I realize this is the first time I’m actually writing an essay regarding my thoughts on an Anime. For a site named Anima & Anime, it’s a bit embarrassing that all I’ve ever turned up are rants and rankings of currently airing shows — all the while looking like a half-decapitated chicken trying to pass off as a full-time writer. But essay writing really is something different in that I don’t necessarily have a point to prove. Instead, all I do is simply talk about something that has piqued my interest, case-in-point summer 2016’s understated star: Planetarian ~Reverie of a Little Planet~.
For a show that is only five episodes long, there is a gracefulness to its execution that is both simple yet deliberate. As a part of Visual Art’s/Key’s visual novel line up, it is probably not as dramatically verbose as stories like CLANNAD or Kanon. Regardless, it still makes a solid attempt at yanking the emotional feels of any casual viewer. It’s quite obvious, given the themes, that the story will end in tragedy, but tragedies work precisely because they do not brood over the obvious demise of a member of its cast. Instead, tragedies elevate and emphasize the emotional toils of its characters, allowing their sacrifices to serve as living messages for those left behind (and those watching, as well). A good tragedy, therefore, transcends beyond the explicit experience of sorrow in order to depict a greater message of truth and hope. And this is why Planetarian gets everything right when it comes to depicting sensitive topics such as death and despair. It’s not enough that you punch people in the emotional gut just for the sake of it; this show is far more sincere than that, and yet still deliberately poignant.
Planetarian starts off with the “birth” of Yumemi — the “bargain bin” robot girl tasked to serve as the tour guide at the Hanabishi department store planetarium. We see the world for the first time through Yumemi’s eyes, complete with cryptic-looking, holographic cyphers whizzing about her HUD. It identifies her world as warm and inviting, but at the same time clearly delineates her cold and artificial nature. We are then suddenly shifted to a parting scene where her human counterparts explain to her that they “cannot stay” and request that she “stay strong” under the pretext that “they’ll be back”.
But of course they won’t be back. The world has fallen into chaos. Biological warfare has plunged the world of Yumemi into darkness, and the bustling city she once knew is now a disintegrating maze of decrepit buildings doomed to the ravages of time and neglect. Devoid of humans, the city is now host to weaponized robots that scout the grounds for any signs of life, effectively eliminating anything that breaths or moves. It is in this post-apocalyptic setting that the story of Planetarian takes place.
Humanity lost and found
There aren’t many characters or scenes depicted in Planetarian. Apart from Yumemi and the Hanabishi department store, everything else is either nameless or faceless. In fact, the main character never states his name; we only know he’s some kind of junker that scavenges ruins in order to make ends meet. But in spite of a limited character set, the show places emphasis on an “absence of humanity” with its contrast of a decidedly cute non-human — a robot. In a way, this might seem like some forced justification for a “cute robot girl in post-apocalyptic world” genre bit, but the irony of their situations seems to prove otherwise. For example, our Junker “greets” Yumemi (who he thinks is another human at first) by pointing a gun at her while she, on the other hand, attempts to strike a conversation with him unperturbed. The Junker is abrasive, pragmatic, and restless; Yumemi is verbose, apologetic, and sincere. In a world devoid of human compassion, humanity might have been lost to the Junker, but as far as Yumemi is concerned, she was living proof of it.
And this “proof of humanity” is what spurs a sort of sentiment within the Junker. As he tries to wiggle his way out of the run-down planetarium, Yumemi’s robot-like mannerisms — repeating set-phrases and protocols or bowing to non-existent customers and staff — cause him to hesitate. Here is a robot programmed to follow a set of fixed commands who, in light of everything that has happened, has lost all sense of purpose in the absence of any human visitors. Here now, standing in front of her, is that very human whom she had been waiting for over 29 years to arrive. She affirmed his existence as a human being, and for that he simply couldn’t leave her alone. In a way, they were both pitiable, and this sense of “shared pity” simply goes to show that, perhaps, humanity might not have been lost to the Junker after all.
The Pragmatist and the Idealist
The Junker is a pragmatist. You can’t blame him. The world he lives in is a harsh reality that requires a certain amount of pragmatism. Yumemi, on the other hand, is a relic of the past — a time whose ideologies and values now appear frivolous to a junker that is hellbent on survival. But one of the reasons why the Junker goes out of his way to repair the planetarium’s projector has little to do with practicality. In fact, it has much to do with a symbol of the past: a pendant (given to him by his mother) bearing the constellation Cygnus.
The physical value of the pendant to the Junker is irrelevant. His ignorance of the constellation on its surface is evidence of that. But the pendent binds him to the past — to a memory of his mother and a time when he could see a sliver of starlight through a parting in the night sky. It connects him to an ideal that is seemingly mirrored by Yumemi, a remnant of a past that once was. But pendants cannot speak; they can’t tell you in what ways you can connect to the past through them. But Yumemi can. She can stand up in front of the Junker and “force” him to pay attention to her — to engage with her and the world she represents. It’s this invitation to the past that serves as reflection for the Junker and for all pragmatists as a whole — for all of the people who seem to be disillusioned by the present. That’s not to say that the past was infinitely better; rather, it’s in the realization of our connectedness to the past that we start to get a better image of who we are as individuals in the present.
And that leads to an interesting contrast between the two. Robots are usually the ones who are depicted as highly pragmatic, often fueling the stance that highly advanced A.I. can potentially become a threat to the human race. But here, it’s the other way around. Yumemi is an idealist — a person who talks about stars and the happiness of other people — who lived in a bright and sunny world and still sees that same world in the post-apocalyptic nightmare of the present. But is this contrast an implicit suggestion that being overly pragmatic is tantamount to losing one’s humanity? Of course not. But by highlighting the flipped roles, Planetarian goes on to show how humanity cannot be robbed from even the most callous of characters (like the Junker) — that in spite of pragmatism, it is still possible to dream. All it requires is some kind of stimulus.
A symbol of hope and dreams
And for the Junker, that stimulus is a romanticized idea of hope as seen in the character of Yumemi. This isn’t so much a play on “robot love” than it is, really, the realization of a passion that defines oneself. For the first time, the Junker stepped out of his defined role in order to realize something that differentiates himself. And this wasn’t out of personal ambition for the sake of being different, rather he was guided by a certain ideal — a “northern star” of sorts — that was realized through the storytelling of Yumemi. Her name — literally meaning “to see a dream” — is just that: to realize a world where people could live in peace. That the ambitions and ingenuity of mankind that has allowed them to go to the moon and create robots like herself will overcome any hardship that threatens that peace. That there will always be a way to resolve all conflicts. That at the end of the day, the stars will always be there to console the desolate and remind the lonely that there is a grand play in the heavens that mirrors their suffering. That the stories of mankind are etched in the celestial ceiling of time, and that all it takes to overcome despair is to look up to the heavens and remember that someone out there is looking up at the same starry sky as you are. The Junker fell in love with the stories of Yumemi to the point that he even wanted to take Yumemi with him. He wanted to be with her — to have and hold that ideal. He became an idealist.
But as the story progresses, Yumemi‘s limitations become painfully real. They weigh down on an already frantic Junker and his new-found sense of idealism. Emergency power to the city has been exhausted, meaning Yumemi’s batteries will inevitably run out. She can only walk so far before the actuators in her legs overheat. Portents of Yumemi’s demise begin to become apparent when she starts asking the Junker philosophical questions, like whether or not Robots go to heaven, or if there is a God of Robots in the afterlife. In connecting with his past and realizing his passion, the Junker is now faced with the harsh truth of the reality he lives in: that the symbol he looks up to as his ideal is nothing more than a burden to him. Yumemi is now his liability and his weakness.
And this weakness is evident in his battle with a mechanized robot — the last hurdle before they could escape the city. Without realizing it, he attempts to take out the robot — the very thing that Yumemi is, too. Pragmatism takes a hold of the Junker once more, but Yumemi approaches it under the assumption that she can convince it to disarm itself. Her sheltered idealism and lack of insight into the dangers of the real world become her undoing.
Neo-romanticism: going beyond the dream
And so the fickle nature of idealism is shattered in an instant. Yumemi is maimed, and her death is imminent, but all of these events are framed by her relentlessly positive attitude towards the world she has come to know. She never once questioned the disorder around her, even explaining to the Junker that she believed that the problem was in herself. She believed that no one came back for her because there were errors accumulating in her system, even though she checked and found none of the sort. But in her final moments, she looks around with a pained expression, and finally asks “why did it all break?”
Indeed, it is a difficult question to ask. In a world shaped by ideals and hopes of a better world, why does everything still end up breaking? Why is there so much despair and hate when there is also so much beauty and wonder within the hearts of humankind? But instead of wallowing in the despair of a world gone to waste, Yumemi spends the last moments of her life by sharing cherished memories with the Junker. Confesses to him that everything she did was for her purpose — to instill a sense of wonder and hope in the people who visited the Planetarium — and for that, she feels more than blessed. With rain water serving as her surrogate tears, she says “if I could cry, then I would probably be crying right now”. The animation at this point conveys a very wide gamut of expressions, portraying both joy and sorrow. As a symbol of hope, Yumemi’s death symbolizes the death of the Junker’s dream. In it’s place, a legacy to carry out her will is born.
And it lies with the Junker to carry on that legacy. It seems fitting that he decides to leave his mother’s pendant with Yumemi in exchange for her memory card. Carrying around the “memories” of Yumemi serves as a symbolically poignant reminder of the burden that he now has to carry. For the Junker, spending time with Yumemi might have been like living in a dream, but now it’s time to return to reality. And he has the choice of reverting back to who he once was (which practically speaking is impossible) or dedicate his life to the ideal he once set himself out to. But now, this ideal is tempered with his painful experiences of reality. He now bears the legacy of Yumemi — he is now a starteller.
And this is where Planetarian leaves us to contemplate on just what it means to be a starteller. Does this mean that the Junker will set up a planetarium of his own? Will he find a way to build a new body for Yumemi in order for her to “live again”? We don’t know, and that’s the power of the legacy left behind by Yumemi. The stars in the sky are infinite — as limitless as the potential of man to transcend all adversity in order to realize a peaceful world. For within each star lies a hope for the future — all you have to do is look up to realize it.
This was an incredibly heartbreaking and beautiful review. Thank you for sharing.
I hadn’t realized that Planetarian had gotten its own anime; I remember trying to play the game years ago. I’ll be sure to check it out.
Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I’m kinda surprised how this show flew under the radar for most people (it almost for me, too), but yeah, this show is really just so great. 🙂
I haven’t watched this anime yet but reading your review, I now want to see it myself. I love how you define tragedy this way- “but tragedies work precisely because they do not brood over the obvious demise of a member of its cast. Instead, tragedies elevate and emphasize the emotional toils of its characters, allowing their sacrifices to serve as living messages for those left behind (and those watching, as well).”
I personally like tragic stories because most of the time, if leaves something worth thinking about. The series might not give us an answer, but the beauty lies on how we imagine the rest of the story to be.
Thanks for sharing! This is a nice read to start the week!
Thank you! Glad you enjoyed reading the piece. 🙂
Yeah, tragedies are nice if you get the formula right. I know not that many people like bittersweet endings, but I really encourage people to watch this show regardless. It’s really something special.