Review: Orient, Volume 1

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There are few historical figures who’ve had such widespread and varied fictional appearances as Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kōjiro. These famed samurai have inspired everything from period-appropriate fighting game characters to sci-fi RPGs, from an Iron Maiden song to Pokemon‘s Jessie and James. Orient, by Shinobu Ohtaka (Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic, Sumomomo Momomo), joins this tradition with an energetic action romp that casts Musashi and Kōjiro as two young warriors in a world overrun by demons and where swordsmanship is a long-lost art.

In Hinomoto, a fictionalised version of Japan, the sengoku era came to a very different end: out of nowhere, mysterious “demon gods” appeared and wiped out the nation’s would-be unifiers. The few humans who tried to fight back were dubbed the “Band of Bushi”, but the demons gods’ rule was overwhelming. Fast-forward a couple of hundred years, and people worship the demon gods and dedicate their lives to servitude, while bushi are remembered as nothing but violent monsters. The descendents of bushi families are discriminated against and shunned, chained to their swords at all times so that they might never forget their place.

But the stories that Musashi and Kojiro heard as kids from Kojiro’s bushi father painted a different picture: of bushi as mighty heroes, standing up to the evil demons. They vowed to grow up and form their own Band of Bushi, but years have a way of wearing down such dreams. At 15 years old, Musashi is an ace student in a school for aspiring miners—a divine profession, as the people who dig up the metals that the demon gods eat—while Kojiro mostly hides from a world that hates him, resigned to the belief that his father’s stories were just that: stories, with no basis in reality.

An image from Orient, Volume 1, showing Musashi and Kojiro fighting a large demon god

But Musashi, at least, hasn’t given up on the dream. Star student though he may be, he hates his life as a miner, and spends all his free time practicing the techniques he learned from Kojiro’s father and finding ways to use his pickaxe like a sword. When he finally graduates and discovers that the demon gods are every bit as evil as those old stories said, and that all that awaits him beyond the secluded walls of the town is a life of slave labour, he decides to make his stand, inspiring Kojiro to do the same. And so it is that a new Band of Bushi is born, with the world stacked against them.

This sets up Orient, Volume 1 as a manga that is pretty much all action, all the time. Whether it’s flashbacks to childhood training, Musashi’s particularly boisterous approach to mining, or the full-blown demon god encounters that come in the second half, Orient dials the octane up to 11 right from the outset and only gets more fired up from there. This first volume collects the first four chapters of a book that, in its original serialized format, is coming up on its 100th chapter, and yet it sees Musashi and Kojiro cutting their bushi teeth on a monster that wouldn’t look out of place as the final boss of an epic JRPG.

Ohtaka’s artwork does a worthy job of bringing all that action to life; she brings plenty of energy to every page and a strong sense of motion and impact to every fight scene. Even in the relatively less intense moments, like watching a young Kojiro and Musashi training together with wooden swords feel alive and heated, and when that energy is turned to something like Musashi’s overzealous mining style, what should be a mundane activity becomes exciting. The monster designs are especially noteworthy: massive, hellish beasts that draw heavily on religious motifs—hinting at some of the themes that later volumes might tackle, though in this one that imagery seems purely decorative.

An image from Orient, Volume 1, showing Musashi and Kojiro sparring as children

Orient‘s wall-to-wall action is underscored by plenty of humour and colourful characterisation. Musashi draws on the legendary accounts of his namesake—a brash and unorthodox individual who’ll never back down from a fight no matter how stacked against him the odds might seem, and one who’ll never lose sight of his dream. Kojiro is more removed from what historical accounts say about the real Sasaki Kōjiro (though the lines between fact and fiction, for Kōjiro and Musashi both, are extremely blurry)—Orient‘s Kojiro is sombre and full of self-doubt, the consequences of a life of discrimination and being the target of hate. With this, as action-heavy as it is, Orient manages to find some emotional resonance and starts sowing the seeds of some interesting character developments.

Orient is a bold, riveting fantasy action manga that’s off to a strong start in Volume 1. It draws on the heavily-used well of inspiration that is Miyamoto Musashi and his famous rivalry with Sasaki Kōjiro, but still manages to find its own niche within that space. It’s a great introduction to a fascinating world concept, and lays the groundwork for what should be an exciting series to follow.

Score: 4 stars

Orient, Volume 1 collects chapters 1 to 4 of Orient, written and illustrated by Shinobu Ohtaka, and published by Kodansha Comics. It’s available now in digital format, with a print version due out 26 January 2021.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.