Planet With starts unusually. It looks unusual, it feels unusual, and this elevates its quite usual premise. It plays with visual language in ways that feel smart and slick, and explores more interesting than usual themes than a lot of alien invasion stories; my first impression, from the opening episode, was that it was taking a similar angle to Fafner in its handling of an unusual, incomprehensible alien entity. I liked many aspects of Fafner, primarily its depictions of broken families and the pressures of social achievement overlaid on military service, but something that did stand out was the weird, cloying aesthetic of the Festum, its alien enemies. While the relatively early CGI was ugly and turned their unusual angelic designs into amorphous gold blobs, their whole motif, unnatural movement and particularly their catchphrase – Are you there? – was very unsettling.
Assimilation was the theme of the Festum as an enemy, failed, clumsy attempts at communication that destroyed the minds of their victims. They invaded peoples’ bodies and minds, and left them shells, asking all the time Are You There? Repetition of ostensibly harmless motifs is not an original horror motif but I think it worked very well in Fafner as it was already a series about people unable to connect, unable to reach out to others and being killed, ultimately, by efforts to communicate. So, with this in mind, Planet With. It is a three way conflict, the hero – Kuroi – versus a group of robot pilots who set out to protect the earth from an alien invasion whose heralds feel extremely Festum-esque.
A strange, grotesque gold creature with wrong human aspects – ears for wings, teeth for ears etcetera – arrives with a message of “Peas” for the world, turning all weapons used against it into cotton wool. It forces its way into the minds of anyone who attacks it with memories of their childhoods, of their unresolved traumas, and convinces them not to fight. It does not even get a chance to explain itself before being attacked by fearless heroes with mechs who fight off its attempts to – to be blunt – assimilate and punch it to death. Torai, the pilot who kills it, sees memories of his dead parents and his life’s ambition to become a firefighter to make peace (or peas, maybe) with their dying in a fire.
The visual coding of the unnamed aliens’ arrival – civilians evacuated, monolithic UFOs hovering over population centres, a giant mech battle over the ocean – paints them as hostile. It is one hundred percent the visual language of everything from Ultraman onwards in this genre. Except they are killed before they even send out any message, before they even get a chance to communicate. Something is clearly wrong, something is not being told to the audience. And thus when Kuroi is told he needs to stop these people killing the aliens, and take back some kind of alien power source they are using to fight, the interesting conflict opens up. The suspiciously-named “Citizens’ Safety Centre” versus the Nebula aliens (whose Nebula power the so-called heroes use) and Kuroi labelled as part of the Nebula forces. Suddenly (and perhaps because my mind adds M78 before Nebula here) there’s a very Ultraman feeling. Someone with alien power protecting the earth from its own hubris. An apparently amoral scientific defence force using powers it does not understand properly to fight all threats even if their intentions are unknown.
It turns out in episode 2 the “Citizens’ Safety Centre” are led by a man who wants to a) defeat aliens and b) rule the Earth. Again, inverting the pyramid of typical SF authority, making the non-governmental, independent secret organisation be the evil ones is not new (case in point – SEELE, if one is going along the lines of Evangelion-analogues in comparison here) but there is something about how Planet With’s evil secret organisation is the usual broken wunderkind team (with the addition of the chairman’s outrageous geriatric father) that feels like it works. It is like the moment in Fafner (to continue the comparison) when the main character meets the UN forces – absolutely, callously evil and wrong-headed but at the same time working to the same goals, with better resources and a slicker operation. So who is fighting them? Kuroi’s surrogate family (and dysfunctional surrogate families are another stock cliché of this subgenre of a subgenre) claim they are not responsible for the Nebula aliens’ giant creature, but that he is alive because of them. He lives, completely normally apparently, with a large catlike creature that can turn into a robot, and a maid. He hates them, perhaps understandably, because they tell him out of the blue he needs to fight giant robots, and get involved with aliens. He is an amnesiac, who remembers nothing before meeting these unusual people. And, after fighting Torai, his memories of some kind of apocalyptic event which involved the seven mechs and a giant dragon are returning.
His reticence to fight is logical, and does not feel unnaturally depicted – and, crucially, he gets his answers. Ginko explains that yes, he is affiliated with the Nebula aliens, but they have multiple factions. The Sealing Faction sends the strange assimilating creatures, while the Pacifist Faction fight to protect them. Nebula, it turns out, are not wholly benevolent in methods or intentions; fearing humanity will one day become a starfaring race capable of being warmongers, Nebula is trying to control its development and ensure it never leaves Earth or progresses to that point. The Pacifists feel the best approach is to simply deal as efficiently as possible with the technologies that lead to this point, removing them, while the Sealing Faction are taking more drastic approaches with a full-on invasion. This conflict is really good and sets up an interesting dichotomy; it is important that mankind does not doom itself and chooses “the evolution of love” – i.e. peaceful existence in the galaxy – but at the same time is it anyone’s right to do this by force and, effectively, assimilation?
It’s refreshing that Planet With is giving some kind of answer to its core conflict this early, laying out its factions and making the point of interest the hero’s morality and response to it than rehashing, say, Rahxephon (or even worse Captain Earth’s) insistance on hiding information. Not every story needs to be mysteries within mysteries. Sometimes the more interesting approach is showing how characters respond to known variables. There are other interesting details, too like the weird recurring motif of vegetarianism (and the main character being forced to eschew meat, while the elderly villain is a voracious carnivore) and the fact that the CSC’s fights end with the pilot breaking out of the dream-space by punching through an apparently peaceful maxim like “It’s OK to be weak” and losing their mech’s arm in the process. Because I already know something I want to know more.