Back when I reviewed Kon’s “Tropic of the Sea,” I made the mistake of going into the manga expecting it to be the last great work of a genius who was taken from us too soon. (I was also mistaken about its length -- this is his longest manga work.) As it turns out, my expectations were wildly off base as it was his first professional work and it showed. “Opus” was the creator’s last long-form manga before his anime directing career took off in the late 90’s with “Perfect Blue.” It’s a much more accomplished work and gives the impression that, had he continued producing manga, we would’ve seen even more impressive things from him in this medium as time went on. The best thing I can say about this series is that it likely would’ve made for a great addition to his film canon had he decided to make it as a movie instead. If it weren’t for how it wraps up, I’d have no qualms about recommending this to fans of Kon or of manga that break the mold.
Chikara Nagai is a mangaka who is about to wrap up his latest series “Resonance.” It’s an action/sci-fi potboiler involving a cop, Satoko, who teams up with a street punk, Lin, to stop The Masque, an evil cult leader. They all have their own kind of telepathic and telekinetic powers as well. For the big finish to his manga, Nagai is planning on having Lin sacrifice his life to kill The Masque. All for maximum drama, of course. The problem is that there’s one person who really doesn’t want the mangaka to kill off Lin: The character himself. So Lin steals the final page from Nagai and escapes into the world of “Resonance” with his creator following in pursuit.
If you can accept that bit of metafictional magical realism, then you’re going to enjoy what Kon has on display in “Resonance.” At its most basic, it’s a chase story through multiple levels of reality as Nagai confronts his creations and races through the world he created in order to get that final page back. Kon’s style is very reminiscent of his mentor, Katsuhiro Otomo, with the intricately designed cityscapes and breakneck action sequences that populate this particular manga. He also makes Nagai into an affably befuddled presence as he realizes that the characters and world he created actually exist and that his actions have real consequences for their lives. On the flip side, we see the man as the typical mangaka driven by caffeine, nicotine, and deadlines, barely able to hold himself together in the face of unreal circumstances. Satoko and Lin aren’t really given much development beyond their genre roles as “tough female cop” and “wiseass street punk” but that’s alright as the fun in their roles comes from seeing how they deal with the fact that there’s another world out there that’s more real than theirs.
This is only half of the story as the meta-narrative is all about what happens when a creator’s creation gets away from them. You’ve probably heard writers talk about their characters, after they’re developed to a certain point, start having a mind of their own and start wanting to act in their own way rather than bending to the will of their creator. “Opus” is that conceit played out to its literal end with Lin’s rebellion against Nagai. The narrative may be driven by the physical chase between the two, but it’s really about Nagai’s creation getting away from him and his efforts to wrestle it back under control.
The scope of this metafictional conceit becomes even greater when the conflict actually starts wreaking havoc on the cohesion of Nagai’s world. It starts off small, with the chase extending into the “less well-drawn” parts of the manga, and then having everything decohere around the mangaka as his narrative completely breaks down. Things go even further as Nagai has to recognize his own powers of creation in order to slip further back into “Resonance’s” story, not just to confront Lin, but to stop The Masque, who wants to break the story in order to escape into this “real” world. It’s all very trippy and strange, but Kon keeps everything straight between worlds and keeps things grounded by playing out the conflict between the author and his work as a clash of personalities between people.
While all of this is very much in line with the mangaka’s anime work, there are also numerous visuals in “Opus” that signify what a distinctive visual stylist he’d become as well. The volume starts off as a manga-within-a-manga as we see the next-to-last chapter of “Resonance” as if it were being published in a magazine. It’s pretty cool to see all of the trappings of the format there before the scene starts shifting into the real world as Nagai’s editor reviews the final pages. This is only the tip of the iceberg as there are plenty of other mind-bending scenes throughout this collection. We see the world of “Resonance” spill out of Nagai’s head in comic-panel form after a psychic encounter with The Masque. Nagai being pushed out of the world and struggling for the final page of his manga with Lin on the top of one of his pages. The world shattering as The Masque seemingly gets what he wants. As good as the actual series looks, it’s these moments that make the visuals of “Opus” truly memorable. They also serve as clear forerunners of how Kon would go on to play with reality in the visuals of the anime he created.
There’s no denying that “Opus” has a lot to recommend it. However, there is one big issue that I can see serving as a real dealbreaker for anyone interested in checking it out. That would be the fact that it has no ending. As we’re told in the text piece that prefaces the final chapter, the series was originally serialized between October 1995 to June 1996 and was put on “indefinite hiatus” once Kon’s directing career started taking off, with “Perfect Blue” entering production around that time. So the fate of Nagai, Lin, Satoko, and The Masque has been left unfinished ever since, now never to be completed. It’s frustrating, to be sure. Yet I won’t deny that there’s something appropriate for a title that’s about a mangaka’s series getting away from him ultimately being unfinished itself.
However, even though “Opus” doesn’t have a proper ending the final chapter does provide a certain amount of closure. I won’t go into the circumstances of what it’s about, save for the fact that Kon takes us even further down the metafictional rabbit hole he started in the main narrative. You could say that what he does here is equal parts clever and self-indulgent, but he at least calls himself out for leaving the title unresolved. That being said, the fact that we have this “final chapter” at all owes itself to some interesting circumstances, which I won’t spoil for anyone who wants to check this out.
I was actually planning on giving this manga to some friends who are fans of Kon as a Christmas gift, but ultimately decided not to in the end. Just as “Tropic of the Sea” comes with the caveat of “It’s his first professional work,” “Opus” has “It has no ending” to mark it. This title is an engaging read up until that non-ending and offers some clear visual indications of what the creator would go on to accomplish with his film work. If you can get past the fact that “Opus” doesn’t have an ending, but at least offers some closure for its narrative, then I’d recommend picking it up. Otherwise, it looks like it’ll be up to Vertical’s forthcoming collection of Kon’s short-form works next year to provide the definitive, caveat-less, statement for his manga work.