It's depressing to think that most everything I've had to say about Satoshi Kon as of late has been, in one form or another, a lament to the effect that he died far too soon and left behind far too much unfinished work. Most every creator's work functions to some degree as a commentary on their career, but in the case of Opus it's doubly true: it not only echoes the larger themes of Kon's career, but the arc of his career as well. That it does so serendipitously, not intentionally, makes it all the more poignant to have this abortive title formally released to the public.
Kon was best known to Western audiences as an anime director, and for good reason: the man who was at the helm of Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent, Millennium Actress, and Perfect Blue deserved to be singled out for his work. But before that he had an entirely separate career in manga, one only now starting to find documentation in English. There, the obsessions, stylizations, and points of view that would become refined and amplified in his films all took root. It's fascinating to see how they first took shape, and heartbreaking to see how many enticing directions in his work never had the chance to be taken.
Stepping out of the page, into the sensual world
Those of you coming into Opus from Kon's other work are less likely to be thrown when you open the cover and find yourself in what appear to be the last pages of another manga, Resonance, created by one Chikara Nagai. From the marginal notes and interstitials provided by the publisher, it's the story of a brave young woman, Satoko, using her psychic powers to fight the evil Masque, lord and master of a cult of brainwashed slaves. Just as the action rises to a climax, the artwork turns rough and unfinished, and we find ourselves in Nagai's crowded little apartment studio, while he and his long-suffering art assistant grind out the final pages on an impossible deadline.
Nagai's plan is to kill off Lin, a fellow psychic who steps in at the last minute to save Satoko (nothing like going out with a bang), a twist even Nagai's publisher didn't see coming. While inking the panel where Lin dies, Nagai finds himself nodding off, and jerks awake to find that the artwork itself has gone missing — stolen by none other than Lin himself, who's not about to stand for being killed off. Then Nagai falls into the universe of his comic — literally falls, as the page he was drawing becomes a manhole-like void — and finds himself on the inside of his own creation.
This is where Opus could have gone in a couple of different directions, with the easiest and most obvious being Nagai using his wizardly powers as an author to rewrite everything. Kon has bigger things in mind, though, because while Nagai does have a leg up on his creations, it's not a universal get-out-of-jail-free card, and can create at least as many problems as it solves. Nagai knows Satoko's history and personality, and uses that to convince her of his position in her world — but she takes a lot of convincing, since in her world psychics with mind-reading powers are not exactly rare. What's more, his understanding of his own world isn't complete. At one point he and the others run out to the edge of town, and find the buildings there are little more than movie-prop stand-ups ... because Nagai had delegated that part of the art to his assistant. (Echoes of this incomplete-world concept surface again in the climax of Paranoia Agent.)
Again, Kon has more on his mind here than just making jokes at the expense of his character's descent from godhood. The very plasticity of his world has consequences apart from slapstick comedy — although there's a few moments like that, as when Nagai tries to draw a sketch of a building he's seen to jog the memory of another, and the dragon on its façade comes to life. But the real thing Kon is interested in is the way Nagai's fantasy world and his own real world come to interpenetrate. After some fumbling chaos inside his story, he not only returns to his own world, but provides a way for Satoko — and by extension, the other characters — to follow him back out. There, Satoko encounters her story as it was originally rendered in print, and confronts Nagai about his own newfound creative barriers: he can't finish Resonance, knowing now that he's not simply playing with abstractions, but with lives that have become real. He feels an obligation to them that he doesn't know how to fulfill — but he'd better figure something out, because the Masque has followed them back out as well, and is using his power to destroy what few barriers are left between fantasy and reality.
How deep does this rabbit hole go, anyway?
Properly discussing Opus is impossible without spoilers. The climax, pitting Nagai and Satoko against the Masque, is not in fact the end of the story, because the story as written didn't really have an ending — it just terminated with everyone quite literally hanging in space. But sometime after Kon's death — or so we are told in the text — an unfinished final chapter was found in his files, and was published with his estate's permission. In it, Kon pulls the camera back even further and turns it on himself, to show us him, struggling with his own inability to finish Opus, and subjects himself to exactly the same kind of interpenetration that Nagai tangled with.
I am no fan of conspiracy theories, but the way Opus is constructed and the story behind its publication invites all manner of speculation. Did Kon deliberately leave the story unfinished so it could be discovered and completed in this fashion, an Andy Kaufman-esque meta-gag? Or did he just put it aside as other work came to occupy him more, with the unfinished chapter taking on a resonance far beyond anything he'd intended? I'm more inclined to think the latter — from what I've come to understand about his life and career, in-jokes of that depth were not his style; Kon saved the head games for his actual work, and kept them out of his own life. It might be tempting to believe he was capable of a prank of that magnitude, given how he labored to keep secret the pancreatic cancer that eventually killed him. But that seems more the act of a man trying to preserve his dignity amongst his family and colleagues (he didn't want people to see how badly the disease had ravaged him), and less evidence of how far he would go to execute an idea.
It's a shame that the story details of the ending we do get, though, are something of a letdown. They don't really attempt to address the story Kon was telling, or bring it to any true closure; they're more about his feelings about that story, and how difficult it was for him to give it a conclusion he was happy with. I don't doubt that was the idea; it's just that the specific details are less satisfying than the overall concept. But it's hard to be too critical of a work with such a peculiar genesis, and it's achievement enough that Western audiences can now finally see more of it than what little was published under Kon's name in the Taschen Manga Design anthology.
Someday, all the missing pieces of Kon's puzzle will fall into place — concluding, one can hope, with the still-unfinished Dreaming Machine. It's a shame so many of those pieces have languished this long, and I'm grateful Opus has emerged from that limbo, in whatever form it turned out to have been in.