Astra: Lost in Space is a complete-in-five-volumes manga series about a group of school kids who get lost in space under suspicious circumstances and must work together to return home. It is, by turns, a gripping mystery, a fun space adventure and a typical-to-manga comedy. If you’ve ever wondered where to start when faced with the mountains of manga out there, this is an ideal place. It doesn’t represent a massive commitment of time or funds like some of the incredibly long-running series do, it’s a familiar enough set-up that it doesn’t intimidate and it’s a kickass story with great characters. Two enthusiastic thumbs up.
Aries, Kanata, Quitterie, Zack, Luca, Charce, Yun-Hua and Ulgar are heading out to Planet McPa for a school camping trip, with Quitterie’s younger sister Funicia in tow. While all (except Funicia) are in the same year at school (they’re sixteen years old, Funicia is ten), they’re a mismatched group who don’t really know each other. When they are suddenly flung across space and are faced with the challenge of getting back home with little in the way of supplies and water, they begin to learn the value of teamwork and slowly become friends, despite a number of secrets and anxieties.
Each volume represents a stepping-stone in their journey as they hop from planet to planet in search of food and water. Along the way they encounter alien flora and fauna and uncover the deeper mystery of how they ended up stranded in space. I’m not going to say anything more about that aspect of the series because it will ruin the whole thing, but it’s excellent, I didn’t see it coming and Shinohara really ramps up the tension in the last two volumes with it. Not content with one mystery, Astra introduces another at around the halfway mark when the crew discover a Russian cosmonaut in suspended animation. Polina was part of a space program searching for other habitable planets besides Earth, and as she and our intrepid teenagers compare notes another puzzle is revealed. Again, no spoilers, but I will say that this is the least believable part of the whole tale and I still happily swallowed it down because the characters are all so charming.
Most of the humour in the series revolves around the various personalities and how they rub along together and react to the alien worlds they explore. Each planet offers up something of value and a challenge of some kind, and the group usually has to work together to overcome an obstacle. Kanata quickly becomes the leader because, while he can be a bit of a twit, he’s always prepared to throw himself in harm’s way for another crew member. Literally. Carnivorous winged beasties, space, ice storms, wormholes … he throws himself at them all in order to save various crew members. Aries is the friendliest member of the group and works hard to bring everyone together. She also has a heroic appetite that ends up being a running joke. Quitterie, on the other hand, is a spikey character, who’s smart, but not always nice. Her sister Funicia gives us a glimpse of what Quitterie was like when she was younger, before she stopped trusting people; she also wields a grumpy hand puppet called Beego to great effect and is generally agreed to be adorable.
Zack is Quitterie’s only remaining childhood friend. He’s serious even in the lightest moments, and tech-savvy. Luca is almost a polar opposite to Zack, light-hearted, always pulling jokes and wonderfully artistic. Luca is the craftsperson of the group, making weapons for the taciturn Ulgar and styling Yun-Hua’s hair when she stops hiding behind it. Because Yun-Hua is the shyest crew member, brought up to believe herself useless and unwanted, and Ulgar is consumed with a desire for revenge for the death of his older brother. And then there’s Charce who actually sparkles when he turns on the charm and draws animals to himself like a Disney princess. You can imagine what fun Shinohara has with such a group of characters.
Cleanly, clearly illustrated with a meaty storyline and protagonists that are mostly easy to love and are fun to laugh with, Astra: Lost in Space was a joy to read. I enjoyed the surprises and the adventure and would merrily have travelled the same distance again with this hotch-potch crew of students-come-explorers-come-heroes. To echo their rousing cry: Aye-yeah!