Suppose the end of humanity approaches in a manner different than that depicted in the Book of Revelation, the Poetic Edda, the Vedic Scriptures, or any other written account of the end of days. The apocalypse is a time of transformation, after all. (You thought it was just about death and destruction? Think again!) What if salvation comes in the form of a disease that soothes its victims with compelling hallucinations?
In a time not too distant from our own, the course of humanity’s existence has taken a dramatic turn. Nations across the globe have dissolved into tense, often feuding states as an epidemic sweeps through the human population. The disease, called Seraphim, causes neurological and physiological changes to its victims. As the victims’ brain chemistry shifts and changes, their minds are drawn into vivid hallucinations, and their bodies are slowly twisted out of shape by the large, bony protrusions that emerge from the region of their shoulder blades. When they die, as they all eventually do, their bodies crystallize. Scientists don’t know how the disease spreads nor how to cure it.
As a result, entire cities have been walled off and abandoned when the infection rate reaches critical levels. Refugees flee to other areas, but resources are scarce and there’s no guarantee of safety from Seraphim. Those who are infected are placed in internment camps; if they’re not left to die, then they’re experimented upon by scientists desperate to save the human race. Nation-states are militarized and armed to the teeth, and WHO (the World Health Organization) remains as an international, quasi-religious organization dedicated to finding a cure for Seraphim. Oh, and there are Hitchcockian flocks of birds roaming the world.
Into this setting come the three agents of WHO called Magi: Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior. Those are code names, of course; the world of Seraphim is rife with references to Christianity. Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior were the three “kings of Orient” who bestowed gifts upon the Christ child on the night of his birth. And now, those names are worn by an aging scientist, a gruff “nation-killing” former international official, and a basset hound. (Don’t ask me about the basset hound; it’s Oshii’s thing. He includes his pet dog in everything and says “I’m marking poles like a dog does.”)
The mission, which WHO gave these three unlikely Magi no choice but to accept, is to bring a young, silent girl named Sera to the Taklamakan Desert in central Eurasia. They don’t know what they’ll find there, but they hope it will be the key to Seraphim; however, first they’ll have to get there, and the journey across the warring states that were once China will be far from safe.
Seraphim 26661336 Wings was serialized from May 1994 to November 1995. Creators Satoshi Kon and Mamoru Oshii are some of the anime industry’s most oft-dubbed geniuses. Their unique visions and strong voices left a mark on not only the Japanese animation industry, but on filmmaking as a whole. Kon, who started in the manga industry and moved to anime, is known for films such as Perfect Blue, Paprika, and Millennium Actress. Oshii is perhaps most well known as the director of Ghost in the Shell, but has also directed such hits as Patlabor 2 and Urusei Yatsura.
Takashi Watanabe, Seraphim’s original editor, states in this volume’s afterword that the project was originally Mamoru Oshii’s. Oshii created the setting and brought Satoshi Kon in as the artist. Over time, the collaboration between the two grew greater (the credits for the last three chapters listed them as co-creators), and then it fell apart. Oshii and Kon went about their separate projects, and, sadly, in 2010, Satoshi Kon passed away. Seraphim remains incomplete.
One side note of encouragement for those who read Seraphim: there’s a good essay by Dark Horse Manga Editor Carl Gustav Horn at the end of the book. It’s a worthwhile read, particularly for those who are interested in the ways in which the manga and anime industries both intertwine and differ. It also provides a lot of detail about the context in which Seraphim was created, including some of China’s history. Readers need not be daunted by the complexity of the world before them.
Oshii and Kon’s story is reminiscent of a literary epic. It’s obviously complex, as there are multiple footnotes toward the beginning of the story to aid the reader in gaining background knowledge. The setting is firmly rooted in actual cultures and history, and there are many players and moving parts. It takes over a third of the story’s pages before the stage is adequately set for the journey to begin, and we only learn one of the key motivations for Seraphim’s main character, Melchior, nearly 200 pages in. The measured pace and depth of detail indicate that, while the atmospheric experience is intense, there is a heck of a lot left untold.
Which begs the question: why compile and reprint something so very incomplete?
For one, it’s an intriguing exploration of the nature of collaboration. Who influenced whom, and how? Serdar Yegulalp of Ganriki speculates that “the only thing keeping the story from being stuck in Oshii’s all-talk style of storytelling is Kon himself.” In the afterword Watanabe states, “Mamoru Oshii built his world as a logical construction, one which Satoshi Kon then expanded and evolved with his art.” What happens when two talented, opinionated creators work together? In this case, fireworks, for better and for worse. It’s a bold, complex narrative, almost explosive at times, and then it simply vanishes, leaving us all to wonder what comes next.
It’s interesting that Dark Horse has released two unfinished works in close proximity to one another. Satoshi Kon’s OPUS (read more about that here) was published in December 2014, and Seraphim in February 2015. I actually think this is encouraging, as there’s a lot to appreciate about a story regardless of whether or not it is complete. “Complete” can be subjective anyway. Sometimes what’s finished to the author is not to the reader or vice versa. In fact, aren’t some of the best stories those that leave room for the imagination? Think of the superhero genre, constantly morphing and evolving as it passes from hand to hand, or of the bountiful creativity and enthusiasm seen in fan fiction.
While Seraphim may not provide the satisfaction of a full story arc, and the ultimate message and direction remains open to speculation, I enjoyed the read precisely because it made me ponder so much. For instance, there is an ongoing dialogue about what is ethical in a time of extreme crisis. Does the likely end of the human race justify any and all means used to save it? Over the course of the story, most major characters alternately object to and acquiesce—sometimes from expedience, sometimes helplessness, and sometimes simply despair—to the cruelties happening around them.
Warning: spoilers ahead. Another item of note is the distinct absence of female characters (did Seraphim kill off most of the world’s women first?). As is pointed out in this review, the only females are Sera and a mysterious guide, and Sera doesn’t have any agency of her own; she’s more of an object to be protected. That’s a real shame.
Now, about Sera. She does hold the key to the salvation of humanity, so she’s an important story element. At first I thought she was being positioned as a female Messiah (wouldn’t that be interesting?) because there’s even a scene where she’s crucified. By the end of the text, however, I realized that no, Sera isn’t the object of salvation; she’s the vessel of salvation—the Virgin Mary. Sera, an unaging young girl, is shepherded carefully, then captured and examined. They take x-rays of her and gasp at what is revealed, and her blood is used as a serum to slow the progression of the disease. It’s not who Sera is, but what is inside her that matters.
Of course, we’ll never find out if Sera ever takes her role into her hands—but I don’t mind, as I like to imagine that she will. The story created by Mamoru Oshii and Satoshi Kon has left their hands and hearts and now belongs to all of us. It’s our privilege to immerse ourselves in their world and then dream of it however we like. What you take from it, and where you go with it, is up to you.