For as aspirational a story as Planetes is, there was always one particular arc that bothered me. That would be the back story of Fee Carmichel and the tragedy that befalls her uncle, which goes into territory very rarely seen with its examination of racism. Essentially, her uncle has his tree house he lives in burned down by a mob who believe that he kidnapped a girl. Reading this at about the same time I was watching H2O deal with the outsider Kohinata Hayami by burning her residence in the woods down, I couldn’t help but think that it was a rather Japanese interpretation of racism in America. Though, to be fair, my biggest complaint was more on the timing of the story, more than anything else.
The idea for this post came from a discussion about gender issues in Hourou Musuko which features a group of middle school kids dealing with a variety of issues, most prominently gender identity. During this discussion, there seemed to be an overwhelming desire for anime to deal with much more important social issues in a Western context. As I was listening to this, part of me thought this did not make a whole lot of sense.
Despite statements trying to make foreign markets more important, the Japanese market is still far and away the most important product. In that case, social commentary might focus on the rapidly aging demographic, decline in workforce participation, gender issues or the high suicide rate. To be honest, there are a bunch of titles that address these themes such as Eden of the East, Manabi Straight, Kuragehime and Welcome to the NHK with varying levels of success, but they would at least strike a familiar chord with the intended audience.
When it comes to issues like the portrayal of foreigners, that obviously leaves a lot to be desired. Characters who have no clue what sushi is supposed to really be, the recent trend of English girls being made ojou-sama characters, most of G Gundam, Louis Mashengo and the portrayal of foreign footballers as not serious or excessively vain (That is probably true – ed.) could clearly be taken the wrong way, or simply laughed off as just another trope. In these cases, the intent isn’t really to make a point beyond their characterizations. They exist simply because they represent the best packaging of the creator’s vision.
Back to Planetes and the situation here is entirely different in that it is trying to present social commentary on race in America in a way that Japanese readers would understand. That the conclusion to said story arc ends up being not at all different from a lowly-regarded visual novel adaptation isn’t terribly surprising. The intended reader gets the broad point in a shorter amount of time since there’s not as much explanation as needed. However, for an outsider, it doesn’t make sense within this cultural paradigm. Judging by the laughable conclusion to The Last Samurai, it’s also safe to say that this issue cuts in both directions.