The Summer 2019 Anime Preview Guide
Astra Lost In Space
How would you rate episode 1 of
Astra Lost in Space ?
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How was the first episode?
Astra: Lost in Space was one of my top prospects coming into this season, and its double-length first episode does not disappoint. From its punchy narrative hooks to its polished look and engaging characters, Astra stands as the first must-see premiere of the season. It seems like the summer season has finally arrived.
Astra is based on an acclaimed five volume manga, and directed by the talented Masaomi Andō. Andou is a rising star who I've been keeping an eye on for a few years now - he first impressed me with the excellent character drama White Album 2, and has gone on to direct other well-received shows like Scum's Wish and Hakumei and Mikochi. Andou's shows all tend to have a stately sense of consequence to them, and are generally littered with screen-in-screen partitions, as smaller cuts of character reactions are laid over a persistent background. It's an effective trick for adapting manga paneling, and one he puts to great use here.
From its opening moments, Astra clearly conveys a sense of majesty and consequence, as if it's self-consciously aware that it is conveying an epic adventure. The slow reveal of heroine Aries spinning alone in space, the ornate title cards, the letterbox framing - Astra often bats for the fences in terms of its dramatic presentation, but it actually sells that sense of consequence, while consistently tempering it with cheeky, cheesy beats like the Star Wars-esque eyecatches and protagonist Kanata's stereotypically heroic affectation. Tonally, Astra convokes a neat mix of hard scifi consequence and almost Flash Gordon-esque pomp and wonder at the majesty of space.
Astra is pretty handily the best-looking show of the season so far, though it can't match Dumbbells' flourishes of fluid, charismatic animation. Astra's strength is more in consistency and polish; its character art is clean and consistent, it makes smart use of digital lighting effects, and features excellent mechanical design. The biggest visual weakness is the lack of strong layouts - the shot staging doesn't feel consistently inspired, and it at times seems like the show might be too wedded to the manga panels it's adapting. But the overall effect is strong, with the show's visuals doing a great job of facilitating the drama's self-conscious epicness, and neat touches like the variable line weight of the character art counterbalancing the clean geometric style of the backgrounds.
As for the story, Astra seems to understand the dramatic power of its central conceit, and lets both tension and our understanding of the cast build slowly over the leadup to disaster. I'm often suspicious of double length premieres, as they can at times simply exacerbate the issues of an exposition-heavy first act, but Astra uses its double length to create a strong sense of suspense and clear understanding of the character dynamics, before its second half pays off all that tension through a tense series of dramatic setpieces.
The early introductory phase felt perhaps a tad unfocused, but the cast really came alive when they first assembled on their transport ship, and their messy rapport and divergent personalities seem like they'll make for an excellent ensemble drama. Captain Kanata in particular seems like a great character; he essentially aspires to be a traditionally charismatic and fearless space captain, but is actually a fairly thoughtful and self-conscious person, and this episode offered a convincing illustration of both his desired persona and the experiences that informed it. The way this episode's big dramatic setpiece wove in visual and thematic parallels with Kanata's traumatic history was smart and deftly executed, an excellent payoff to his earlier characterization. And the ultimate plan of our heroes seems like tailor-made to inspire even more exciting adventures, while furthering the show's thoughts on the necessity of human contact and what it really means to be brave.
On the whole, Astra's first episode is exciting and smartly executed, full of clever aesthetic choices, engaging characters, and firm narrative hooks. Definitely check this one out.
From what I've seen so far, Astra Lost in Space resides in a very particular portion of the sci-fi spectrum: shows where space travel is the central focus of the story, rather than just a means to an end. I'd place it somewhere in the middle ground between Space Brothers and the first few story arcs of Bodacious Space Pirates, with the former's lack of any spacefaring villains and the latter's tendency to put teenagers in charge of spaceships. If its core theme of “space is awesome when it's not about to kill you” resonates with you, then this double-length premiere should have no trouble getting under your skin. If not, the writing and direction are still good enough to make it worth a look.
One potential stumbling block here is the cast, which contains just about every archetypal teenager you can think of. Individually, none of them really stand out, and while I don't actively dislike any of them, I can't point to anyone I'd call my favorite character either. They all fall a little too easy into their obvious roles at the moment, but the good news is that there are already some small signs of character development to be found. This is also a reasonably well-balanced group, with no single person possessing enough strengths or talents to hog the spotlight. As the presumptive lead duo, Aries and Kanata are given the lion's share of attention while leaving a sufficient amount of screen time to at least introduce everyone else.
From a plot standpoint, as long as you're on board with the mysterious warp sphere and conveniently placed spaceship, this looks like a story worth following. The challenges that have been placed in front of the characters so far, especially the immediate task of rescuing Aries, provide enough urgency and difficulty to force the kids to work together. That's about what you'd expect to see given this show's tone and themes: enough conflict to keep things exciting, but not so much as to drag the story into melodramatic territory. Crucially, we're also presented with a clear end goal and a path to get there, which keeps Astra Lost in Space from falling into the trap of wandering aimlessly through the universe in search of the next plot point.
This double-feature episode also looks reasonably good apart from some middling CG during the Zero-G rescue sequence, although I do have one minor gripe on the visual front. The series has an odd habit of rarely using the entire screen; the top and bottom of the frame are only filled during a handful of scenes, presumably for dramatic effect. It's not the most obnoxious visual gimmick I've ever seen, but I did find it distracting. On the whole, though, this is a strong first impression, and I'll definitely be keeping an eye on Astra Lost in Space as the season progresses.
Lately I've been doing my best to avoid getting sucked into the hype machine for upcoming series, but given how much time I spend navigating the stormy waters of The Discourse™, that can be a difficult task indeed. I'd heard a lot about this very well-regarded science-fiction adventure, and Studio Lerche has been putting out good work the past couple of years, so I went into the adaptation's double-length premiere with pretty high expectations. I won't say that the show failed me – by all accounts, Astra Lost in Space is a solid and entertaining story of survival and teamwork amongst the infinite possibilities of space. Given the praise I've seen for the manga, though, I ended up being just the teensiest bit disappointed in this first episode. It's difficult to say whether or not this was caused by the burden of my own expectations, but either way, I was looking forward to an opener that packed in a little more oomph.
The story itself is solid. We have a class of high schoolers that live in a future where space travel is commonplace. Among them are the ditzy Aries and the headstrong Kanata, our ostensible leads, who are joined by a half dozen of their peers on a on a class trip to the ridiculously named Planet McPa. Things go wrong, though, when a mysterious orb of light transports all of the kids from McPa to an unknown destination thousands of light years from home, with only the derelict ship Astra to shelter them and give them hope of survival. Faster-than-light technology means that the kids aren't necessarily doomed to die old in space, but the kids will have to work together and use their unique skills to get through the perilous journey back. The kids are all likeable enough, the story makes good use of the contrast between their easygoing days as students and the harsh wilderness of space, and the extended premiere gives us plenty of time to get to know the characters and the stakes so we can be invested in the adventure that awaits them.
Yet still, there was a certain something that didn't quite gel for me. It might have been the conspicuous use of black bars on the screen to establish a theatrical-seeming ratio in all of the scenes that don't take place in space – while I understand the contrasting effect I think the show was going for, I don't think the show's storyboarding and art style are quite dynamic enough to cash the check that those black bars write. It might also have been how stock the characters felt – We have the loveable ditz that is the heart of the group, the steadfast self-appointed leader with a tragic backstory, the innocent little kid (who has a hand puppet!), and so on. I've been told that Astra Lost in Space will eventually give these characters more dimension to work with, which is great, but the bog-standard writing that characterizes a lot of this premiere doesn't make the best possible first impression.
The show does a lot right, though, and the sheer amount of potential evident in this first episode is enough for me to wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for a solid adventure story with a likable cast and a tried-and-true survival story premise. I may not have fallen head over heels for Astra Lost in Space like I wanted to, but this seems like the kind of series where my tune could be completely different in just a few weeks. This premiere wasn't a stunner, but it was pretty darn good, and that counts for a lot these days.
Astra Lost in Space was one of the most frequently mentioned titles in Most Anticipated discussions for this season. After seeing the double-length first episode, I can perfectly understand why. It takes the basic survivalist premise – a diverse group of youths stranded far from home who will have to survive on their own mettle – and turns it into a mostly-compelling story set in space. Its first two minutes, where lead girl Aries is adrift alone in her spacesuit, is one of the most immediately-gripping starts to an anime series that I have seen in quite some time.
Before I delve further into the episode's merits, a couple of quibbles. The series is set in 2063, which seems much too near-future given current levels of technological progression. The old woman mentioning that she did space camp in her youth also doesn't fit into that time frame at all, as it would imply that the capability to do this kind of space camp has exist since our current time. Also, just dumping a passel of students off alone on a planet for a few days – even if it is a biologically friendly one – seems inordinately expensive and irresponsibly dangerous for whatever practical benefit is supposed to come out of it. But practicality is seldom a consideration in spacefaring scenarios, so these factors are just one of those things that has to be conveniently ignored.
As for the actual story content, the mix of characters seems like a standard one so far for a scenario like this. Thankfully the cast isn't so antagonistic towards each other that they cannot overcome their differences and work together when needed, and that made the scene where everyone works together to help rescue the stranded Aries a beautifully satisfying one. I can easily see Aries' particular brand of ditziness quickly wearing thin if she isn't handled carefully (and really, Aries Spring for a full name? Redundant much?) and Kanata's backstory is maybe a little too cliché, so the cast is not perfect, but they should be functional for this tale. Besides, the whole business about having to hop from planet to planet and gather resources along the way is the selling point of the series, and that is set up quite well. Initial technical merits by studio Lerche are also quite solid. Though the first episode does not have explicit fan service, the camera lingers a little too long on the chests of the bustier female cast members, and the space suits are a little too form-fitting on both genders, for the content to be considered entirely tame, either.
This series is directed by Masaomi Andō, who hit a home run a few years ago directing an entirely different type of survivalist story (School-Live!). Hence despite the ratio of humorous content seeming too high, I'm willing to trust that good things will come from this one.
I'll admit that my love of the source manga for this may be influencing me a little here, simply because I know what's coming and I'm very pleased with the way that this double-length episode has begun setting up for that. It isn't perfect, of course – Kanata and Aries dominate the episode at the expense of some of the others, and there's no scene of the group exploring the ship once they all manage to get onboard, which seems remiss of the anime – but there are enough little hints dropped that manga readers should be able to annoy their non-reader friends with, or at least wink knowingly to themselves. Even without that knowledge, the episode does a good job of making what is basically fifty minutes of set up into something interesting, while also giving us at least a vague idea of who all of the characters are.
Obviously Kanata gets the most of that background data, given that he's the primary male lead. He's not entirely a standard shounen protagonist in that while he is a bit goofy and charismatic, he's also got the background and the emotional baggage to make us understand why he's so desperate to be the leader. His past trauma – a school camping trip where his beloved teacher died – means that he's approaching this Planet Camp with the idea that everything could go south at the drop of a hat; when it does, he's prepared to think on his feet and scream for everyone to put their helmets on, which saves their lives. He may not have Zack's brains or Charce's pretty boy power, but he has the ability to think fast and take calculated risks, borne of his need not to let anyone die in front of him again. This makes him an ideal candidate to ensure that the group gets home safely, something the others all quickly recognize.
That they do see this is a nice evasion of the usual tropes, particularly when it comes to both Zack and Quitterie. Zack could easily have fallen into the category of someone who knows he's the smartest guy around and ignored Kanata; instead he uses those smarts to recognize a good leader. Quitterie, meanwhile, has all the earmarks of the standard mean girl, but when Aries points out that they need to stick together and get along to survive, she puts all of that aside to agree with her and make a real effort. Ulgar is falling the most into the emo boy trope, but it's only the first episode and this is the kind of journey that allows for growth.
Even if science fiction isn't your favorite genre (and it isn't mine, for the record), Astra Lost in Space is worth checking out. Some weird CG aside, it's shaping up to be a good adaption of a very good source.
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