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Four-Eyed Stranger #13: "A never-ending supply of weird stuff"

Oliver Ho
Behold the power of an angry god!: After three pages of city-smashing mayhem later Susano begins to feel much better.

Myth-information overload: With Orion, Shirow Masamune manages to out-Wachowski the minds behind The Matrix

Way back in 2003, William Gibson wrote on his blog: "The Matrix is arguably the ultimate 'cyberpunk' artifact. Or will be, if the sequels don’t blow."

Leaving aside the ultimate call on the blow-ability of the sequels, the Matrix movies did manage to blend an impressive amount of pop cultural, philosophical and religious elements. In a 1999 interview, Larry and Andy Wachowski also noted the influence of the anime Ghost in the Shell, which was based on the 1989 manga by Shirow Masamune.

Described by Frederik L. Schodt in Dreamland Japan as "a brilliant artist with an opaque and mysterious style of storytelling," Masamune may be known best for Appleseed and the Matrix-inspiring Ghost in the Shell, each of which also spawned successful films.

Like the Matrix movies, those two works made use of deep mythologies involving combinations of cyberpunk, philosophy, politics and at least one acid-trip's worth of other subjects. With Orion, which was first published in 1991, Masamune may have reached his psychedelic-encyclopedic peak.

Originally told over six volumes, and collected by Dark Horse into a single-volume English edition, Orion's reality is based on a convoluted mixture of elements that include magic-infused technology, Asian and Indian mythologies, and flat-out slapstick. Over the course of 270-odd pages, there are several trippy, "duuuude"-inspiring moments.

It's an entertaining and weird (if puzzling) fable where magicians and soldiers encounter capricious and powerful gods who fight each other and snuff out individual lives along with entire cities (and, quite likely, planets) with equal nonchalance and whimsy.

Having reached the height of its power, the "infinitely vast" Galactic Empire has built up some mighty bad karma. Hoping to gather and contain the negative energy, thereby making the empire a sort of paradise, a group of experts have gathered on a suspiciously familiar-looking, small blue planet to summon a god-thing known as the nine-headed Naga psych-collector.

In Dreamland Japan, Schodt calls Orion a "supernatural spoof...a powerful stew of Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism, and quantum physics." Into that concoction, there are also ingredients that bring to mind the work of Sergio Aragones and H.P. Lovecraft crossed with epic Asian and Indian mythology, cyberpunk and space opera, with some Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin and Looney Tunes tossed in.

One of the main characters is a young sorceress named Seska, whose day job involves using her magic to teleport massive starships around the empire. Looking like giant seafaring battleships, the starships in Orion recall the classic 1970s anime series Space Battleship Yamato (aka, Star Blazers). Masamune also seems to draw that connection by naming of the minor sub-empire where Orion takes place the Great Yamato Empire.

Another major character is a god, Susano Orbatos. At one point he battles Hanuman, who is also the Chinese Monkey King here, and, well, things only become more complicated and strange. After the story ends, Masamune provides a glossary and explanatory notes that add to the head-slapping oddness of the project.

"Orion is broadly based on the Susano myth, as well as the Cthulhu myths," Masamune writes in his author's notes. "To spice things up a bit, I seasoned the story with a broad variety of things such as the Chinese fable Journey to the West, quantum mechanics, and of course Japanese Buddhism."

In a 1998 interview with Schodt, who also co-translated Orion with Toren Smith, Masamune described his approach to blending magic and technology:

"I do think that science and technology are becoming more and more like 'magic.' In other words, the experts know what's going on, but the average person doesn't have a clue...The worlds of science and magic are obviously separate; but in terms of our consciousness and the way we perceive things, they are converging. That may be why, in my work, it may seem as though I'm trying to integrate sci-tech and religion, because both do seem to be converging."

(Yeah, I'm not exactly sure what he means, either, but it seems to exemplify the extremely weird nature of the work.)

Similar to the narrative elements, his black and white visuals are another amalgam of styles. Cute and cartoony elements stand alongside beautiful cityscapes and scenes of cosmic destruction. Tiny drawings at the edges and in between panels bring to mind Aragones' classic Mad Magazine "marginals," while the planet-encircling Naga draws an interesting, if uncomfortable, connection between Lovecraft and manga's tentacle-erotica.

As in the Matrix movies, the question arises as to what all these references actually mean. Perhaps anticipating this question in his author's notes, Masamune seems eager to mess with his readers even more.

"In Orion I have tried to avoid too many complicated direct connections with actual myths and history," Masamune writes (prompting a "you've got to be kidding me" on the part of at least one reader). "Orion is like a tree, where the branches seem to lead toward the myths such as those of Susano and Cthulhu, but in reality the branches lead nowhere."

In the 1998 interview with Schodt, Masamune also touched on the difficulty he faced in creating such information-dense worlds:

"I don't deliberately have a lot of explanations about the reality in which the characters live. To the characters this information is obvious, and natural; the readers enter the world of the characters, and it should ideally become a "natural" world for them, too."

The best way to enjoy Orion is simply to become immersed in it, then. Who knows what it all means, but it sure is weird cosmic fun. Mid-way through the story, there's a moment when the god Susano expresses a mixture of frustration and admiration that could apply not only to his reality, but to the wild and unusual imagination of its creator, Masamune.

While battling the Eight Wizards from Hell, and demolishing what appears to be an entire mountain in the process, Susano yells (everyone yells, all the time), "Damn it! This is beginning to piss me off!! Does this place have a never-ending supply of weird stuff!?"

Of course, the answer is yes.

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Appearing every other week, Four-Eyed Stranger looks at classic manga reprints and unusual modern work by Asian artists.

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