November 12, 2008

Rocket Girls!

Rocket Girls has been mentioned here in passing (mostly via pictures in science posts) a couple of times. Having been quite taken with the first few episodes that I saw at a party a while back,  I eagerly looked forward to the US release.


Well, I recently saw the complete series in DVD format, alone, and unprotected  on a comic store shelf. So despite financial issues, I went ahead and picked it up.

I watched it with a friend in one sitting.

The show had decent production values despite some jarring CGI.  Rocket Girls is, as I hoped, an optimistic and uplifting show. Pro-technology pro-space with a very alt-space feel, the show at least tries to look realistic on the technical side.
Despite some very real  technical quibbles, and a decidedly unlikely series of events setting up the cast, the show provides an inspiring vision of near future manned crewed space exploration. While not, strictly speaking, a comedy, it is quite cute and has some funny bits. This show, however is above all an adventure yarn and it builds steadily to a thoroughly satisfying climax.

 

Alas, the show then continues for 6 more episodes with decidedly mixed (but still generally positive) results. Describing the setup of the first 2 eps necessarily involves spoilers and as such is below the fold. Subsequent spoilers are behind spoiler tags.
 Isao Nasuda is the founder of The Solomon Space Association, a Japanese space launch company. The company launches from a facility in the Solomon Islands (hence its name). Their LS5 Rocket has been a spectacular success in the light launch market and has an excellent reputation for high reliability and low cost. It is implied that a manned capability was always in the cards for the company as satellite repair and construction were part of their long term business plan. The entire board consists of enthusiastic 'space cadets'. Their rocket puts them on the map and got the company contracts and notice. The rocket was such a success that the Japanese Government offered a contract to develop the LS7 and begin a manned space program.

Unfortunately, the LS7 is anything but a success...at the beginning of the series its record is 11 spectacularly pyrotechnic failures for 11 launches.
On the up side this provides the local islanders with considerable delight as they get to watch highly entertaining "fireworks" at regular intervals. On the downside....the Japanese Government is threatening to pull the funding and (I gather) bill the company for the huge facility they have provided, the astronaut, military support, and generally bankrupt them. They have six months to put a human being in space....or else. At a board meeting it is decided to use the much lighter LS5. This will involve reducing the weight of the capsule to the bare minimum and the weight of their strapping young astronaut  by a percentage that would imply starvation and/or multiple amputation.

Meanwhile in Japan, one Yukari Morita leaves her elite prep school for summer vacation. Having just reached the age of majority she can now obtain a passport and obtain it she does, for her vacation is not one of the usual summer exercises in leisure or cramming....
Her destination, the Solomon Islands.
Her mission, find clues to the fate of her father who, on her parents honeymoon, left their bed 'to look at the moon for a moment' and was never seen again.
Yukari's somewhat flaky mother doesn't oppose financing the trip but is uninterested in its results.

After a ferry ride from Honaria Yukari arrives on an island said to have a large Japanese population.

Once there she rather impetuously hitches a ride with the first Nihonjin she finds....who is in fact, Yasukawa Haryuki,  the SSA's astronaut..who has gone AWOL to escape the tender weight loss ministrations (and bone saws?) of Satsuki Asahikawa....the SSA's sadistic flight surgeon.
Yukari quickly discovers that he is in the process of being pursued by army units attached to the SSA who have no qualms about firing rockets at him from helicopters to dissuade him from leaving!

The odds are against the fighter jock and he is cornered in a hotel room by Nasuda, the flight surgeon and assorted Army personnel.

 After the capture, Nasuda looks at he rather diminutive Yukari...and a plan...a dubious but cunning plan.....born of an unhealthy combination of idealism, cold equations and desperation.....begins to form. Running some preliminary numbers in is head, he determines that Yukari is  small enough and light enough for the rocketeers to realistically redesign their proven test capsule design ( launched from the reliable LS5) to carry her...instead of its usual monkey.

Nasuda offers our young heroine a job...a high paying job...."..so simple that a monkey could do it!" and further offers to assist her in finding information on her father. She eagerly accepts, only belatedly learning that she is in fact now a teen astronaut....and finds herself going through a battery of medical tests and astronaut training.

A bit later our intrepid heroine encounters a local Melanesian girl named Matsuri. As Matsuri is prominently displayed on the box art and in the above  pictures wearing a spacesuit, it is no spoiler to announce that she soon joins Yukari amongst the ranks of spacebound jailbait as a backup pilot. However, the circumstances of her enlistment are even more unconventional......


Matsuri is a tremendously interesting character. Though barely literate when introduced, she has a tremendous amount of physical stamina and an admirable determination to learn. She is not only highly motivated, but she has a huge amount of common sense as well as an ability to think on her feet and out of the box.
Her educational deficit means she is a bit out of her depth with regards to the math needed for orbital mechanics, but she is otherwise a model space cadet who nicely complements and prods the highly educated but rather more conventional and initially less motivated Yukari.


Image brazenly nicked from Kuro.

The show strives to be as realistic as possible. There is a very nice sequence where Yukari, initially apalled that her capsule is not made of the absolutely most cutting edge tech, has an engineer explain to her that the whole system is necessarily conservative. That is, manned rockets have been around for a half century and the tech is a known quantity, in this case the rocket itself is the most reliable in the world and the capsule is being designed only with well proven equipment. (To do otherwise would be rolling the dice with the girls lives.)*  
This is not an educational show though, it is an adventure yarn of the space age and adventure yarns require daring and peril. Our heroine provides the former when she puts the kibosh on a series of interminable launch delays caused by the fastidious attention of the ground crew to the most minor test anomalies.
The later is provided by bad luck and random chance and gives both girls an opportunity to shine. Poignant, suspenseful, satisfying, and not too far fetched, the culmination of the girls training is very nearly sublime.

Image fanatically nicked from Chizumatic.


The last six episodes are a mixed bag. The superb pacing suffers a bit as  the show reboots+ and focuses on the introduction of the third Rocket Girl, a former schoolmate of Yukari's.
Mathematically brilliant but painfully shy and frail Akane Miura  is in awe of Yukari's acomplishment. After Yukari humbly claims that she is not special and that "anyone could do this" Akane, desperate to fufill her dreams,   heads to the Solomon islands to become an astronaut. Her story is an inspiring one as she is extremely determined to overcome the many obstacles to making the grade. It is also worrisome because, frankly, she is really really not up to snuff physically. She is also a bit younger than the other two...so many of us find ourselves squirming about the ethics of sending her into space....Indeed, aside from her mathematical brilliance it is implied that the company is inclined to allow her to continue because she is small enough to wiggle into those hard to reach places on satellites**.....yes....child labor in a hard vacuum. (shudder). Of course, this is a show aimed at kids and she is very much an audience identification character. Her story is painful to watch but it is an uplifting tale for all that, and she has considerable pluck.

The final story concerns, amongst other things a neat demonstration of staging and orbital mechanics. It also features the Space Shuttle Atlantis prominently, and in contrast to my initial worries and much anime precedent, it presents the Americans in a very good light...which is always a plus.

The show, despite its uneven second half,ends quite well. It is on balance an enjoyable and eminently watchable show for all ages.....a fine bit of entertainment.

 It is rather more than that though.

We live in an age when technology is often portrayed as an implacable enemy of nature and humanity, when our young adults are coddled and infantalized as "mere children" into their late 20s and where great deeds, idealism and aspiration are looked upon with a mixture of contempt and amusement.  With science and rationality portrayed as a gateway to success, young adults who ARE adults, even in the most terrifying circumstances, people of vision overcoming all manner of obstacles to achieve their dreams, and a future where the sky itself is no limit,  Rocket Girls is a dynamic and enjoyable rejection of those contemptible pathologies. 

+The second half  seems to restart because...frankly..it does. It is an adaptation of a different book. This show covers the first two volumes of what is currently a six volume series of novellas...I hope the rest are adapted in due course



*This nice bit of reassurance and reality is somewhat ruined by a completely unnecessary plot tangent in which the resident crazy hot megganeko mad scientist invents a new/ experimental high performance (nay,downright magical in its properties) solid rocket propellant....that is enthusiastically adopted by the engineering team..sigh.


** If that were necessary it might be good to hire a few dwarfs away from some shipyards...but then we wouldn't have had a show in the first place would we?


We are not even going to comment on the anomalous and silly Jedi mind trick...feh.

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