What is the relationship between creators and their work? Once released into the world, audiences consume the creation and make of it what they will, and the creator loses control. But what about the work itself? Surely, within the boundaries of the piece, the artist’s will holds sway. Right? Right. Or, not right.
Satoshi Kon’s OPUS explores what it means to be a creator—specifically, a manga-ka (manga creator). There are the deadlines, of course, and long hours spent crouched over a desk sketching and chain-smoking. Numerous bowls of instant ramen. Pressure from editors and publishers to keep the story consistent and, above all, please the audience. Assistants to manage. On top of all that, there’s a world and characters to build and maintain, and the manga-ka has to make hard decisions to meet the demands of the story. Occasionally, a character must be sacrificed. Sometimes, a dramatic death is simply what’s needed to finish the arc.
Chikara Nagai is almost done with the last page of the current issue of his manga Resonance. It’s been a long haul, and he hasn’t slept for two days. When he finds himself literally pulled into the climax of the story, he assumes he’s crazy, dreaming, or both. It seems that Lin, the character who was supposed to die, objects to his upcoming demise (naturally) and has stolen the manga page that showcases his suicidal takedown of Resonance’s main villain, the Masque. Chikara interrupts Lin’s death when he falls into the scene from a convenient ventilation duct.
What follows for Chikara is a crash course in navigating a world of his own creation. Sure, he knows all about the characters—protagonist Satoko, hero Lin, and seer Mei—but what happens when his characters take the plot off the rails? What happens when someone goes beyond the edges of his illustrations? Chikara, Satoko, and Mei must learn all about the rules of this world in order to stop Lin from destroying it as he seeks to prevent his own demise. Oh, and along the way, Satoshi Kon breaks fiction.
(Warning: OPUS will mess with your head, delightfully so. It’s a mega meta manga!)
For those already familiar with Kon’s work, this will come as no surprise. Kon is known for—among other things—his mind-bending films: Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2001), and Paprika (2006). His stunning visual style, strong grasp of storytelling techniques, and fully realized characters leave a lasting impression. As Kon himself says through a translator, “There might be a certain part that you don’t quite understand, but there is a portion that rests in your heart.” And as Tony Zhou points out, Kon made such a mark that his scenes and editing techniques have been quoted in numerous blockbuster live action films.
Before his films, however, there was OPUS. This long-lost work was serialized by Gakken from October 1995 to June 1996 before going on permanent hiatus due to the uptick in Kon’s anime work. After his tragically young death in 2010, one additional chapter was found in his files. Fortunately for us, this unfinished piece is included in Dark Horse’s omnibus. The additional depth it grants OPUS is awesome—and that’s all I’m going to say, because spoilers.
In OPUS, as with much of his work, Kon pokes at the boundaries of life. In Millennium Actress, he plays with memory; in Paprika, dreams; in Perfect Blue, sanity. In OPUS, Kon deliciously blurs the lines between fiction and reality. In fact, maybe all reality is fiction. If Satoko can become self-aware and meet her creator in the flesh… well, what if my creator thinks I’m merely a figment of her imagination? What if she’s as flawed and human as I am?
Setting that rabbit hole aside for a minute, let’s talk about technique. The manga is gorgeous. Kon’s line work is clear and bold, yet sensitively rendered. His compositions are incredibly strong. The way he illustrates breaks in reality will make any reader pause in appreciation. It’s part M.C. Esher, part Through the Looking Glass, part Shigeru Mizuki. Kon’s transitions between panels and pages help keep up the pace; this nearly 400-page read flies by. For the most part, the panels are simple and rectangular. The irregular panels aren’t used for flashy action scenes or extra-cool vignettes. Instead, Kon uses them to great effect in order to convey a character’s mental state or to strategically break the fourth wall.
In addition, Kon’s characters aren’t fantastic, idealized versions of human beings; they’re basically just regular people (okay, yes, with some psychic powers and a few super abilities). They’re realistically rendered, which I particularly appreciate in regards to the female characters. If one of your main joys of reading manga is a plethora of cleavage, OPUS is going to leave you sorely disappointed.
Although the overriding theme of OPUS has to do with fiction versus reality, it is filled to the brim with other juicy material. Kon touches on serial killers (later explored further in Perfect Blue), child molestation, brain washing, and the divine (Chikara, our rather hapless manga-ka, is referred to as “God” by the people within Resonance). He also discusses inspiration and fantasy—as when Satoko discovers that she looks just like Chikara’s girlfriend Kanae, to which Chikara responds, “But [Kanae]’s nothing compared to you.” Just how often do creators insert preferred versions of their loved ones into their artwork, anyway?
As you’ve probably determined by now, this review could go on and on… and on. There’s something better you can do with your time, though, than read this. Instead, snag yourself a copy of OPUS and get to it. Seriously, time’s a-wastin’.