story by marginal; art by Syuji Takeya; adapted by Sheldon Drzka
published by DC/CMX Manga; $12.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Masahiko gets a phone call from a strange woman telling him his sister is dead. Although estranged from his family, he briefly returns to his hometown to pay his respects and to collect a memento of his sister. He chooses an unlabeled CD still sitting in her stereo. When he returns home he listens to the CD. Suddenly, he finds himself floating above his own body. He’s able to return to his physical body as the last song on the CD plays. The next night he listens to the CD again and once more finds himself astrally projected out of his physical body. He decides to explore the possibilities of this new experience. Masahiko discovers a whole astral world existing alongside the physical world. His experiences in the astral plane, and a letter left by his sister, motivate Masahiko to further explore the circumstances surrounding her death.
Astral Project is a mystery manga with heavy supernatural overtones. I suspect that the mystery of Masahiko’s sister’s death will be resolved soon and this will become a supernatural manga about the intricacies of the astral world. It’s a slow, deliberately paced book that gives the reader time to soak in the atmosphere and world of this series. marginal (he intentionally spells it with lower case letters) has done an excellent job of crafting a moody manga intended for mature, patient readers.
Masahiko is a careful man who doesn’t jump into things without thinking them through. This is a refreshing change from the typical shojo hero. He probably developed this trait from living on his own and from being a chauffeur/bodyguard for high-priced call girls. He’s a bit of an enigma. We don’t know why he ran away from home, or why he stays estranged from his family, especially his father. He comes across as slightly emotionless to me. I didn’t really connect with him and this kept me from being completely gripped by the manga.
I enjoyed going along with Masahiko and learning more about the world of this manga. He meets fascinating people. marginal does a good job populating this series with people that you would actually like to sit down with and have a conversation. Also, Masahiko is discovering interesting new worlds. There is the realm of avant-garde jazz, where he is introduced to Albert Ayler’s music, the musician of the unlabeled CD. Of course, there’s the astral plane with its own hierarchy of beings and some very unique persons. I like this manga more for the informational content than for the plot or main character.
Since CMX seems dogmatically committed to not providing either translation or cultural notes, allow me to offer three of my own. First, on page 71, Masahiko is eating shabu-shabu. This is a stew prepared at the dinner table where people add ingredients to a large simmering pot. You can find out more about it here, including a recipe. Second, on page 102, there is a reference to potato sake. The word ‘sake’ in Japanese simply refers to an alcoholic beverage, so this could be a reference to vodka. Another possibility is a drink called shochu; one variety of this beverage is made from fermented sweet potatoes. Finally, page 94 begins the first of a few discussions of Albert Ayler, a 60s avant-garde jazz musician. The biographical information and the album covers shown are accurate. Ayler is a great choice for this manga, since he believed that music could lead a person to higher states of being and help usher in universal harmony. There is an excellent website about Ayler and his music.
The artwork is over-drawn in the first half of this book. It reminds me of the charcoal still life sketches you see art students do. Every line, every shadow is rendered. I found this attempt at hyperrealism distracting, particularly since it’s not well done. The use of cross-hatching in the shaded areas is problematic since the cross-hatching doesn’t blend into the shadow region properly and so looks awkward. In the second half of the book, a more traditional manga art style is used. This made the latter part of the book much more enjoyable visually.
Astral Project is a well-written but not compelling manga. The book didn’t draw me in or hook me. It has a lot going for it, but the combination of distracting art and an unsympathetic lead character was too much for me to overcome. I won’t be picking up volume two. (A complimentary copy was provided by the publisher for this review.)