It’s been a while since I’ve read any manga. Like many guys in my generation I went through an anime/manga phase in my teen years thanks to televised anime marathons like Toonami which showed series like Dragonball Z among others. Already a budding artist, I became obsessed with the Japanese cartoon art style and spent hours drawing the various characters from my favorite anime. But once my early twenties had come and gone, I gradually lost interest in Japanese animation and comics.
This changed when I was in a comic book store recently and a manga volume on the clearance rack caught my eye: Astra Lost in Space. At first I thought it was some kind of Japanese adaptation of the classic Lost in Space TV series but as I flipped through the pages it soon became obvious that this was an original science fiction story that just happened to share a similar name with a Western property. Most of the manga I’ve read in the past were action-fighting titles like Bleach and Naruto, so the idea of a sci-fi manga was novel enough to me to be intriguing. I had never heard of this title before, so I bought Astra Lost in Space in the hopes that I had found a hidden gem. I was not disappointed.
In a nutshell, Astra Lost in Space follows the adventures of an eclectic group of high school students on an interplanetary field trip that goes horribly wrong. There are two main protagonists who, perhaps unsurprisingly, conform to common and recognizable manga/anime archetypes. Aries Spring is a somewhat ditsy but good-hearted and optimistic teenage girl who can’t wait to begin her adventure at Planet Camp. Her male counterpart is Kanata Hoshijima. You’ve seen his type in countless manga/anime stories before: He’s athletic, brash, driven to succeed but not the sharpest tool in the shed, friendly but with a cocky attitude that serves to mask the pain of a tragic past. It’s clear that the Aries and Kanata are being set up as love interests, and I’m totally fine with that. I think their personalities complement each other well. There are nine characters in this group of students, but they are all distinct enough that I had no problem keeping track of them. You’d think that writer and artist Kenta Shinohara would have trouble juggling such a large main cast, but almost everybody is appropriately fleshed out. The only two characters who have very few lines have good reasons for being mostly silent; one is the painfully shy wallflower and the other is the angsty lone wolf.
The art is terrific, and all of the characters are immediately distinguishable. The alien environments and creatures are also fascinating to look at. One planet in particular has an entire ecosystem of unique flora and fauna that Kenta Shinohara clearly put a lot of thought into.
The writing is easy to follow. Very little seems to have been lost in translation here. The dialogue is very funny, often side-splitting in its best moments. My favorite jokes of all were the several self-aware, fourth-wall-breaking jabs at classic manga story and character tropes. I won’t spoil them here, but the punchlines had me laughing out loud.
***Skip to the last paragraph to avoid SPOILERS for Vol. 1***
The story moves along at a brisk pace and, before you know it, the students have arrived at the designated world for Planet Camp, a five-day excursion without adult supervision. (If I may say, this idea seems astronomically unwise and irresponsible on the part of the school. I can’t believe that the parents signed off on this! How is it that previous Planet Camps haven’t also ended in disaster?) Almost immediately after arriving, a large glowing orb appears and teleports the students into deep space. Serendipitously, they are within reach of a derelict spacecraft (which they will eventually christen the Astra) and, after Kanata saves Aries from a nearly fatal mishap involving her spacesuit, they enter the ship and begin to plot a course for home. Kenta Shinohara does a brilliant job of building up mystery and suspense. The strange orb appears to follow the group from planet to planet almost as if it is stalking them. Is it simply a bizarre natural phenomenon or is it guided by some unknown purpose? How did the Astra become abandoned in deep space and why did the orb just happen to deposit the students right next to it? I have no doubt that these unanswered questions will become the focus of future volumes.
Kanata struggles to prove himself as the self-appointed leader of the group in spite of fierce resistance from Quitterie, a somewhat self-absorbed and privileged girl with her own painful past. After a thrilling climactic sequence in which Kanata rescues Quitterie’s adopted little sister Funicia from a predatory alien life form, he earns the respect and confidence of the entire group. The story ends on a cliffhanger with the revelation that the Astra’s comm system has been sabotaged, and that the culprit could be any one of the students, leaving the reader with the distressing feeling that none of these characters can be trusted. I honestly have no idea who the traitor may be or what their motives are, and I can’t wait to read Vol. 2 where hopefully there may be some clues to this mystery.
If you’re a fan of manga or even just a science fiction enthusiast, I highly recommend reading Astra Lost in Space. It has just the right mix of adventure, humor, and intrigue. I was surprised to discover that the story is only five volumes long. I’ll definitely be picking up the remaining four and reviewing them right here on this blog. If you’re interested in seeing me review any other manga titles and have suggestions, please don’t hesitate to leave me recommendations in the comments section or to contact me on Twitter. See you in the next review!