First, an admission of prejudice. I bought and read Orion back when it was in a much earlier trade paperback printing, and had many unkind things to say about it. It was, I claimed then, the embodiment of all Masamune Shirow’s worst tendencies writ large — the worst being how he substituted technological gobbledygook for storytelling, mostly to cover up the fact that he didn’t have much of a story. He had one heck of a setting, a crazy fusion of future technology and shamanistic magic, and Orion was almost worth it for that alone. Almost.
Time went by, and this week Dark Horse sent along a newly-remastered edition of Orion, with the art restored to its original right-to-left format along with a number of other cleanups. I didn’t want to just recycle my original impressions — a person’s opinions can change a great deal in several years — so I brewed coffee and sat down to take my time with it with it like I would any other book in my review pile. And while I still got hung up about all the things I disliked, I found almost as much to savor, and to recommend. Yes, there’s still reams of technological gobbledygook instead of a story, but I’ve grudgingly accepted that as part of Shirow’s overall style. I may not like it, but hey, it’s his. It’s sort of like Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue about cheeseburgers and foot massage: if you’ve already bought into his style of filmmaking, then that self-consciously arch dialogue is just par for the course.
I’m still doomed to have the roughest time synopsizing a comic this loopy, but here goes. Far into the future — or maybe the past — there reigns the great Yamata Empire, a place where both the technology and the magic are so far advanced that they are indistinguishable from each other. Spaceships cross the great void with the aid of magical navigators (much like in theDune universe), and humanity coexists, however uneasily, with creatures of the spirit world. One such navigator, the devil-may-care Seska, has racked up a whole string of demerits for her autocratic style of getting things done: right from the start, she talks back to the captain of the ship she’s on and shreds her copy of the complaint filed against her. But she’s got a softer side, as when she gets goggle-eyed over the handsome Commander Ronnel, muffs her chance to hit it off with him, and goes to drown her sorrows in an evening of karaoke, brutally strong liquor and metaphysics discussions.
Then guards come crashing through the doors of the bar with orders to arrest her and every other member of her family. This is clearly about something bigger than moving violations, and so Seska hightails it back to her family’s shrine to find out what’s amiss. Turns out Dad stole a powerful piece of magical scripture, which he wastes no time in hiding by transferring it to her body like a gigantic and tasteless tattoo. And when the police storm the temple, she blunders into a magic summoning circle and inadvertently brings Susano, the God of Destruction, down from heaven. Susano’s a self-important brat who loves to throw his power around, and he’s super-miffed at having been summoned without the proper sacrifices. For this, he tears apart most of the capitol, and kicks the butt of the Heavenly Monkey King for good measure.
This is just the beginning of a really, really big mess. Turns out the stolen “dharmaquation” was going to be used to help gather up all the negative karma in the universe and dispense with it once and for all — and now that it’s gone missing, a giant Cthulhu-oid monster may be preparing to devour the whole planet. And on top of all that, Seska’s native abilities with magic have fused with the dharmaquation that was transferred to her body … and now she’s pondering a little world domination of her own. Bad sorceress! No spellbook!
There is more, a lot more, but a synopsis of how the rest of the book unfolds threatens to turn into a mere jumble sale of incidents. It’s not a good sign when the most-repeated thing you say while reading something isn’t “Wow!” or “Oh, nice!” but “…uh, what just happened?” The explanations that we get as to how things allegedly work are no help either, even if they’re punctuated with the sarcastic black humor that Shirow generously leavens the rest of the story with. The problem is not that the rules are so complex, but that they’re essentially being made up as we go along, and therefore have no real weight. In a story where anything can happen, nothing’s really at stake, is it?
And yet, I have to admit that Orion still has this crazy, headlong, anarchic charm to it. Sure, it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but I’m not sure that’s the point. It’s not about plot, but about energy and style and the sight of one absurd world-cracking development piled on top of another, and Shirow has shown that he has never been short of delivering any of those things. If you like all that, then dive in.
Art: “Idiosyncratic” is the word I like to use for Shirow’s designs, and I’ve used it to describe Dominion as well as this. Most people are familiar with him through his more recent pin-up work or the stuff he’s done for the latter GITS comic, which has a high degree of digital polish and postproduction work. Orion is, again, Shirow in his “analog” mode, done entirely by hand — everything’s rendered with great detail and care, but everything also takes on oddly rounded, weathered-down corners. The characters also more often than not look quite deliberately goofy, but that’s again part of the overall plan: to make you giggle as much as you goggle. What’s more, you can see many things that he would probably later have rendered digitally, now drawn painstakingly by hand — and to be honest, I find those sorts of things more impressive when drawn by hand.
Translation: This is the fourth trade paperback edition of Orion, and for the sake of comparison I dug out my earlier version — the 2nd edition, dated December 1995 — and found enormous changes. For one, the 2nd edition was somewhat larger, although the print quality in this new edition is considerably more precise and more than makes up for the reduction in page size. (Both editions have the same cover price, though: $17.95.)
The book’s also been restored to its original right-to-left presentation, but the Dark Horse production team did something surpassingly clever: rather than reletter everything from scratch, they took all the hand-lettered balloons created for the English version and digitally re-added them to the unflopped art. Since a lot of that lettering was quite artfully done, it’s a nice decision; the only place where this was not done was for things like signage — something visible right on the first page of the story — and special effects, which have been left as-is and unobtrusively annotated on the page in small text.
The translation itself is courtesy of Frederik L. Schodt and Toren Smith, and their work is (and has always been) a model for other translations to aspire to. The bonuses have also been expanded to include a glossary and a number of other bits of data, although I find it funny that the “explanations” of various parts of Shirow’s made-up universe really don’t explain much of anything. Maybe that was the idea.
The Bottom Line: As a plain old fan, I still think Orion is a mess. As a critic, though, as someone trying to see this material for how it’ll be accepted by its target audience, I have to be more fair. Flawed and muddled as its story is, Orion has a wildness of imagination you’ll either love or hate. And given how terribly lockstep and predictable so many manga can be, that’s got to count for something. Put it this way: Next time you’re in the comic shop, open it up, and if you make it twenty pages in, you’ll probably read the rest of it just to see what the heck happens.