The Writer as God?: Or Satoshi Kon’s Opus Messed Me Up

I have officially placed a moratorium on buying books. They are everywhere: stacked on the floor in towers, overrunning my nightstand in unruly piles, occupying the spare room like sad, sleepless orphans. The shelves are creaking under the combined weight of so many unread tomes.

…Buuuuut this hasn’t stopped me from dragging Chebk to the library on my ongoing quest to find something to read that won’t trigger my depression or anxiety. Thankfully, with a little help from Battle Royale, this recent trip proved successful. I’ve gotten through N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (first in the Inheritance Trilogy; I highly recommend this volume so far. It is a balm after my extended time reviewing the Divergent trilogy). I also borrowed Satoshi Kon’s final and “incomplete” manga, entitled Opus.

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I first got into Kon’s work on a trip to the Big Island, during which my girlfriend brought along a collection of his movies for downtime and also because I’d somehow committed to writing a paper on them for one of my graduate classes. You may know some of his animated movies: Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent, and Paprika, to name a few. Prior to his directorial work in anime, however, he was mainly a manga artist.

Some things on Kon’s work upfront: Probably not the best things to watch or contemplate when you’re in a bad state, (probably). They’re all mindfucks because Kon is fascinated by taking apart both realities and illusions and blending them into crazy shit. Example:


Opus
is no different. It follows the story of manga artist, Chikara Nagai, as he wraps up his long-running manga series, Resonance, by killing off one of his main characters. The night before the big deadline, after inking the final death, Nagai is inexplicably drawn into the literal pages of Resonance when his characters rebel at impending deaths, the limits of controlled reality, and, of course, the masked manga villain dogging their every step.

The best part about all of this is watching the meta discussions of a writer and his characters unfold. Once his main characters become aware that they are fictional creations in a fictional world, they begin to refer to Nagai as “God.” They question whether or not they have free will with Nagai at the helm — made more interesting because this becomes a break from their predestined storyline as they yell at him, which Nagai sees as proof of their own free will. They beg to live, all the while knowing that if they go back and change their storylines their current “world” will collapse because it veers too far from what has already been published. Most importantly, they question their God, asking why their lives have been filled with such pain and suffering, only to come to the conclusion that, if it is all for the sake of a manga, then they have been hurt so egregiously for “entertainment.”

As an author who is all too willing to examine broken characters and even to sacrifice them for the sake of a storyline, this all hit home in the best of ways.

Satoko (Fictional Character): How'd it come to this? To "save the world" we have to protect that monster." Mei (Fictional): Can we even stop Lin? He's so powerful... Nagai (Creator): Heh. With God on your side... S, M: What's the plan? Nagai: We...are going to WING IT! Satoko: You don't know how it's going to end?! Nagai: Look, it's a story, okay? But I'm creator! Have faith in me! Mei: That's what made this world such a horrible mess, God!
My favorite page in the entire manga.

Now, I’m not one of those writers who claim to hear their characters speaking to them or let the characters tell them what to do. Nothing against those people or their methods, I have just never had the pleasure. I imagine this would make the writing process a lot more difficult — do you guys have moments like Nagai does with his very aware characters?? — and I already have enough problems just sitting down and writing.

I think this brings me back to the aforementioned post on picking the right books. In it, I talked about how hard it’s been lately to find a book that wouldn’t just sink me further into Bad Days. The characters were either too broken and therefore too relatable, or too normal and therefore too painful to contemplate, mostly on those self-pitying days when I wonder too much why I couldn’t just have a more chemically stable brain.

But, when I really think about it, I put my characters through far worse than my worst Bad Days, a lot of the time. A LOT of the time. I am a destroyer of worlds (my current WIP is post-apocalyptic). I sow pain (all of these characters are haunted by separate and horrific pasts). I am Chikara Nagai, playing at God without fully realizing the limits of my world or the humanity of my characters.

Fan art of Satoshi Kon and his creations by Kosal.
Fan art of Satoshi Kon and his creations by Kosal.

This, of course, is the melodramatic reaction to Opus, and it’s not entirely accurate. I mean, it is all true, but I don’t necessarily lament it. Kon makes interesting points, and he doesn’t exactly exclude himself from the discussion on the artist’s relationship with his art. (Spoiler alert: In the final chapter of Opus, the story shifts to Kon finding out Opus won’t get an ending because the magazine in which the comic is published has folded. His character, Nagai, the manga artist, intrudes into “reality” because he feels the story deserves an ending. It is like Inception, three levels down the rabbit hole. And it is perfect.)

My true reaction has mostly been a self-reflection on my work. I know that I focus on mental health problems in my stories because I am often trying to understand the ways that I feel. Often, I want my characters to reach something I am still striving for: peace with their conditions, or at least relative, momentary peace to which they can cling.

I think this is a relatively universal feeling among many writers. We push our characters, break them down to rock bottom, mainly because we want to see and show that they can be built back up. Sometimes they can’t, though, and we write to see or show that they can survive the hard times. Although, sometimes they can’t, and we write to see or show that, despite this, life goes on and on around and beyond them and that’s something we may never be able to understand as writers or readers. And so we keep writing these stories, seeking out these stories, always searching for reflections as much as answers.

Or something. It doesn’t have to be eloquent. Sometimes it’s comforting to be able to see people like you in books. Sometimes you just need to look at something completely different. I’m starting to think that the problem is the type of books I seek out and the plotlines that intrigue me — I am back in my Mulholland Drive rewatches of shame — but maybe it’s not a problem at all. It’s about moderation and control, like all writing. You are their God. Be kind. (But, above all, make sense.)

a
Opus’
s “last chapter” was only ever made available to the world following Kon’s death and the release of his remaining work drafts to his publishers. Without them, Opus would have ended with the penultimate arc in mid-action, all the characters falling through the chapters of the manga as villain, The Mask, rages at the realization that he is but a creation, out of all control over his role and life.

The story went on and on. Now, without a creator, what has it become? And is it all it will ever be? The characters linger because we keep them alive.

Writing, like all art, is considered a type of immortality, a way to leave a tangible part of one’s self behind. After all, so much of a person’s psyche remains in their characters, their word choice, their imagery. Satoshi Kon passed away in 2010 after the rapid advance of pancreatic cancer. He left behind his completed works, as well as a body of unfinished films and manga alike. I highly recommend picking up a copy of Opus or any of his films (Perfect Blue and Paprika in particular) as a way of keeping alive the discussions he began on meta writing and art.

Why do we create what we create? What responsibility do we have to these creations (or to our audiences) — and do we have any at all? Where does the story begin or end and what is the difference if it goes on and on, without really ever finishing?

If anything, Kon’s Opus reaffirms the power of the narrative as art. The artist and her audience connect with the characters and story that it becomes a type of life. The unfinished story is as heart-wrenchingly shocking and disappointing as the loss of a friend. This, as much as anything, makes me want to write more than ever. Even if no one ever reads this story besides the handful of people I’ve trusted with these rough drafts and myself, the story exists and it is alive in my head. I owe it to myself as much as my characters to reach the end. It is my responsibility, to put it as Nagai does with his own creations. To write a good story, however one defines that, for its own sake.

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