Thursday, July 1, 2010
Review: Rocket Girls
JAXA (the Japanese Aerospace eXploration Agency) has been in the news a lot lately, with their automated cargo ship to the ISS, their asteroid-sample return mission, and their deployment of the world's first solar sail. It was through talking about JAXA in online forums that I ran across the mention of this 12-episode TV anime series, on which JAXA served as technical advisor and real-life Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, who flew on STS-131, voices a small animated cameo as herself in episode 7. Rocket Girls is based on a series of light novels by Hosuke Nijiri and is available in english on DVD and for viewing online.
At first, this series seemed like the usual teenage girl action-comedy anime fluff. You know the kind; pilot slick mecha, fight outrageous aliens/demons, crush on teenage boys, something-something girl power. To my pleasant surprise, Rocket Girls turned out to be anything but, and had more in common with Planetes than say, Sky Girls.
The Solomon Space Association (SSA), a consortium of private Japanese companies trying to create a manned launch facility on the Solomon Islands, keeps having catastrophic failures with their large LS-7 rocket. So, in order to make their deadline and keep their funding, they fall back on their smaller but much more reliable LS-5 rocket. The only problem is, that requires their potential astronaut to weigh less than 40 kg, or about 88 pounds.
At the same time, waifish but fiery high school student Yukari Morita is also in the Solomons, trying to track down her deadbeat dad who left 17 years before. Through a comedy of errors, she ends up together with SSA's ever-more-desperate director, who hires her on the spot as an astronaut since she's the perfect size for their new rocket.
Soon a back-up pilot is found among the Solomon natives; Matsuri, who turns out to be Yukari's half-sister (this and the father subplot is quickly resolved in the second episode, so I don't consider this to be a major spoiler.) Half-way through the series, they're joined by a third girl, Akane, a genius science nerd from Yukari's old school.
At first the high-school-girls-in-space premise seemed a little off-putting, but I started watching episodes about the same time that news stories were headlining a 13-year-old climbing Mount Everest and a 16-year-old attempting to sail around the world solo. Then I realized the only thing realistically keeping anyone from launching a teenager into space is someone reckless enough--or desperate enough--to actually entrust them at the top of a multi-million dollar rocket. And as SSA's own director points out, if monkeys can be astronauts, then why couldn't a teen-age girl?
Once past that bit of rationalization, Rocket Girls turned out to be an extremely likable series, mostly comedy but also some moments of real drama, excitement, and even inspiration sprinkled throughout. One can kind of think of it as The Right Stuff populated with high school girls and played as a sitcom.
The series has three strong points. First and foremost are its characters. The three girl-astronauts are the only ones who are really well detailed, but for a 12-episode series, we really can't ask for much more. Yukari, the main character, is bold and brash and abrasve. At first, she resists becoming an astronaut, obsessed with finding her dad and forcing him to come home to Japan, and then with having a few Peter Parker moments where she believes she'd much rather just be a normal high school student rather than embrace this extraordinary thing that's happened to her. In fact, most of the series can really be thought of as her slow growth from petulant high school student to responsible heroine.
Matsuri, Yukari's half sister, starts off as a badly stereotyped generic Native Girl, but she too undergoes growth and maturity as the series progresses. Though mystical and supposedly naive about modern society, she turns out to be the most practical-minded and down-to-earth of the three girls. I only wish she had more to do during the last five episodes or so, as she mostly became the voice of Mission Control.
The third astronaut girl, Akane, was the most surprising, and surprisingly inspirational, character. Looking and often acting so frail that a harsh breath could break her in two, she shows up unexpectedly to fulfill her dream of going into space. Whereas the job of astronaut just kind of fell into Yukari and Matsuri's laps, Akane pursues it with unflinching determination, inspired by Yukari after a (very) unexpected stopover at her old school. Akane gives the series its most Right Stuff moments, as the base doctor puts her through a series of truly grueling physical tests to try to get her to quit. Not out of cruelty, however, at it first seems. The doctor explains that there is no one in space to help you; if something happens, you have to be able to save yourself. In other words, you have to have the 'Right Stuff.' Akane's heroic underdog struggle to join Yukari and Matsuri as an astronaut is probably the series' single best story arc.
The second important element to the series' success is its solid and realistic science. Its not ironclad, mind you, but its very easy to see how JAXA made sure it got most of it right. When it does occasionally veer off on a minor tangent, only space buffs or real engineers will be bound to notice. There's no fantastic mecha or megawapons here. Yukari and the gang fly very basic space capsules barely big enough to fit them, with design features borrowed from Soyuz, Apollo, and the Space shuttle in equal measures. The tech is idealized, ie, what JAXA would love to have when it begins launching its own astronauts for real, but not unrealistic.
One interesting tech note is that the girls wear advanced biosuits (you can find details of that tech idea in the article HERE.) The joke here is that the skin-tight fabric shows of the girls 'attributes' and makes them feel practically naked. But the thing is, what the audience actually sees in the anime hardly looks scandalous at all, and is even more modest than the spandex outfits of say, gymnasts at the Olympics, who usually have millions watching, so the joke kind of falls flat. This is not to say that the series doesn't have some cheesecake shots (this is anime, after all), but they're mostly fleeting and relatively tame.
The third feature that makes this series worth watching is that intangible quality all great science fiction shares, and all the bad science fiction lacks: a true sense of wonder. Rocket Girls is very light on violence, except for occasional comedic effect. There are no monsters or aliens to fight, no constant threat that requires constant kinetic motion. Instead, the series allows its characters to look around and feel just how awesome what they're doing is. Yukari, even in dealing with a major problem on her first mission, is hypnotized for a few moments in naked wonder at seeing the unfettered night sky from space. When she talks about it later, in her phase of trying to be a normal student again, you can hear the unexpected longing in her voice as she describes the experience to the rapt Akane. And the SSA's lead scientists give a short, impassioned speech early in the series about his heartache and dreams about spaceflight that gave me goosebumps. This optimism and inspirational spirit, plus its realistic science, is what made Rocket Girls remind me in small ways of Planetes, which I consider one of the all-time classics of science fiction, of any genre. Rocket Girls never quite achieves the same level of storytelling as that other series, but at times it is clearly cut from the same cloth.
The series's drama comes from two space missions, Yukari's first flight half-way through, and an assist mission to the Space Shuttle Atlantis in the last three episodes. Mishaps and unexpected disasters occur, and the girls are tested in many ways. I actually I found these encounters, with all their nuts-and-bolts grittiness, to be much more compelling to watch than a dozen mecha battles.
Rocket Girls is far from perfect, however. There's some gaffes in logic, and sometimes the plot twists are a little too unbelievable, even if they are played for comedic absurdity at times. Many of the secondary characters are underdeveloped, though we see hints of much deeper characters here and there. And the balance it tries to strike, switching off from comedy to drama to philosophy to action and back again, doesn't always transition smoothly.
However, in the balance, Rocket Girls turned out to be a very pleasant viewing experience. Its safe for most ages (12+), and may even inspire some young budding astronauts, to whom its clearly angled. It is also smart and savvy enough to easily entertain adult science fiction fans as well.