Today, on Beneath the Tangles, we’re proud to present the first of three guest posts about Planetarian from James, a gaming blogger. Check out today’s post and return Wednesday and Thursday for the rest of the series!
Recently, planetarian ~the reverie of a little planet~ —featured on BtT’s own list of recommended visual novels—was released on Steam. After reading it (and drying my tears), I was inspired to write this essay. If you haven’t already experienced the novel yourself, I encourage you to head over to Steam and download it—$10 is a pretty sweet deal, after all. (spoilers below)
Despite its short length, Planetarian’s story is striking indeed. The apparent disproportion between the novel’s simplicity and its emotional power led me to wonder, why did this story touch me so? Before I can give my answer, though, it is necessary for me to spend some time talking about the pervasive spiritual themes that are present in the story. As such, the purpose of Part One is to draw attention to these themes.
Upon reading Planetarian with a careful eye it quickly becomes evident that the story is filled with religious elements, the most obvious example of this being the novel’s ongoing discussion of prayer and Heaven. It begins when the Junker, in an offhand remark, suggests to Yumemi that she pray to God that the projector be repaired in time for the next day’s 11:00 AM presentation. Yumemi, dutiful robot that she is, promptly asks in response, “Which god should I pray to, then?” A lengthy and somewhat humorous exchange follows in which Yumemi decides she should pray to Dionysus because the Junker would like him best, to which he replies that she should instead pray to “the god of robots.” After scanning her data banks for this entity, she declares: “I cannot find the information you have requested in my base databases or in my accumulated databases.”
On its own this conversation would easily pass as nothing more than a comical interlude, but it leads to more serious musings later in the novel. Not long after the previous exchange, Yumemi recalls an occasion where she asked her co-workers if robots have a Heaven as well. They assured her this was so, and that the Heaven of robots is a place where “everything that a robot wished for would come true.” The Junker, despite internally dismissing the notion of robot Heaven as nothing more than a “frivolous joke,” adds on to the idea by telling Yumemi, “The God of Robots lives in the Heaven of Robots. Remember this.” She accepts this statement “as if it were the most natural thing in the world.”
After all this talk of prayer and Heaven, Yumemi takes things in a more personal direction when she asks the Junker a simple but piercing question: “Have you ever prayed to God?” He answers that while he may have prayed before, he never expected anything. When he asks Yumemi the same question, she begins to say that she has a prayer for the God of Robots pertaining to Heaven, but she is cut short by her mandatory 12:00 AM shutdown, leaving the nature of her prayer a mystery.
The subject comes up again when Yumemi and the Junker are heading out of the city. Interestingly, she asks him the exact same question as she did before, “Have you ever prayed to God,” and the Junker even notes that she already asked him this. It never becomes clear why Yumemi asks this question a second time, but in any case it prompts the Junker to remind her that she never finished telling him what her prayer is. What she says is unexpected: “Please do not divide Heaven in two.” As she puts it, she wants “to be able to be of aid to everyone, now and forever.” She repeats this prayer to the Junker at the end of the story in her final moments, saying she does not need the Heaven of self-satisfaction her co-workers once promised her. Rather, if she must go to Heaven her only desire is that “Heaven not be split in two” so that she may “work on the behalf of humans for all of eternity.”
It is clear enough just from how frequently these two themes of prayer and Heaven recur in the story that Planetarian has an interesting preoccupation with spiritual matters, but these are hardly the only examples to be found. There are also several telling tidbits from the Junker’s narration that reveal a decidedly religious bent to the story as well. To begin with, when the Junker first enters the planetarium he likens it to a place of worship: “Had all the chairs been populated with people, it would seem almost as if those people were worshipping the ant [i.e., the projector].” (He even extends the comparison by later noting that the projector’s control panel resembles a church organ.) This observation then leads him to remember an idol he once saw that had been made by the local villagers and was worshipped by them in the hope of stopping the nuclear Rain.
Later, during his repairs of the projector, the Junker also recalls a time in his life when missionaries told people about the heavenly bodies “in reverent voices, as if they were reciting verses from their mold-ridden holy books.” When the projector is finally fixed and Yumemi is making one final call to the streets for people to come to the planetarium, he notes that her voice resembles a “requiem mass,” which is a Catholic Mass offered for the souls of dead people. During the presentation itself he describes Yumemi as “a priestess telling of oracular visions.” Finally, when he and Yumemi are leaving the planetarium he reflects, “In the space of one hour, I felt as if I had already done a decade’s worth of penance.”
Beyond the visual novel proper, there are even further religious references in some of the supplementary material. The second drama CD is titled “Jerusalem,” and it tells a story about the Great War (mentioned by the Junker in Planetarian) where a group of soldiers are all killed by a sniper—who just happens to be a nun. The third drama CD, “Man of the Stars,” features three children whose names are Levi, Ruth and Job, all major biblical figures. The opening of the light novel from which the drama CDs are derived even reads, “Starry sky, words, God, robots. A collection of short stories in the key of these four themes.”
In closing, it is plain to see that Planetarian is to a great extent permeated with religious and spiritual themes. But do all these conversations and scattered references have any deeper meaning? Is there a coherent message underlying them, or have they been included just for the sake of “spicing up” the story? (To put it another way, are we witnessing a case of what TV Tropes calls “faux symbolism”?)
Personally, given the sheer quantity of religiously oriented content contained in the novel (including some references I haven’t mentioned yet but will in Part Two), I find it extremely unlikely that it is all in there just to “add color.” I think a coherent religious message can most definitely be pieced together from the content of the story, and in Part Two I will describe what I believe it to be.
James is a fresh college graduate from Georgia who loves thinking about theology and how it factors into his favorite stories. Some of his older work can be found at http://gamesforjames.blogspot.com, which he does not update regularly.