I think I am just as tired as anyone else might be with describing Satoshi Kon's career by way of adjectives like "abortive" or with sobriquets like "taken from us too soon". Tired not because it is such a cliché, but tired because of how the primary emotional association with Kon's work should be elation, not frustration. He did die way too young and did leave behind far too much that was unfinished; that is all indisputable and bad enough. What's worse is how the more his unfinished work is brought into the public eye, the more keenly that loss is felt, and the more one's imagination roams free to long all the more for the things that he fulfilled only partly or not at all.
Unfinished work is always more tantalizing, since you are led to think more of what could be than what actually is. That was the case with Kon's Opus, and it's all the more the the case with Seraphim: 266613336 Wings, an anthologization of a work serialized in Animage from May 1994 through November 1995.
The poignancy applies even if Seraphim is not Kon's work alone. It's a collaboration between Kon and Mamoru Oshii, with the latter supplying the story and the former providing the art, but with both men in time forging — and, eventually, breaking — a full creative collaboration. Maybe such a fracture was inevitable, as it's hard to think of talent being pooled from two more dissimilar places. Oshii's work, even at its most expansive and splashy (e.g., the Ghost in the Shell feature film), preoccupies itself with meaning and mystery, with a longing for the numinous, with an aching sense of the unknown and unknowable. Kon was part slapstick jester and part Philip K. Dick, whose laugh lines and engaging characters were designed to disarm us, shake us up, and wake us up to the presence of deep questions inside all of us. If they shared a common mission, it was in how both wanted to peel back the surface of the world and see what was underneath. But each one was peeling from a different corner, and it's something of a miracle that they met in the middle at all.
The end is extremely nigh
Seraphim is set in a rotting near-future that looks like it could be the preface for Oshii's own Angel's Egg. A mysterious disease, dubbed "Seraphim" (the story's religious allusions are many and unsuble), has been ravaging the planet. Its victims succumb to hallucinations and delirium, and winglike protrusions grow from the shoulder blades. Eventually they die, their bodies crystallizing. There is no cure, no prevention, not even any way of determining who might be a carrier; you either have it or you don't, and once you have it, you're doomed. Nations are falling into chaos and splintering, with armies surrounding the few pockets of humanity that remain.
Four characters gradually emerge from the chaos and being to stand out against the story's wide-gauge imagery. First is Yakob, the tormented and conflicted U.N. worker, who's earned the nasty nickname of "Country Killer" for the way he's tried to manage Seraphim's relentless onset. He is paid a visit by the "Magi", representatives of a mysterious organization with far-reaching authority, who want him to accompany a young girl, Sera, deep into the Eurasian interior. Along with them are the venerable old Professor Erasmus, a former Magi ,and Sera's basset hound Balthazar (the basset hound being one of Oshii's ever-present signature flourishes).
At first Seraphim doesn't tell much of a story, being content instead to show us one remarkable image after another. Fighter planes being escorted by flocks of birds, each bird as big as the plane itself; the squalor and chaos of the refugee camps; the bristling wrecks of the dead cities; the corpses sprouting wings. Then once these "wise men" (that's how they're referred to, with a straight face) climb into jet planes and head inland, the pieces begin to accrue. We learn about Yakob's status as a "rabble-rouser", fighting (if ineffectually) for the protection of the powerless; we find Erasmus left the Magi when it tilted that much more towards genocide as a solution to the disease; and we learn that much more why mute little Sera is so important — and why removing her from what's left of civilization may be the only way to save both it and her.
Much of the spectacle in the story is not merely visual, but conceptual. Seraphim's smashed world has allowed all the old sectarian hurts and subdivisions to come back to the surface. The context for all this is drawn from swaths of Chinese and Asian history, recent and ancient, and there are times where Oshii's didacticism combines with that to create something that feels a little too much like a future-history lesson. But then he (or maybe Kon) finds a way to embody all that in the form of a character — e.g., Lord Ye, a Hakka Chinese and former triad leader, now overseeing a fortress-like city in the desert — and our interest jumps again. It jumps all the more when actual forward-moving plot developments come into view, as when a rogue branch of "Angel Hunters" kidnap Sera and prepare to subject her to an inquisition, complete with being put to the torch at midnight.
If I sound like I'm shying away from saying too much about the success or failure of the story, it's only because saying so about any incomplete work always seems uncouth. That's part of why I have long been reluctant to write reviews of anything in progress: until the final episode drops or the final volume hits the shelves, everything I might say about such a thing always felt like speculation. With Seraphim, the feeling's doubly acute, since there is no conclusion forthcoming, ever — barring fanfiction, I guess.
Two men, one vision, half a story
What does work — and which works entirely on its own terms, with little need for a story to justify it — is the visionary sweep that both men bring to the story. I mentioned the way Oshii re-synthesized Asian history; that creates a gritty, real-world texture for the goings-on that ground all of its more fanciful elements. (Hiroki Endo's excellent Eden: It's an endless world!, a series with plot elements and concepts that vaguely echo this story, did much the same thing too.) And then there's the barrage of amazing images, like a scene where a character realizes he's standing on a plain of funerary tablets that stretches to the horizon.
I go back and forth as to whether Seraphim is supposed to be read as SF, less because of anything the story actually does and more because I am inclined not to apply any one convenient, overarching label to anything Kon did, whether with or without a collaborator. Would Paprika classify as science fiction, fantasy, surrealism, drama, all of the above, none of the above? Is it a disservice to just call Perfect Blue a thriller, the better to get people in the door so they can see it (assuming they can find a copy anymore)? One hallmark of a great artist is that their work does not lend itself to a simple label, but that rather we are inclined to label other peoples' work as resembling theirs. Even with an incomplete and lopsided work like this, Kon's touch is present, demanding that it be approached on its own terms and not through a label.
Seraphim also confirms for me something I have long believed about Oshii: that some of his best work was done with a collaborator that could serve as a counterweight for his indulgences. I hinted at how the only thing keeping the story from being stuck in Oshii's all-talk style of storytelling is Kon himself — thanks both to his artwork and, I guess, the story contributions he made that give the goings-on direction and purpose. We're left to wonder if the completed work would have favored one or the other of their approaches, or if in fact they would have successfully synthesized what each had to offer the other. That said, even the two of them together in this incarnation had shortcomings not redeemed by the other. As others have noted, of the only two female characters of consequence, one is a guide who shows up fairly late in the story and doesn't really have personality, and the other is Sera herself, who is essentially a plot token and not a human being. (In his defense, Kon would later go on to invent and depict some enormously memorable female characters — the eponymous Paprika, or Mami from Perfect Blue, but maybe that part of his creativity was under wraps at this point, or played second to Oshii's vision.)
No matter what the occasion, Kon and Oshii both inspire scrutiny. For proof of that, turn to the back of Dark Horse's edition of the manga, where you'll find a lengthy and fascinating essay by Carl Gustav Horn that places Seraphim in the context it emerged from — the monthly magazine Animage, aimed mainly at the sort of fandom that has become, for better or worse, one of the main drivers of anime's sustained success within Japan. I owned more than a few back issues of Animage myself at one point, and much of what Horn discusses rings very true: how the magazine was aimed mainly at promoting a relatively audience-friendly vision of anime, one where cuteness and action abounded. Amidst such things, Seraphim seemed like an aberration, one designed to be as much of a leap towards prestige as Miyazaki's own Nausicaä had when it previously appeared in the same magazine's pages. But such aberrations are how the art advances — if not all at once, then incrementally, by offering a view of how things can be different, even if only a glimpse at a time. Seraphim remains one such glimpse, and even its fragmentary nature can't blot that out.
With more of Kon's prior work — some unfinished, some not — finally hitting shelves in the West, I always hold out hope that it will do more than simply cause existing fans to sigh and shake their heads and pine for all that never was. Rather, I hope it creates new fans — and, beyond that, inspires people to continue where he left off. Not in the sense of imitating him, but in the sense of creating more things without which the worlds of anime and manga — and the world, period — would feel all the poorer.