Sep 18, 2019
Goober-fish (All reviews)
Anime is often criticized for how underwritten their stories can feel. Unfortunately for Kanata no Astra, it has the exact opposite problem.

Kanata no Astra is now the sophomore effort of SKET Dance mangaka and Gintama alum, Kenta Shinohara. I remember when Kanata no Astra first began publishing, it didn’t cause as many heads to turn as it has now, nearly 2 years after it's finished its run in Shonen Jump+. At the time, it didn’t really seem like anything other than an attempt to fulfill shonen manga’s need to reinvent itself with different settings and concepts. To my surprise, when I finally decided to dip my toes into its 40-minute pilot, I was greeted with a solidly entertaining introductory episode that more or less defied my expectations while also showing quite a bit of promise...and by its halfway point, all of that potential was lost in space.

Most of the positives I have to mention about Astra start and end with its technical aspects. Even when Lerche can’t seem to catch a break as far as the material they choose to take on, they’ve managed to consistently polish and stylize their shows to the point that they’ve become one of the more exciting studios putting out projects. Astra isn’t an exception to that. Besides some recycled CG shots of the ship darting through hyperspace, overall I’d say the look of the show is pretty good. The design of the planets and their denizens is decent although the character models fall short of standard with typical faces and bodies down to the spikey-haired athletic shonen protagonist and busty love interest. The direction isn’t anything special and as far as action goes there are really no stand-out sequences of key-animation, however on that note, it never significantly dips under its average, at least to the untrained eye. The music is decent, I guess, but not really anything I’d go out of my way to listen to on its own. I won’t hang my hat on this show’s presentation though because there are far more interesting details to divulge.

Clearly, when Kenta Shinohara penned the idea for Astra, he had a very specific end-goal in sight. That’s perpetuated by the finite amount of planets that needed to be circumnavigated as well as the flippant pace in which the characters managed to best these planets with an eerie amount of ease. This makes me question as to whether or not Shinohara was actually all that interested in the adventure aspect of the series which drew me to it initially. I played around with the idea that perhaps his superiors rushed him to the finish-line as so many mangaka are nowadays, but Shinohara isn’t exactly wet behind the ears by any means. SKET Dance was popular enough at its apex that it ran for nearly 300 chapters and he also worked alongside Hideaki Sorachi of Gintama fame which was a commercial and critical darling.

Had the story been given just a little more room to breathe, I feel like Shinohara could’ve sown together a masterpiece. I really enjoyed those first few episodes of Astra, ironically, for the lack of chemistry between the group. It was almost like watching The Breakfast Club but in a sci-fi context. These characters had no connection on the surface (until an inevitable plot twist forces one between them) and all of them had wildly different personalities and niches to fulfill as part of a singular unit. Shinohara did a good job of clearly defining their personalities and setting them up to believably pace out a codependence and comradery between them. Had Shinohara doubled-down on the adventure and the urgency/intensity, this easily could’ve been the next One Piece or Made in Abyss but in a science-fiction setting (granted very soft sci-fi), and how awesome does that sound?

Unfortunately, as the series continued, it became increasingly evident that the adventure was heavily manufactured in service of a (if you could believe it) faux political thriller (with plot twists on top of plot twists). The minute that this show started to play around with the potential of the inciting incident being intentionally perpetrated, I started to check out. Shinohara plays with heavy concepts like cloning, eugenics, and even suicide with about as deft a touch as a Hiro Mashima. And after a point, I felt like I was watching something adapted from a Hiro Mashima manga except with not nearly enough fan-service or camp to keep me sane. All of these incessant plot-twists that Shinohara feels the need to include about these characters and the situation revolving around the circumstances of their adventure are needless and contrived, they’re so out of left-field and jarring that they compromise the simple but effective formula it had carved out for itself. I’d go so far as to say the series would’ve been saved had all that obfuscatory plotting been cut in favor of focusing more on the adventure/world-building.

These plot twists are used as a crutch to squeeze pathos and force development out of these characters. At best, they served to momentarily play up the histrionics, as if that was needed. Your characters are on a friggin space adventure, why is any of this needed? You’re in friggin space dude, space is cool! Show more of that! I could care less about the needlessly convoluted political subterfuge pulling the strings of this ship to its destination, your focus should lie squarely with the adventure not the cause of the adventure! Every time Shinohara further explores the backstory of the plot he’s crafted, I’m left mouth agape wondering how exactly any of this got green-lit. It’s so poorly plotted that it almost crosses into kitsch territory, and frankly, that’s the only context I would be able to imagine myself enjoying this show ever again if need be.

It’s a shame that I can’t really go into specifics because most of my criticisms are rooted in the plot and I’d rather not have to spoil to get a point across. Garden-variety anime nowadays have such dime-a-dozen cockamamie plots that I typically have no trepidation about spoiling. That really just goes to show how solid of a concept Astra had to work with to where I couldn’t really predict in what direction the story was going in. And to be fair, even after the story continued to pull back the veil on what was REALLY going on, I still had no sense of what the hell Shinohara was doing with this story.

Even if you like this show, you just can’t overlook the messy plotting. I could suspend my disbelief when the characters were conveniently teleported into the dark abyss of space within the vicinity of a derelict spaceship with no casualties. I can suspend my disbelief that these kids are prodigious enough to basically fulfill every essential function required of their journey, like they’re friggin Starfleet. And I can even suspend my disbelief about a conveniently placed ship of the same model with the EXACT same parts that they needed to fix their original ship when it inevitably breaks down on just the right planet where that ship was placed (what are the odds right?)...okay, maybe that one was a bit too far. By the end, I just felt beaten senseless by all these asinine and unnecessary plot twists, plot conveniences, and plot devices. They say “the plot thickens”, well, the plot was certainly “thick” and probably not in the way it was intended. To me, the beauty of shonen has always been its puerile simplicity. Shows like Demon Slayer and Haikyuu!! work with such rudimentary concepts but make do with what they’re given to cobble together compelling stories. And with the way the industry is nowadays, higher concepts have a place to flourish, shows like Dr. Stone and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure are the foam that rises to the top of the seasonal anime microcosm. Astra...isn’t really either of those things but desperately tries to be both.

Astra sabotaged its own plot with its need to pull boneheaded plot twists out of its hat to the point of becoming a campy shadow of what it probably intended to come out as. With the added caveat that comes with writing a mostly negative opinion-piece on anything mildly popular, I don’t think this is the worst show you could choose to sit through, even from this season. But for me personally, Kanata no Astra was an enjoyable oddity that quickly derailed into a Jackson Pollock of several different ideas that never really fully formed. Maybe part of this denigration comes from a place of self-imposed expectations and the reality of what I got out of them, but I truly believe that this show’s flaws are being heavily overlooked. I’m earnestly flabbergasted by Kanata no Astra and the perfectly good concept it managed to botch. Watching Kanata no Astra was like watching a series of increasingly intricate shark jumps.

“What’s Earth?” I have a need to ask myself that every day.