From the stack: Astral Project 4

September 2, 2009

ap4I don’t usually feel compelled to write a proper review of every volume of a given manga series. There are too many of them, to be honest, and I’m usually too lazy. I have to make an exception for Astral Project (CMX), written by marginal (Garon Tsuchiya, an Eisner winner for Old Boy) and illustrated by Syuji Takeya. For one thing, the series is only four volumes long, which is well within even my parameters for sloth. For another, it’s amazing and constantly surprising, right up to the finish.

To summarize, a young man’s sister commits suicide. He finds a CD of little-known jazz music among her belongings and takes it as a keepsake. When he plays it, his spirit leaves his body. When he leaves his body, he meets a motley crew of other astral travelers, finding companionship, suspicion, and the possibility of romance. As Masahiko tries to understand the circumstances of his sister’s death, he finds that Asami’s suicide was just a small part of a much larger mystery.

After reading the third volume, I had no idea how Tsuchiya was going to wrap things up with so many narrative elements in play – mysteries, conspiracies, secrets, complex relationships, and so on. He manages it with an unexpected display of economy. Everything that really needs to be explained is explained, though it never feels like it’s being explained, if that makes any sense.

So many plot threads in play could come cross as frantic, and that’s not always bad. I often find Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys (Viz) a little on the frantic side, and that’s one of the things I really like about the series. But Astral Project takes its cues from its spiritually adrift protagonists, floating from one thread to another, seeing what there is to be seen. (I should note that I don’t think Takeya is nearly as good an illustrator as Urasawa is, but the pages are never less than competent, and Takeya can hit some nice highs along the way.)

The potential for hubbub is also mitigated by the philosophizing, which ends up being refreshingly character-driven. The underlying theories that inform the work as articulated in this last volume are a little chilling, more than a little scathing, and unexpectedly hilarious. It’s all about real versus virtual life. Having witnessed one online platform clogged to dysfunction by people responding to a short-term failure of another online platform just yesterday, Tsuchiya’s conspiracy theories also seem unnervingly plausible.

But whether you agree with Tsuchiya or not, Astral Project is just a joy to read. It’s smart, rangy in its interests, funny, suspenseful, and even a little sweet when circumstances demand it be so. If your resistance to manga is rooted in its sometimes juvenile concerns and the daunting length of some highly regarded series, then I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.