After tackling the sprawling stories of One Thousand and One Nights in Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic, Shinobu Ohtaka’s latest work returns to her native Japan, with this first volume weaving together samurai, demons and religious elements to set up an exciting new historical fantasy.
The story focuses on 15-year-old Musashi, who, along with his childhood friend Kojiro, has long since dreamed of becoming a samurai, who in this world are mighty warriors that band together to take down the demons that, after the defeat of the legendary warlord Oda Nobunaga, have enslaved humanity and set themselves up as gods.
Dreams don’t always work out they way you expect however, as Musashi has found himself on the road to becoming a miner, one of the mindless sheep that mine precious metals for demons to feast upon, while Kojiro, having been ostracised as the son of one of the now-vilified samurai, has lost his sense of purpose and now spends most of his time smoking and fishing.
On the day that Musashi is due to become a full-fledged miner, he finally rebels against humanity’s overlords and slays his first demon, but in doing so awakens one of the so-called gods – a huge, fiery demon lord. Finally getting Kojiro on his side, Musashi vows to take down the demon lord as their first step to freeing humanity from demon rule.
This first volume largely sets the scene for what is to come, but is by no means light on content, having to introduce the central characters, their predicament, and the world around them. While the characters themselves don’t particularly stand out so far – Musashi is a pretty generic shonen protagonist who drives himself forward on the power of dreams, and Kojiro, despite some interesting backstory, spends most of this volume running away – it’s the worldbuilding that really strikes me as fascinating with this one.
While there are probably more manga and anime about Japan’s Sengoku warring states period than you could possibly count, Orient really makes good use of its setting and themes to give us something that does feel rather fresh, combining Sengoku-era Japan with both modern technology and religious mythology to great effect. The band of samurai we meet in this volume, inspired by the Takeda clan, is just a massive biker gang, swapping horses for futuristic looking motorcycles that look like they would be right at home in one of the more modern Final Fantasy games, all decked out in spiky crystals. Meanwhile, the demon lord itself is a ferocious giant that could be compared with depictions of both Buddhist and Hindu deities, but is a lot more deadly, able to use its crystalline body in both melee and ranged combat, with some fiery magic attacks to boot.
While some of this, like the bikes, sounds a bit silly, I’ve honestly got to say that the design work on this is fantastic, and I love how Ohtaka has taken the religious inspiration for the demon lord and made it into something both horrifying and tremendously powerful.
Outside of this big demon lord set piece, the rest of the art is generally good, if a little familiar. Some of the character designs could be picked up and dropped into any similar work, while Musashi’s giant pickaxe looks like it was taken straight out of Soul Eater. Backgrounds, however, are solid, with many scenes of the village adapting traditional-looking buildings just slightly in order to give the feeling that something is a bit off.
The way this has all been put together, from action to exposition to dialogue, made me feel like Ohtaka definitely had an anime adaptation in mind (of which was announced earlier this year) as she was creating it, as it had me constantly thinking “this would make a great opening episode”. The pacing is nice and snappy, balancing both the exposition and action well, with the latter in particular being a strong point, in that even if it is familiar shonen fare, it knows how to use its panelling well to create some exciting scenes, even belting out attack names too.
Orient is being published In English by Kodansha Comics, with the first 10 volumes (out of 12 currently available in Japan) being available digitally, while this volume marks its physical debut with the second volume due out later in April 2021. Nate Derr’s translation reads well and I did not spot any errors or issues in its presentation.
Overall, despite some of the generic character designs, the first volume of Orient is a solid start. The story and character motivations are good, the designs of the demons are fantastic, and the battles against them are pretty solid action sequences. If it can continue with these and build up its characters a bit more, then this could turn out to be a pretty decent entry in the shonen action genre.
Read a free preview of Orient on the publisher’s website here