Joining alongside The Magnificent Kotobuki and its seasonal contemporary Machikado Mazoku as unlikely 2019 anime success stories, Astra Lost In Space is refreshingly straightforward to get your head around. Astra enters the scene as a survival series, our protagonists--a gaggle of high schoolers--are set to attend a literal space camp on a field trip. This is the sort of thing that meshes well with the near-future setting, and all goes well for about five minutes before a giant ball of light appears out of nowhere and teleports them countless light years away. They’re stranded in the depths of deep space, but happen to spot a derelict ship floating nearby, which they survive by commandeering, and dub The Astra, the show’s namesake.
This is the thrust of Astra’s first half. Our protagonists include Kanata, an athlete with aspirations of being a starship captain and a past haunted by an accident on a different field trip many years ago. Aries, a ditzy heterochromiac with photographic memory and a big heart. Quitterie and her sister Funicia, respectively an aloof popular girl type and a child with a handpuppet who she sometimes speaks her mind through, and a number of others.
(Kanata is a rowdy fellow)
Committed to surviving in space and hopefully finding their way home, the cast is the highlight here. The show thrives on interpersonal dynamics. So when twists small and big like respectively: the unassuming and arty Luca turning out to be intersex, or Ulgar (who developed a somewhat infamous reputation as “Sasuke in space”) turning out to know how to use a gun (a thing presented as having been outlawed for years) and trying to kill Luca due to a tangle of political intrigue involving their respective families, they actually matter. It’s also why you care when they manage to survive each and every brush with disaster they face. From plant monsters early on to having their ship be rendered non-functional, potentially stranding them on an alien planet still well far from home, during the start of the series’ second half.
Going back to the aforementioned twist, family in general is a theme that comes up a lot in Astra. Almost every single member of the cast--with the notable exception of Aries--has some kind of issue with their parents. The extremely shy Yunhua, whose mother treats her like dirt, and Ulgar, whose father says to his face that he wishes he’d died instead of his late older brother, get the worst of this, but it’s present all around. To put it in the show’s own words:
What initially seems like a coincidence turns out to be the show’s grand reveal. We found out in the second half that--again excepting Aries--the entirety of the Astra’s crew are clones of their own parents. Something both pointedly illegal in-universe and, when we’re given the why (they all want to perform an experimental consciousness-transfer procedure when their clones come of age, so they can effectively live forever), despicably immoral on its face.
Here is where things get a bit complicated. Astra’s main theme seems to be that family is defined not by blood, but by who is closest to you. This is in of itself a good--even great--lesson that many people need to hear. The way Astra handles this gets a bit...peculiar. For one, Aries turns out to be the clone of someone who’s not her mother. There’s an entire subplot about royalty (in space!) here not worth going into, but she’s the clone of the late princess of a monarchial zone on the crew’s home planet. Charce, the crew’s biologist and pretty boy, turns out to be the clone of said zone’s monarch, and the reason the weird light ball abducted them all to deep space in the first place. You see, excepting Aries’ mother, the parents of the entire crew have conspired to strand their children in deep space to conveniently get rid of them, now that cloning is illegal, a recent development in the show’s world.
It is, to be sure, a bit contrived, but it at least ties back in with the show’s main thematics. The other grand reveal is much less relevant. I could summarize it--it involves a covered-up migration from Earth to the crew’s home planet, which turns out to be also called Astra, a faked century of history, and a half dozen other things--but it’s genuinely just not relevant.
Nor is the satellite character, Pollina, they recover from a stasis pod on one of their planetary stops who exposits all this. It rather seems just like another mystery for the sake of having another one that’s a bit harder to guess at than the clone thing (it’s not exactly telegraphed, but you can see it coming if you’re observant).
That’s a writing flaw, to be sure, but it’s one that seems to be inherited from Astra’s primary influences. A lot of the show, from the overall plot, to aesthetics, to the weird structure, to even the fact that it’s explicitly pointed out that the characters all speak English, feel inherited from 20th century American sci-fi. If it’s not a direct line, it’s one passed down by Astra’s more immediate likely predecessors, the scores of sci fi anthology manga that have run for years. Many of which are rather obscure in the west.
Does this excuse this problem? Not entirely. Certainly, as the show closes in on its finale, it sometimes approaches near-Code Geass levels of defiance of conventional narrative logic, but it never really flies entirely off the rails either. The show manages to keep an at least mostly level head on its shoulders, even through all the bizarreness (and, thanks to the localization team, bad puns).
What does predispose a more forgiving attitude is, well, no one actually bites it in Astra. It’d have been extremely easy to have one or more crew members die--especially the traitorous Charce--but despite all the death flags that pop up, everyone actually makes it out of Astra alive. Only Kanata is even permanently harmed--he loses his right hand in the penultimate episode.
The show ends with a timeskip to a few years in the future, with all the characters (sans the villains, who are given their just desserts) living out their lives happily. The show even pairs up two of its couples.
(Maybe three? You go, Ulgar.)
In this light, it’s hard to fault the show too hard for its flaws. If anything, they might make the series even more entertaining for a certain kind of anime viewer. There really is nothing quite like the honest-to-god fact that the last episode of the show is called “Friend Ship”. That the main plot moves along at a nice clip, the character dynamics are so entertaining, and the show ends on a warm note, all mix together to make this a solid little series.
Were this last year, where even comparative failures were often wildly interesting, something that’s merely solid might not be of note, but 2019 has been a rather slow year for the medium, even if the summer season has been the arguable highlight of it, shows like Astra can get a little more shine than they otherwise might, and maybe we should all be thankful for that. After all, it’s true what they say. If you shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you may land among the stars.
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