like that universe, here it is shown repeatedly that despite the cold, unfeeling, uncaring world, there are always little ways that the true beauty of humanity (and indeed, the universe) can shine through. If this show has a motto, it's gotta be something like "There's a big, scary, cruel world out there... but I don't believe in it."
This romantic idealism is personified by the kind female protagonist, Ai Tanabe. Introduced in the first episode and one of the two main characters from there on out, Ai is one of the greatest, to say nothing of most human anime characters I have yet witnessed. At once timid, shy, sweet, tough, strong, and righteously motivated, her character makes a perfect foil (perfect match?) for the rough and cynical Hachimachi (the headband wearing wannabe). The true genius of their relationship is, of course, that despite the fact that Hachi is always acting like a person totally grounded in reality who only cares about himself, he actually has dreams, ideals, and deep feelings that he hides deep down. In other words, he's just like her.
There are many other characters, and all of them save one or two receive considerable character development time in this series. In the beginning and middle of the series, there are entire episodes devoted just to the back story of a single character. And of course, despite the realistic setting, we see again and again what might be called miracles by the true believers and amazing coincidences by the unmoved.
Through the course of the show we get to see some wonderful drama, greatly enhanced by the use of the silence of space and some very appropriate music. Again, the realism of the series serves to further strengthen things, as we find ourselves thinking of the characters as real people, and feeling their deep inner struggles.
If I had to describe the animation style of this show, I'd say it looked somewhat like the style of The Cat Returns. Everything has a somewhat pastel coloration, people and buildings look detailed, but somewhat sketchy (as opposed to the sharp angles or overly round looks most are familiar with). The spaceships, machinery, and other fine points are meticulously detailed, and CGI is used carefully and sparingly (again, only enhancing the presentation).
If there are any downsides to this excellent show, they would probably be either the comedy (which I personally love, but some people find too bizarre), the somewhat awkward beginning of the first episodes, and perhaps the ending theme (it just doesn't seem to go with the epic feel as well as the opening theme which I absolutely love).
Everyone who is a fan of serious science fiction, drama, or just plain old good anime or good TV shows in general needs to watch this series. I was hooked from the first time I saw the intro with the first rocket ships taking off, and knew it was a classic when the final episodes had me in tears. This one gets my highest recommendation.