I found out about Astral Project via this post at MangaBlog, and I’m glad I did. Because even if this story didn’t have call girls, cults, and free jazz beats that literally pull you outside your body, it has one very special thing going for it: it makes me feel like I’m back in Japan.
From the rundown parks near Shibuya Station to the crisp and clean rows of merchandise at a kombini in Okubo, these images have it nailed. I had an instant sense of recognition the moment I started reading. The panels convey what a crowded and yet lonely place Tokyo can be. And it doesn’t hurt that brands I now recognize — Tokyu, Calbee, etc. — all make an appearance.
Freud (and Schilling before him) argued that what makes for an uncanny experience is the right mix of the strange and the familiar. It’s when something is 99% right with just one little piece missing that the most unnerving feelings arise. When the familiar abruptly turns foreign — that’s the uncanny. So it’s not surprising that artist Syuji Takeya would do his best to make readers feel completely at home, only to pry back the illusions that undergird everyday life. And it works.
Masahiko is a young man living alone in Tokyo. He’s estranged from his family, and works as a driver for well-paid call girls. He’s their safecall and their favourite, but he refuses to “join the team full time,” as his yakuza bosses call it. When he learns that his sister died back in Sapporo, he flies back to pay his respects, and takes one memento — the CD his sister was listening to at the time of her death. Listening to it at home in Tokyo, he discovers that Track 4 has the power to push him out of his body if he concentrates on the music. He spends the rest of the volume resolving to find out what happened to his sister, and how to use his new ability.
Japanese folklore has a long history of stories wherein an old object suddenly attains sentience, not unlike The Velveteen Rabbit. And that may be what happened here. But throughout the story we get a lot of clues about a possible conspiracy to murder the artist on the CD — real life jazz-man Albert Ayler — that involves none other than John Coltrane, and maybe Yukio Mishima. (I’ll admit it. I’m a total sucker for stories like this; my own first national sale involved John Lennon and Kurt Cobain.) And that’s only part of the menace: Takeya’s art manages to convey a subtle claustrophobia to some of the panels that imbues certain parts of the story with an uncomfortable creepiness. Characters actually loom over one another. Similarly, the expanses of space when Masahiko hovers over Tokyo in his astral body communicate the cold emptiness of his position, both literal and figurative.
My only complaint is that I sometimes wasn’t sure what was flashback and what wasn’t. Perhaps I was simply reading too quickly, but I found myself having to flip back to understand what was going on. I expect that this will change as the series irons itself out, however. Too bad that Volume 2 isn’t out until January.