Astra Lost in Space Volume 3 (Chapters 19-28) – Manga Review

Astra Lost in Space Synopsis: Itʼs the first day of Planet Camp, and Aries Spring couldnʼt be more excited! She, along with eight other strangers, leave for Planet McPa for a week long excursion. Soon after they arrive, however, a mysterious orb appears and transports them into the depths of space, where they find an empty floating spaceship… (Official Viz Synopsis)

(Warning: Spoilers to Follow)

Review:

Unfortunately it’s only recently that my schedule has cleared up, giving me time to talk about the 3rd volume’s chapters for a series I’ve been dying to dig deeper into. It seems fitting however, as the physical release for Volume 3 is just under a month away, making this the perfect time to discuss these chapters before they’re removed from Shonen Jump’s free section in prep for their physical release. Let’s dive in.

Overall I have mixed feelings for these chapters far more than I did for what was in either Volume’s 1 or 2. While Astra has a clear formula, focus on one character coming out of their shell, offer up some slice of life/romance content, new planet, rinse and repeat, what’s here doesn’t work quite as well as before. The biggest problems are unwieldy, forced, and obvious exposition, shoehorning in ideas needed to deepen the mysteries that lie at the heart of the story.

Yes, that is generally where this series takes place. Thanks for playing!

Starting with Chapter 19 we’re treated to a snap away from our heroes and to how their parents are handling the situation. What’s here isn’t particularly useful or interesting however, besides knowing there’s a strong push to end the search and rescue. What’s really going on here is not the focus on the parents so much, but the chance to doll out heavy exposition so as to include core elements we need to understand for why someone might want to kill this group of kids. We learn of this new genetic DNA collection that would’ve likely exposed Aries as not being her mother’s child, as well as some other hints that the other parents, like Luca’s father, are hiding deep secrets core to a certain character’s past that we’ll deal with in just a couple chapters. This makes Chapter 19 feel a bit stilted by comparison to earlier chapters.

Thankfully we’re onto some shipping/pairing romance, slice of life stuff with Chapter 20, letting us focus again on our quirky characters that make the series so lively. It definitely highlights another reason Chapter 19 feels so lifeless: The characters. The parents just aren’t interesting, many of whom lack any kind of memorable personality that lets them pop from the page like Aries, Luca or the others.

But Chapter 19 is important, poorly realized or not. As it’s essential to the ideas laid out over Chapter’s 21-23. It becomes time to focus on the quiet, prickly member of the crew, Ulgar. While we retain a slice of life, laid-back atmosphere early in Chapter 21, things end with a bang as Ulgar pulls a gun on Luca upon learning that he’s the son of a politician whom he blames for killing his brother. Chapter 22 unfortunately gets bogged down in heavy exposition, and while that’s not entirely unusual for this series, often having to regurgitate to us a character’s deeper, lingering issues, it doesn’t work well for Ulgar here. The problem is Ulgar’s story is a much darker affair that what was hindering Yun-hua from opening up. Ulgar’s story involves conspiracy and murder and feels decidedly more contrived. (It doesn’t help that his reasoning for killing Luca, who had nothing to do with his brother’s murder, hangs on the thread of “I’ll take from the man who took from me” making an awful lot of assumptions about Luca’s relationship with his own family.) Ulgar’s monologue and flashback are written with such stilted, direct dialogue, that the whole thing feels a bit tough to read.

It’s both cute, and sad.

It doesn’t help at all that Astra also gives into its shonen trappings, choosing to portray everyone as eager for friendship and peaceful resolution, despite the fact that Ulgar pulled a gun on one of their much more beloved friends. They also drop the idea that he’s the assassin simply based upon his word. It highlights a core issue with the series: Lack of suspicion. While Astra isn’t meant to be a terribly dark and brooding series, introducing a conflict this dramatic really calls for more suspicion, angst and drama than what’s to be had here. It’s probably the weakest I’ve found the series yet and sits as a black mark on what I otherwise consider a fun adventure.

Thankfully the story rebounds with a more interesting and surprising confession from Luca, who has a much deeper, more personal issue with his family. His confession is also realized with far stronger dialogue, only let down by the art which really doesn’t do the confession the justice it needs for full emotional impact. Luca needs to look far more uncomfortable, and vulnerable when sharing that he is an intersexual, which comes as the most surprising development offered up yet.

Of course it went there.

Perhaps aware that we’ve now had two heavy character reveals in a row, the story jumps right back into the action as a tsunami threatens to drown our heroes. The art works well here, with plenty of panels in Chapter 24 using little to no dialogue, yet conveying this sudden, dramatic, and deadly threat with perfect realization. But once we’re out of the action, things again come back to that blight upon the story. Ulgar is forgiven with incredible haste, and even allowed to keep the gun he tried to kill Luca with, with the flimsy reasoning of “only you know how to use it.” It really highlights a problem I have with Shonen, where friendship and understanding can be taken to levels that really stress the suspension of disbelief.

Perhaps again aware that forgiving Ulgar so easily is hard to believe, we quickly find our attention pulled to Charce, as Aries exposes him for lying about attending Science class together. While the end note for this reveal in Chapter 25 is great, the crews reaction borders on silly, with people taking extreme stances that aren’t quiet as believable as one would like, such as Zack accusing him of being the assassin based solely upon him transferring in just before camp began. It’s off-base, seeing as the more likely assumption would be that he’d just be lying about transferring in at all, that his entire backstory is a lie. It’s weird what these characters choose to, and not believe at any given time.

Didn’t even have to get an anime for us to get to fan service beach planet.

We’re treated to our third character reveal as Charce offers up a backstory near as contrived as Ulgar’s, but is perhaps more acceptable seeing as his confession isn’t performed with gun in hand. Charce is a former noble, from, apparently, some bizarre royalty district that is I guess this future’s equivalent of Amish land. We learn of his childhood, befriending a young commoner girl who ends up falling from a terrible height and into a coma. The art goes out of its way to obscure her face in near every panel before she takes that fall. But the hair gives her away, this girl looks very much like a younger Aries. Coupled with the reveal in Chapter 19 that she is not actually her mother’s daughter, it seems obvious that Aries is an amnesia stricken friend of Charce.

Again, the crew takes this backstory at face value, though with Ulgar’s confession we’re long past the point where any readers truly bothered by this stretch of the imagination would keep reading, and the kid’s naively positive reception to secrets divulged becomes an expectation with this series.

Finally with Chapter 27 we reach our next planet, and the harsh description of this world locked in perpetual night on one side and day on the other hints at the dramatic turn that’s about to unfold. After a harrowing landing that gives our heroes a near death (Well as near death as shonen gets) experience we learn that the Astra is so badly damaged, there’s no hope of it ever reaching the stars again.

Every good friendship starts with a gun to the head.

While I enjoy the harsh gravity of this situation, and the hopelessness that surrounds our heroes, the art and subdued reactions to the situation don’t sell the gravity of this dramatic turn. In fact Chapter 29 does very little to try and convince us that this could be the end of our journey. Astra Lost in Space is very…. 1960s Sci-fi in that regard. They’re undergoing a harrowing journey through space,  with plenty of events and creatures that could very well claim their lives, but it’s never going to feel like they’re truly in danger. The atmosphere of the story always holds back just enough that the series maintains an almost light-hearted take even on the more grim and deadly turns.

In fact it’s by the end of Chapter 28 that it looks like our heroes are going to be back on their journey very, very soon. The group discovers a second Astra, adding in tons of intriguing questions: Why is there a second Astra? Does this story involve time travel? Is this part of the crazy conspiracy? Making room for the series to really go in oh so many directions, but provides a very easy out from what could’ve been a harrowing multi-chapter arc for Aries and the gang.

Five bucks says by the end of it none of them were the killer.

Overall my love for this series was a bit damaged by these chapters. When dealing with more grim developments and reveals, it’s clear that Astra doesn’t have the chops, or perhaps interest in upping the dramatic tension. We could have our heroes really challenged on their strive to remain friends and keep calm under ever mounting suspicion and questioning of each other’s origins. But the series is too invested on everyone remaining friends under pressure to even entertain a departure from that overtly friendly atmosphere. But knowing that, and understanding that’s what the series wants to do, helps set future expectations. And while the atmosphere may not be as dramatic as ideal, the series’ core questions and mysteries, coupled with the surprise development of Chapter 28, really helps to keep me invested. I do worry that based on certain contrived elements that the ultimate reveals for the series might end up feeling weak, or perhaps even unearned, but for now these questions are what keeps me invested in the journey. I do still wish that if we’re going to keep things light-hearted, we strive for a little more comedy now and then, as these chapters felt far less quippy than the previous volumes.

Thanks for reading and please let me know your thoughts on Astra Lost in Space in the comments section below!

Astra Lost in Space is a partially free manga available at Shonen Jump. Volume 1 released on December 5th. Chapter 1 is free to read at Shonen Jump’s website. Volume 2 released physically in March of 2018. Volume 3‘s chapters will leave the free section on Shonen Jump’s website and be released in physical format on June 5th, 2018.

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