By Kenta Shinohara. Released in Japan as “Kanata no Astra” by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Shonen Jump +. Released in North America by Viz Media. Translated by Adrienne Beck.
As fans of Weekly Shonen Jump know, not every series that comes out in Japan, or even is a hit in Japan, gets licensed here in North America. And in the modern digital age, it has become much easier to follow the Japanese publication and theorize about the next pickup, or whine about why such and such a title is still not licensed despite being up to Vol. 22 or so. The mid to late 00s, in fact, had a bunch of those “not quite” titles, including my pet favorite Medaka Box, as well as Beelzebub and Supernatural Detective Neuro. And there was also Sket Dance, a very popular comedy that ran for over thirty volumes in Japan, but I think suffered from comparisons to Gintama (comedy about a group that theoretically helps people, any romance is played for laughs, cast full of weirdos), no “supernatural” elements, and lack of a real plot. I mention all this because the author’s new series which has been licensed, Astra, has improved on much of this. It’s got fantastic elements, it has an overarching plot, and it’s five volumes long rather than 32.
The premise is that sometime in the future a group of teens go on a survival camp to another planet, where they are supposed to have fun and do cool camping things. It’s all perfectly controlled and safe. They even brought along one character’s little sister to take care of. Unfortunately, the moment they arrive, they are all sucked into a mysterious orb and deposited in the middle of deep space some five thousand light years from home. Even the Rolling Stones weren’t that far away. They manage to board an abandoned ship… but find it needs repair, and they need food and water or they will die. So they land on a nearby planet, and proceed to forage. Naturally, this involves dealing with various alien plants and animals, ranging from hilarious to terrifying. And learning a bit about each other along the way.
The cast is not particularly original here, ranging from the overenthusiastic hero and heroine to the stoic smart guy to the haughty rich girl who secretly just wants to have friends. If Shonen Jump ever had a casting call for a generic shonen series, these are the people who would turn up. That said, they bounce well off each other, and none of them (not even the haughty girl) are overly irritating. There are also a number of amusing moments, despite the rather serious-sounding plot. You can tell the author is more experienced with comedy, particularly tsukkomi – a number of scenes are along the lines of “character says something dumb, the others respond with retorts”. The drama is also done well, though, with tragic pasts deployed at just the right moment to be relevant, and not overstaying their welcome.
This is the very definition of a good, solid Jump title. It’s the sort of thing you’d probably drop if it ran on over 20 volumes, but since it’s not going to I’m happy to see what happens next. And who knows, if it sells well maybe we’ll get Sket Dance too.