As some AUKN readers may recall, when we site writers were asked for our top picks of the 2010s, my pick for the best original manga was Astra Lost in Space. I wrote that originally I was very dismissive of Kenta Shinohara’s manga, giving it a middling review of the first volume for MyM back in 2018, but after reading the entire five-volume series, I realised how wrong I was. The series has picked up acknowledgements elsewhere, winning the Manga Taisho award in 2019, and this month being named “Best Television Series” in the Seiun Sci-Fi Awards.
Fortunately, the anime adaptation of the series by Lerche does justice to the manga. When you start watching it, you can tell that it is not like most anime you normally see. For starters, the opening episode is double the normal length of your typical half-hour anime show. The final episode is also double-length. The anime might be a standard 12 episodes long, but with the extra-long editions it is more like 14 episodes. Some episodes have just the opening theme song, “star*frost” by Nonoc; some just the ending theme, “Glow at the Velocity of Light” by Riko Azuna (my preferred track of the two), some both, and some neither. The music for the series as a whole is composed by Masaru Yokoyama (Gundam: Iron-Blooded Oprhans) and Nobuaki Nobusawa (Steins;Gate) and it does have a role, in particular with some of the key characters.
Set in the year 2063, the story follows a group of students from Caird High School who are about to go to “Planet Camp”, a five day-long trip to a different planet, called McPa, camping on their own. The students are the tale’s narrator Aries Spring, a sometimes dim-witted girl with a photographic memory and different-coloured eyes; Kanata Hoshijima, a boy whose father has trained him to be a decathlete but whose real interest is space exploration and who egotistically puts himself forward as leader; Zack Walker, a genius student, pilot and wannabe explorer; his long-term friend Quitterie Raffelli, the daughter of a noted doctor; Luca Esposito, an artistic student and son of a politician; Ulgar Zweig, an unsocial boy whose only close relationship was with his brother, a freelance journalist; Yunhua Lu, a cripplingly shy girl whose mother is a famous singer; and Charce Lacroix, a handsome boy with a love of biology and cooking. As part of the camp, the group have to perform a special task. In this case, they also have to look after Quitterie’s adopted younger sister Funicia, aka Funi, who is coming along on the trip.
The team of nine land on McPa but shortly after the adults leave them to their camp, the group encounter a strange ball of light. Luca approaches it and sticks his hand in it. Soon, he is entirely sucked into it, but luckily he still has his helmet on. Everyone else also manages to get their helmets on before the sphere sucks everyone into it. Having the helmets on saves their lives, because after the ball sucks them in, they find themselves transported into space, around an ice planet, completely different to McPa with its fields and oceans. By a massive stroke of luck, an abandoned faster-than-light space ship is just nearby to the campers and by working together, all of them manage to make it on board the ship, with Kanata risking his own life to save Aries when it is discovered her space suit is damaged.
However, things look grim. A series of calculations reveals that the sphere has transported them 5,012 light years away from home, with very limited supplies. There is some hope though. Zack calculates that they can return home safely by visiting a series of hospitable planets, collecting food and water, and hopping from one world to another. As Kanata is the only one to have volunteered, and has proven himself by saving Aries with the help of the rest of the crew, he is appointed leader of the mission with Zack as the pilot of their new ship, which they call Astra, an old word meaning “star”.
Thus the crew of the Astra begin their extraordinary journey to various alien worlds: Vilavurs, home of trampoline trees, parachute flowers and turtle-dragons; Shummoor, where mushrooms are the dominant species; the ocean planet Arispade; Icriss, a planet with a year-long day resulting in one half of the world being in constant daylight and the other constant night; and the bioluminescent Galem.
However, not only do the kids have to overcome the challenges on each of these alien worlds, but also their own personal problems. Zack discovers that the ship’s communication device has been deliberately sabotaged, meaning that one of nine is a traitor seemingly wanting to kill them all. There is also the complicated relationship between the campers: Yunhua’s shyness, Quitterie’s dislike for her own sister, and Ulgar’s suspicious behaviour lead to many problems, and these are just the start. Over the course of the series the gang discover things that will not only change their lives, but those of everyone back home too.
The main appeal of Astra Lost in Space is the plot, which is somewhat annoying because the best thing about it is the revelation upon revelation that comes across the entire series. Thus, it is rather difficult to talk about the show without giving away big spoilers. In terms of these spoilers, the closest I can get revealing something that does not appear to be too major is that one of the characters reveals themselves to be a different gender from what everyone else perceived them to be.
Having said this, as you watch the series you will pick up clues here and there. For example it is mentioned briefly that guns were outlawed a hundred years ago. However, it is 2063, meaning that guns would have had to have been outlawed in 1963. How does that stack up to historical fact? This is one of many hints that reveal the true web of conspiracy that not only relates to whoever is trying to kill the crew, but to something much bigger.
The drama appears not just in the revelations, but in the immediate emergencies that the campers have to deal with. During the course of the journey the ship is hit by meteoroids, Zack has to make crash landings, and all the crew have to deal with dangerous wildlife. One of the most dramatic stories is on Shummoor, where the crew learn that the mushrooms that dominate life on the planet do so by attracting wild animals, some of which die and provide nutrients. They are killed using a spore that the mushrooms release, a spore that poisons the crew, leading to a race to find a cure. This is a key moment of the story, showing Kanata at his best when trying to find a cure, Quitterie displaying her medical knowledge, and Yunhua finally coming out of her shell and displaying her true talent to the rest of the crew.
As well as drama there are some lighter, more comic moments too. These include Kanata’s list of survival tips which consists of him stating the bleeding obvious, Aries’s constant muddling of phrases and often sheer idiocy, Charce being a bit too overjoyed with all the exotic wildlife he encounters, and Funicia constantly playing with a dog-like glove puppet.
Aside from the plot, the other area that makes the series stand out is the art, in particular of both the alien landscapes and wildlife that the crew visit. Some of this lends itself to the comedy, such as the trampoline trees on Vilavurs. At other points it adds to the drama, such as the hostile environment on Icriss. All of the worlds are engrossing and the art makes you want to visit them. Perhaps the best of them is Arispade the ocean world, which does feel like a resort and does indeed lead itself to a “beach episode” – albeit one spoilt by an earthquake that triggers a tsunami.
As review discs have not been sent out, I can’t review any of the extras, if there are any. I was invited to review the version on Funimation, partly because it has both the sub and the dub, out of which the sub does feel much better personally. The dub just doesn’t seem to get it right, given the diversity of the characters, but I know some people will disagree with me. Also, there is part of me that wonders if I had to watch it on Funimation given that one of the characters is called Funi.
If there is a criticism to be made, I suppose it is the fact that you have to be willing to accept that many aspects of the story are unlikely to be scientifically accurate – e.g. the fact that there are spaceships capable of travelling faster than the speed of light. But this is not the reason for watching Astra Lost in Space. You watch it because of the thrilling plot, the revelations, the beautiful planets and the joyful gang of adventurers. As far as I’m concerned, the only major problem is that that I can’t read the “Lost in Space” bit in the title without my head saying it in the style of a 1960s American sci-fi show.
Astra Lost in Space is brilliant. It is one of the best manga and one of the best anime I have seen in recent years. It totally deserves top marks.