Rarely is there anything fair, or just, about the death of a creator. At best, an artist will die leaving nothing immediately unfinished, but will still be gone. At worst, they will die young, in the middle of work they have invested themselves in deeply, and leave behind both the work itself and a heartbroken audience. When does it make sense to have others continue work left unfinished, and when is it best to just leave well enough alone? The paradoxes, not all of them obvious ones, at the heart of this question surfaced for me with some news that broke last week.
Noboru Yamaguchi, author of the Familiar of Zero light-novel series (the basis for the manga and anime properties of the same name), died in 2013 at the age of 41 after completing twenty out of a projected twenty-two volumes in the series. The publisher, MF Bunko, recently announced it would be continuing the series, presumably under another author's stewardship.
On first hearing this, I had a reaction I could most charitably describe as snobbish. Well, I thought, it's not like we're talking about Satoshi Kon here, is it? The comparison to Kon wasn't arbitrary; after reading the recently published Dream Fossil, Tropic of the Sea, and Opus, I felt all the gloomier about having had such a major talent taken from us, having left so much unfinished, right when he had been hitting his stride and pushing himself. Yamguchi, by comparison, didn't even seem to be in the same league, let alone the same sport.
A bare two seconds later, I felt chagrined for thinking all that. The easy reading of the situation, which I had succumbed to, went something like this: Because Yamaguchi's work isn't anywhere nearly as important, anyone can continue working on it. For someone else to finish Kon's work would be borderline tasteless, because of his stature, his accomplishments, etc.
I encountered an early incarnation of this issue, albeit in a drastically different form, when reading movie critic Stephen Farber's fascinating exposé of the MPAA, The Movie Rating Game. Farber penned it in 1972 after serving a short (and for him, dismaying) term of service on the board of the MPAA, where he saw firsthand and close-up how the board's ratings decisions were more often than not arbitrary and uninformed. He also couldn't help but notice how lower-budgeted or more amateurish productions were treated far more harshly by the board, awarded R or X (now NC-17) ratings far more freely than more upscale productions. "Do filmmakers deserved to be treated more harshly," he wrote, "simply because they are untalented, or because they work on a low budget?"
That question, once asked, has for me spurred any number of similarly constructed questions. In this case, do artists deserve to have their work treated more like a mere product — one that can be handed off to another creator — just because it comes off as being more like a product than a creation? Is Familiar of Zero more "deserving" of being continued by someone else, because in theory anyone else could continue it — because, again, the work is more akin to the kind of product you can find anywhere in anime/manga/light novels?
It is, I guess, within my capacity to make an argument for Kon deserving longevity — or untouchability — more than Yamaguchi. What I'm not sure of is the ultimate benefit of such an argument, especially when it comes to finishing either man's unfinished projects. If Yamaguchi's work is more readily seen as less creative or original than Kon's work, that has little or nothing to do with the circumstances of its creation. Good or even great work can come from wholly mediocre or downright inauspicious backgrounds; and an A-list team can have all the money and production resources in the world lavished on them and still produce Grade Z work. For the former, see Blade & Soul (what a nice surprise that was); for the latter, Gundress or the CGI Captain Harlock.
Some of my knee-jerk grousing about the issue is my own way of raging against the too-early dying of Kon's light. His Dreaming Machine has remained unfinished for several years now, due to the production company being unable to find the funding to complete it.* It's a state of affairs I find only slightly less egregious than, say, the closing of New York City landmarks like the Stage Deli just so yet another Starbucks can be hustled into the location. For something like Dreaming Machine to languish in completion hell is a sign the industry can't be bothered to recognize its own luminaries and do justice to them in a timely way. (Everybody loves you when you're dead — although, in this case, it seems sometimes that's still not enough.)
Yes, I myself believe Kon has more redeeming value as an artist and an entertainer than Yamaguchi. But I know that's me speaking for myself more than anything else. I don't think I want to create a situation where we get more of Kon at the expense of other things — other things which may well be as satisfying to their respective audiences, maybe more so, than anything Kon might produce. Let's have more of both of them, then, in a way that does justice to each. The whole point of creating is that we never know when or where the next great thing will come from.
* [Addendum 2015-08-24: After I wrote this article, it came to light, by way of producer Masao Maruyama at Otakon 2015, that one of the other major obstacles to completing the film is finding a director suited to replace Kon. Tall orders, indeed.]