By Kenta Shinohara
Superb space-faring science-fiction feels like a rarity in manga nowadays when the most attention-grabbing shonen blockbusters skew towards fantasy and its various subgenres. There are only a few currently titles published through the Shonen Jump imprint that purport to be legitimate sci-fi, Astra Lost in Space is chief among them. While its Weekly Shonen Jump contemporary, Dr. Stone is arguably more dedicated to the science aspect of its science fiction, Kenta Shinohara’s Shonen Jump+ series stands out for being a truly focused space survival story. Astra presents a near-future scenario in which space travel is common and commercially viable, but still limited by the resources required to make longer journeys. The space-stranded protagonists’ plight is not an alien threat or an intergalactic war like in modern space-set stories like Terraformars or Knights of Sidonia. Their struggle is more personal: lost children trying to gather enough food, water, and fuel to make a journey home from light-years away on a damaged ship lacking communicative abilities. While Shinohara teases a traitor in their midst, the group’s greatest concern is not fighting foes but forming friendships.
The emphasis on science in Astra’s sci-fi scenario shines through the smart survival strategies its characters construct. The very premise of the series, their planet-hopping journey home, is meticulously configured by the characters to be the most efficient path they could take, while still being able to restock and refuel resources along the way after adjusting the parameters of the time to reach their destination and how long resources will endure. Similarly, their methodology for determining edible foods, and observations on alien environments is rooted in an understanding of ecology. Even their edibility test, played off as a joke, is presented as a studious, scientific process. To paraphrase The Twilight Zone’s Rod Sterling, a mark of good science fiction is making the improbable seem possible through logical and legitimate scientific reasoning. The series firmly establishes its rules for space travel with hard numbers and then has its characters talk and think about the solutions to their problems through rational deductions and scientific arguments. It places extensive attention on how the ecosystem of an alien planet works, including how plants and animals obtain nutrition, and why that might’ve informed their evolutionary biology. In contrast to the limitless boundaries of science fantasies, the world of Astra is rooted in recognizable science, and puts thought into grounding even its alien environments in believably functional ecological systems. Shinohara shows how the characters work under the constraints of their technological and biological limitations in intelligent ways that don’t undermine the scientific believability of their setting.
Furthermore, the futuristic world of Astra doesn’t feel so far-fetched thanks to the details Shinohara provides to create a concrete context. Brief glimpses of the characters’ home city resembles a contemporary metropolis with modern furniture, décor, and architecture. With the exception of flying cars, nothing is so unbelievably evolved from modern times that a real city could even mirror this look in a few decades. Shinohara also puts a lot of thought into how the technology in Astra’s universe works and their functional and practical applications in its society and culture. There are pages devoted to describing the form and functionality of the space suits and the spaceship, explaining in fine detail the logic behind why they were designed the way they were, even revealing important world-building details about their commercial availability. This context grounds Astra’s world in tangible scientific logic through which the characters maneuver. There are some inventions that cross the line into implausibility, like The Sphere and Zack’s edibility tester, but as a whole this is a story that feels convincing as scenario that could happen in the future of our world. This is a rarity among most manga sci-fi which tends to depict worlds either too futuristic or dystopian to be relatable, and it helps make the series stand out in its genre.
Astra’s scientific fascinations wouldn’t make for an interesting survival story if the characters weren’t compelling themselves. As any Sket Dance fan can attest, Kenta Shinohara is talented at crafting colorful casts of multi-layered characters. Shinohara is particularly skilled at defining characters by distinct archetypes or gimmicks, and later building upon those foundations in surprising and unexpected ways. Quitterie is perhaps the strongest example in this volume, starting off as a typical unfriendly tsundere (a character initially cold and distant, becoming warmer and more friendly over time) who isn’t honest about her feelings and often doesn’t say what she means. While this is a common characterization trope in many manga, Shinohara doesn’t simply let those traits define here. Instead, he shows why Quitterie behaves the way she does and her attempts to change her behavior. We learn how being belittled for being rich as a child made her put up a prideful façade to protect her self-esteem. Consequently, this leads her to push potential friends away, and endure deep loneliness at home because of her unloving mother. As such, she wasn’t able to develop the social skills to properly nurture her adoptive sister or make friends with the group. Yet that doesn’t mean Quitterie is uncaring and isn’t trying to change.
Even earlier than her flashback, Shinohara seeds details that she’s a more nuanced character. She’s the first to advocate for rescuing Aries and remains adamant in trying despite the logistical difficulties, and she worries about Funica when she disappears and climbs the Treepoline. Small visual clues also show hint towards her enjoying the company of the group despite vocalizing her hostility, especially during the sequence where the characters play around with the plants on Vilvarus. Quitterie’s arc progresses throughout the volume in a satisfying manner, and climaxes by the end when she lovingly embraces her sister, apologizes to the group for her behavior, admits her problems communicating with people, promising to be more honest. While most other characters don’t have as pronounced an arc as Quitterie’s in this first volume, the seeds for their development are similarly established to be explored in greater detail down the line. Even what at first appear to be innocuous throwaway jokes, like Aries’ introductory spiel mentioning her photographic memory, are referenced in significant ways later on in the volume. Shinohara is masterfully effective in developing his characters in both short and long periods of time, recontextualizing even the simplest characterizations and gags into informative tells of their true personalities. What results is an immediately endearing cast of characters that only become more emotionally engaging the more we learn about them and watch them mature.
Shinohara is a fantastic artist and an especially skilled character designer. Every environment is well-thought out in their dimensions and the spaces between the elements inhabiting them. This is particularly evident with the design of the Astra, whose proportions and interiors are meticulously detailed and mapped out. Shinohara’s imagination really shines in the environments of Vilvarus, which is full of crazy-looking alien creatures and plant-life. In general, every character is unique and distinct from one another, and a character lineup provided in the volume really emphasizes how every character has different heights, body types, and proportions. Shinohara is also skilled at creating multiple styles of fashion from the same base concept. While each character wears the same school uniform, its cleverly designed to be customizable thanks to its various rippers, allowing each character to have their unique own take on the outfit. Even the space suits are distinguishable by their specific brand: characters wearing the same style of suit differ in their color schemes and models. For example, Kanata and Ulgar both wear the same brand of space suit, but a few details differ, explained to be a result of Kanata’s suit being an older version passed down by his mentor. Despite reusing the same base clothing designs, Shinohara really lets each character’s fashion sense reflect their personality, and it’s incredible how he weaves the characters’ backgrounds and histories into their costuming choices like in Kanata’s case. Shinohara’s character designs reflect a cultural establishment that has informed the upbringing and personalities of the characters, and these details help make the world feel so fully-realized and rich with history.
Shinohara’s sequential storytelling already says so much without needing dialogue to emphasize characters’ emotions. For example, when Kanata fails to grab Aries out in space, the dread Shinohara communicates with a single panel showing the distance between them is enough to send chills down my spine. The way Kanata is placed in the top left and Aries way below in the bottom right with just pure blackness and no sound effects really emphasizes the hopelessness of the moment and the sense of unreachability, the tension heightened through Aries’s hand reaching out from the bottom panel into the frame. On the next page, Shinohara draws a parallel between the panel of Aries reaching out to Kanata with a flashback panel of his mentor doing the same. Both characters are depicted with their hands extending past the borders of their panels, past the boundaries of the moment, into a panel featuring Kanata as if inviting him to rescue them. The parallels and poignancy of the scene are immediately clear without needing words. The images alone establish that this is the second time Kanata has been put in a position where he’s tried to save someone, that he failed before, he’s reliving the memory of his failure, and he’s resolved to not fail another time. Explaining these emotions simply through visuals keeps the tension flowing and heightens the catharsis experienced when Kanata does save Aries and redeems himself for his past mistake.
This isn’t the only powerful unspoken moment in the volume. Shinohara draws parallels between Aries’ past playing a circle-hopping game with the Astra crew’s new-found planet-hopping strategy, culminating both sequences on the same page to emphasize the resolve and victorious feelings of the characters. Later, Funica reveals she was looking for a star-shaped flower to put in her hair to match the star in Quitterie’s headband. This is not a point made explicitly in conversation. The mere image of Funica holding up the flower in her hair, and Quitterie welling up with tears, is enough to convey how adoringly Funica tries to emulate her sister, and how remorseful Quitterie is for denying their sisterhood and pushing her away. Shinohara really knows how to tug at the heartstrings in such simple, evocative ways by building up compelling character arcs, eliciting catharsis in the redemptive application of their past experiences in their present situations.
Shinohara is skilled at seeding important details in such casual, natural ways that it’s easy to overlook them at first glance. So many little bits of information are given piece by piece in such unassuming ways that are oftentimes more revealing about the overarching story than the pronounced, dramatic reveals. A great example is in the climax of this volume. Early on in their adventure on Vilvarus, Shinohara establishes the carnivorous Turgon as an indiscriminate predator long before it becomes a threat to the characters. The tools they later use to rescue Funica from the Turgon, established in the foraging sequence in comedic asides, with even a one-panel gag like the Luca Lance, plays an important role in the endeavor. In a particularly well-thought out sequence, Quitterie notices Kanata gets exhausted during the rescue. In the next group shot of the characters, she’s nowhere to be found. Then when Kanata accidentally falls down the Treepoline, he’s rescued by the parachute plants, which Quitterie had discovered earlier in the volume and had left to activate to help him and Funica glide to the ground safely. No matter how minor a scene or trivial a detail seems, Shinohara uses every feature of his environments and every resource of his characters to its fullest effect, creating a compact and cohesive narrative that feels thoroughly satisfying in every aspect of its execution.
Many mangaka try to innovate in their sophomore series, and Shinohara is no slouch in that regard. Shinohara takes an underdeveloped aspect of Sket Dance in Astra, completely investing in science-fiction to write a continuous adventure standing in stark contrast to Sket Dance’s episodic structure. Where Sket Dance stories mostly took place on a school campus with occasional visits to other locations, the premise of Astra is specifically crafted to feature a different location every arc. This forces Shinohara to frequently come up with new settings and designs and keep challenging himself creatively. Astra’s humor is still recognizably Shinohara in his use of manzai, slapstick, and certain visual cues. He even includes several fun references to Sket Dance, such as all of the space suit brands being named after Yamanobe’s eccentric games. However, the importance of humor is generally downplayed, embellishing character interactions and scenes rather than being their focus. Astra is still recognizably a Kenta Shinohara manga in its playfulness, but outside of a few stylistic similarities, its storytelling and themes are refreshingly distinct from its predecessor.
Perhaps most emblematic of Astra’s ambitiousness is its meticulously-structured storytelling. Many long-running manga series have long storylines split between volumes, ending on decent cliffhangers but not truly resolving the immediate conflict in the volume. Astra differs from most manga in how Shinohara cleverly structures the series to make each individual volume a satisfying, self-contained story. Every volume of the series is organized around an adventure on a particular planet: five volumes total for each of the five planets the Astra’s crew must visit on their journey home. Each planet’s name is an anagram referencing a defining characteristic of the adventure. For example, the planet featured in this volume is named “Vilvarus,” which is the word “survival” rearranged, reflecting the characters’ struggle to forage resources for their journey and escaping life-threatening dangers like The Sphere and the Turgon. Furthermore, each adventure focuses on developing a particular set of its characters, enabling their character development, changing their dynamic in the group, and contributing more clues towards the underlying conspiracy. Finally, each adventure culminates with a big reveal by the end of the volume that challenges the series’ status quo.
The efficacy of this formula is readily evident in how fluidly the story progresses in the first volume. Not only is the entire adventure focused on Vilvarus, but the volume is additionally defined by Kanata’s arc of becoming accepted as the group’s leader, a character the arc establishes from the very first chapter, only culminating by its the very end. This is a satisfying closure to the volume’s adventure that gives a sense of narrative progression and emotional catharsis. The volume concludes with the dramatic tease of a traitor in their midst, which is the perfect cliffhanger to entice the reader to pick up the next volume while still having given them a complete story to chew over in the meantime. Contemplating how Shinohara purposefully plotted his bi-weekly series to achieve such flawless narrative cohesion when read collected is mind-blowing. The level of foresight and skill it takes to pull this off while keeping an ongoing serialization satisfying week-to-week cannot be understated. With Astra, Shinohara proves he’s not just a great storyteller, but a true master of his craft rivaling other modern geniuses like Eiichiro Oda and Yoshihiro Togashi.
Astra Lost in Space is hilarious, emotional, and a whole lot of fun. It’s a remarkable accomplishment of storytelling, establishing Shinohara as one of the best talents currently working in the manga industry. Admittedly, Astra’s cleverly constructed storytelling was so unassuming during serialization that its finesse is only blatantly clear in hindsight. It’s truly a rewarding series to revisit, as each time it becomes clearer how well thought-out the story was from the very beginning. There are so many small moments that hint towards at the truth of certain characters and situations that weren’t exposed until much later down the line, and it’s astonishing how purposeful every line and panel is in developing the overall story. Astra’s story is so efficiently plotted and dense with detail that there’s always something new to discover and impress. Personally, I really connect with it, and when I’ve felt stressed and depressed recently, I’ve found myself thinking about it and being inspired by its mantra:
Per Aspera Ad Astra. “Through hardships to the stars.”
There’s so much more to praise about the series, particularly its underlying mystery, its world-building, and its central themes, and I hope to explore those more deeply in reviews of later volumes. Astra Lost in Space is a journey well worth taking, an experience full of laughs, cries, and thoughts that will linger long past time spent reading it. Like many great stories, it’s an adventure that doesn’t end in your mind even after you turn the last page.