Opus is Kon's metafictional tale of Chikara Nagai, a creator under pressure to finish his latest graphic novel, Resonance, who finds that the harshest critic of the shock ending he's got planned is the character who'll have to die in it! Nagai's strengths and weaknesses as a creator are tested beyond their limits as his present and his past, and the worlds of the manga and of reality, become the levels of a maze he may never escape... let alone get a chance to resolve the story!
Opus is a very unique manga, and holds a place in my heart for several reasons. Satoshi Kon sits on a pedestal as one of my favorite anime director's of all time, dazzling me with his gorgeous Inception-predecessor Paprika, and the psychological thriller that was Paranoia Agent. About a month ago I had stumbled upon a comic store near my University and decided to give it a go, spurred on by my childhood love for comic books. While perusing the small shop I came across a pile of unorganized books, and sitting at the top of the pile was Opus. The book's bright red
exterior caught my eye, only to suck me in further as I gazed at Satoshi Kon's name printed across the cover. I was completely unaware of Kon's work as a mangaka, and swiped up the book without hesitation, along with his Seraphim 266613336 Wings, co-written by Ghost in the Shell's Mamoru Oshii. I have always read manga online, so Opus would be the first manga I've read and completed in it's physical form, which creates a sort of sentimental value for me.
Opus spans across 19 chapters, and seemed to be made for an eventual movie adaption judging by its length, and the pacing of the story as it unfolds. It follows the story of Chikara Nagai, a veteran mangaka on the verge of finishing his life's work, Resonance. With the stress of an impending deadline hanging over his shoulders, he draws the final climactic panels of his story. As Resonance comes to a close, Opus is only beginning, and in a very Kon-esque fashion, the world of the living and the world of fiction begin to become one in the same. Nagai is transported into the world of Resonance, and is quickly thrown into the chaos created by his own hand.
Opus's story isn't the most original, as diving into a world of fiction has been used countless times in media, but the way in which it is tackled is brilliant. Far too often these stories overlook the psychological value of connecting two different worlds. As a person from the "real" world parades through fictitious lands, the fabricated characters seem to only be affected by their presence enough to shrug it off or be briefly astonished. Opus puts more focus on the affects created by this unworldly occurrence, as it dawns on these people that their lives are nothing more than a story, written by a man who's just trying to create something entertaining, and more so, finish it by the deadline. Several scenes highlight the flustered reactions of Satoko and Lin (Resonance's main characters) as they battle their willingness to comprehend or even accept the reality that lay before them.
But what truly puts this story above the rest is Kon's obsession with blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. Zipping back and forth between the two worlds, we begin to see an underlying message that Kon may have intended to provoke; one which he has explored in his previous works and seems to have had a personal belief in; that reality and fiction are not so different, and perhaps that means there is no real boundary between the two. Opus shows us that the worlds we create, can only be created because we live in this world. All of our influences, memories, desires, emotions and ambitions become translated into stories that are not identical, but share a very human, very real sensation of life within the pages. This becomes apparent as Nagai struggles within his own mind on the stability of his world and the world he has created. But one thing does become clear, and it's that the world of Resonance is real to him. These characters are real to him and the lives that he created for Satoko and Lin, though guided by his own pen, is life nonetheless. This speaks to the integrity of an artist, and is perhaps a defining characteristic of their purpose as writers, which I think Kon meant to portray as an outlet for his own beliefs.
The story of Opus is thrilling, maintaining a pace which serves to keep your eyes glued in and flipping the pages. I won't go into more detail than I already have about the plot, but it slowly climbs and climbs, building tension as Nagai, Sakoto, and Lin battle to preserve the order of their two worlds. And just as the tale is reaching its dynamic peak, I was met with a grim sight. Unbeknownst to me, Opus was never completed. As Satoshi Kon's extraordinary career as a director took off, Opus was put on a permanent hiatus, never to be completed due to Kon's tragic, untimely death. Just as swiftly as Kon was taken from our world in the height of his profession, Opus too came to a heart-rending halt, leaving so much still to be answered, and nothing more to be done. Kon was a visionary in his field, and had many years ahead of him to further lay claim to his title as a legendary director, right up there with Hayao Miyazaki. While it pains us all that such a brilliant mind was cut short from his inventive excursions, my deepest wound came when I finished Opus, physically drained of emotion, knowing this story will never be complete.
Dark Horse published the manga in 2014, with an additional chapter found in Kon's personal files after his death. The extra chapter doesn't wrap up the story in any way, or progress it to a point of satisfactory closure, but it does add a melancholic irony to Kon's legacy. I won't detail the added chapter, but it draws on a very meta idea that Kon's struggle as an artist with publications, deadlines and the state of the industry are very real, and very taxing for people of his line of work, which may have been one of the biggest underlying messages hidden in Opus.
BUT, a lack of an ending should not discourage you from reading Opus! It is still the work of one of the greatest anime director's of all time and should not be overlooked. The art itself should be enough to compensate, living up to the beauty and execution you'd expected from the accomplished director. Characters are expressive and well-detailed, but even more so magnificent are the beautifully crafted backgrounds and cityscapes. Explosions are intricately stunning, showering the page with debris and rubble. Kon's direction always had a knack for dabbling into the realm of psychedelic set pieces, and Opus is no exception. Grandiose trips through the worlds of Opus are just as visually appealing as Kon's cinematic ventures, conveying several mind-bending scenarios in just a few well-drawn panels.
Opus is a short, but exquisitely bittersweet tale from one of the industries most talented minds, and its abrupt ending is a depressingly ironic twist of fate, further driving my sorrow for Satoshi Kon's unexpected passing. But any small taste of his work is enough to make me smile in appreciation for his genius. I am so very happy to have stumbled across Opus, and I'm excitedly ready to start Seraphim. But before that, maybe I'll watch Paprika just one more time! Rest in Peace Mr. Kon.
THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS AND SHOULD ONLY BE READ AFTER READING OPUS
So, assuming you just ignored that warning, I'll say again that I will be spoiling the ending of Opus fully in order to discuss it, so readers be wary. If you just want a recommendation from me, this is it. Go and buy Opus on Amazon or wherever you can. It's a great read and completely worth your time, especially if you enjoy Kon's other work. The purpose of this review is to give readers some food for thought about the ending, and perhaps change how they felt about it if they were
disappointed or unsatisfied.
My experience after finishing Opus mirrored that of finishing Neon Genesis Evangelion. Although both had troubled endings, I found myself satisfied with the result regardless. Both of them also later received an "actual" ending, though the ending to Opus wasn't available until very recently and doesn't undo the ending readers were left with in 1996. What's bound to anger many people is that there is no actual "end" for the characters. Just who is The Masque? Is everything eventually set right in Resonance and Nagai's world? What happens to the characters after Nagai finishes his manga? We'll never truly know, but I personally thought the current ending sent an interesting message about the relationship between author and creation. Much like how Nagai can't finish Resonance, Satoshi Kon was unable to finish Opus, and this comes to an interesting climax when Nagai confronts Kon in manga form. It purposely leaves the narrative to Opus and Resonance incomplete, but it strengthens the message that an author doesn't necessarily have complete control over their work. Although Opus focused more on how an author doesn't have complete control in terms of character and plot progression, the end shows us that sometimes the author doesn't even have control over finishing their own story. Nagai doesn't finish Resonance, Kon doesn't finish Opus, and the two clash over this fact in the final chapter. Although it's still a bit disappointing that we'll never know how Resonance and Opus were originally intended to end, the ending we got was far from a bad one and should hopefully leave the viewer thinking about the relationship between fiction and reality, which is ultimately what Kon originally intended.
We all know Satoshi Kon by his anime works and greatly appreciate those. Some of us may know he drew manga before making his anime debut. I knew it, too, but until now I have never read any of his manga. Now, with Opus, I've got around to doing so and I must say I wish this had been turned into a movie.
Opus is about a manga artist who draws this action manga where the main characters are telepaths and/or can use raw power as a weapon. It's supposedly a great story full of suspense, but currently, the artist is in a slump and struggles
to produce a coherent ending. So he decides to go out with a bang and kill one of the main characters, a teenage boy, along with the villian. Problem is, said teenage boy is NOT AMUSED by this and decides to take the matter in his own hands. Subsequently, the author gets sucked into his own manga and continues to struggle to save the world he created, only this time the stakes are much higher.
Opus is unmistakably a piece of meta fiction. The moment the author finds himself in his own manga it's less about the actual story and more about the relationship between creator and creation - whether the life the characters lead is truly their own, whether or not the author has the right to decide their every step and ultimately, whether or not they are free. Thing is, they do not sit in a parlor and chat leisurly about this, they are still in the middle of a story and that's what makes it a fun read.
It's not all dialogue either, the visuals also highlight how the creator works. There is this one scene where there is an unfamiliar setting with strange buildings and the creator is like "Hey, I didn't draw that". Immediately, the buildings fall over like a cardboard cutout and it's revealed that they are rather on the small side and are inhabited by tiny creatures that have vaguely human shapes and are all drafts and the creator is like "Oh, maybe I SHOULD have put more work into background details". This also becomes an important plot point further into the story where it's the only makeshift landmark they have.
But that's not all. We all know how detailed Kon's works are and how the art style approaches realistic but is still cartoonish enough and that is used to full effect here, turning some situations surreal, like one guy who literally rises from a sheet of paper and the viewing angle is from the side so it appears like he's coming out of the desk (and that's when I wish this had been a movie, the surreal side of things would have had so much more emphasis when in motion). And it's the same art style that we see in the animated works - people with realistic proportions, normal faces, a realistic approach to things, all this. Interestingly enough, this doesn't lead to immersion, you are at all times aware that you're reading a graphic novel. This is also helped by the fact that there are no two-page spreads whatsoever, everything that happens on one page stays on one page. It's also the same for panels, they are mostly strictly limited to their borders, only rarely does a scene break the panel border. The distance between the reader and the work that this creates is a double-edged sword though, you can't enjoy this as much as you probably want to.
Speaking of enjoyment, as many good ideas as there are and as well as they are put together into one coherent work, it's not as enjoyable as it could be. One reason is the aforementioned distance, one other reason are the characters. They are alright for what they are; they are lively, they are fun to watch. But they aren't developed equally. The teenage boy from before, for example, may be a main character, but he turns out to be not much more than a mouthpiece to produce some lines about morality. The villain is presented like this super-powered guy who might be a little too much for everyone to handle, but he is barely even there, only towards the end does he appear out of nowhere to shake things up. And the only character who's actually fleshed out somehow is the woman. Yes, that's all intentional, we are supposed to see how flawed and irresponsible the author is, but we have to watch these characters the entire time. They could have developed through the course of the manga, especially now that they are acting on their own, but no, they mostly stay the same.
And another thing: the manga ends right at a cliffhanger. This is due to the publishing magazine going out of business. Usually an author who gets hit by this sort of things tries to move on to another magazine, but Kon here was already involved with his first anime at that time, so Opus fell flat. One thing lead to another, more anime got made, so there was really no time for Opus - and then Kon died. Apparently he was working on a new chapter which has been published as a rough sketch (that's all they had), but even that doesn't wrap things up. And it's a damn pity, because this really affects your experience. You WILL be disappointed once you get to the end and there's nothing anyone can do about it.
So in the end, it's a good manga and had the potential to be great, but it's not as enjoyable as it could have been. Still worth your time though, especially because it's done by Satoshi Kon. So go read this if you don't mind meta fiction and are prepared to be left hanging.
Before he was one of the greatest anime directors of all time, Satoshi Kon was a manga artist. From early success in college to ambitious collaborations with the likes of Katsuhiro Otomo and Mamoru Oshii, his manga work is highly recommended to better understand his genius.