Picture in your mind a universe in which magic and science are one and the same, in which interstellar travel is accomplished with incantations through the art of “psycho-science;” where power is measured in terms of “psychs.” In the Yamata People’s Empire, a strange mix of Tantric Buddhism, Shinto mythology, Cthulhu mythos and varied Eastern philosophies combine into one.
The empire, an offshoot of the Greater Galactic Empire in the Orion galaxy, is about to embark upon its greatest feat: Collecting, gathering, and destroying all of the negative karma in the galaxy. Welcome to the wacky, mind-blowing narrative that is Masamune Shirow‘s Orion.
Completed at a time between two of Shirow’s most well-known works – Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell – Orion is a manga that, at least among American fans, appears to have slipped between the cracks. However, for those who are willing to approach it with an open mind, Orion delivers some of Shirow’s best storytelling and paints a picture of an artist who is beginning to hit his stride and gain confidence in his own work.
Orion, like so many of Shirow’s manga, is a multi-layered and complex narrative, with a cast of characters centering upon Seska, daughter of Master Fuzen of the Fuze clan, whose particular sect of psycho-science is known as the Tendai Naga rituals. Piloting the warship Nubatama to the planet Lurieh, seat of the Yamata People’s Empire and setting for the story, Seska could be seen as either arrogant and rash, or highly competent and confident, depending on the reader. She’s also very much in love with the young and handsome Commander Ronnel, who serves in the Yamata Empire’s military forces. The two are disarmingly attracted to each other, but it is Seska who wears her feelings on her sleeve for Ronnel.
After arriving on the planet, Seska goes to dinner with friends, quaffing quantities of Aqua Loco that would kill a lesser being. Mid-way through dinner, the party is interrupted by a squad of Imperial armored troopers, sent from the palace with arrest warrants for everyone from the Fuze Clan. Escaping the troops, Seska makes her way to Kurama Tendai, the home of her family and center of the Tendai Naga sect. There she finds her father, Master Fuzen, in the summonary with the temple priests, engaged in some act of summoning involving a “dharmaquation,” sort of a visual depiction of Chinese trigramology used to work the sect’s magic.
Seska immediately recognizes that the dharmaquation incorporates a top-secret element of the military, hence the arrest warrants. Stepping into the sacred circle, Seska has the dharmaquation inscribed onto her skin by her father, who wants to conceal them from the Empire. Suddenly, the Imperial troops break into the temple, led by Dr. Gyoun Hebime, military counselor to the imperial court, and practitioner of the Vajra naga-dragon rituals, the branch of psycho-science involved with activating the nine-headed naga reactor, which will collect and destroy all of the negative karma in the galaxy. Fuzen and Hebime clash in the summonary, and in the melee, Fuzen is killed. At this point, a runner from the palace informs Hebime that a psycho-mass of 980,000,000 psychs is traveling to the summonary. Suddenly the skies crack open and with a sufficiently dramatic entrance, we are introduced to the other central character of this story, the violent god of destruction, Susano Orbatos, who is, to put it mildly, rather displeased that the empire is transgressing the “celestial laws,” and he warns them to cease immediately or face the wrath of heaven.
What follows next I can only describe as metaphysical comic/drama, with gods from different dimensions, Seska, Fuzen, Hebime, and Susano engaged in a titanic struggle for the future of not only the Yamata Empire, but the galaxy as a whole. Will Seska realize her dreams of fame, fortune, and finding happiness with Commander Ronnel? Will the nine-headed naga be activated, and what happens if it is? Does Susano really give a damn, or is he just looking at another opportunity to destroy a bunch of stuff? If you’ve never read the manga, you’ll have to read it to find out.
Orion is, in many ways, one of Shirow’s most impenetrable works. However, his use of action, line art and screen tones convey a sense of constant movement throughout the entire graphic novel, and the action and story compliment each other wonderfully, and are rarely at odds. Not just the main characters, but many of the sub-characters are rich in personality, from the comically effeminate Gonzales, captain of the Imperial Guard (whom Seska transforms into an “eater of filth” in a segment that has to be seen to be appreciated) to the indolent Emperor himself, whose idea of “having fun” involves watching sea monsters devour maidens in his palace pool.
At 280 pages, it’s a bargain for the posted $17.95 price, and a worthwhile read for anyone whose only exposure to Shirow-sensei is limited to Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell. “Prepare Incantation! Begin!”