In the unfinished epic from famed anime creators Satoshi Kon and Mamoru Oshii, three modern-day magi make their way to the heart of a strife-torn Eurasia, seeking the cure to an inexplicable disease turning humans into tortured, angelic corpses.
Well, that’s a bundle of joy, what else is Seraphim 266613336 Wings about?
Oh no, actually it’s a whole flaming oil tanker full of joy; the plot follows two men, a basset hound (our third magi), and a mysterious little girl named Sera on pilgrimage for a cure to a disease that no one understands, except for the fact that it induces euphoric hallucinations that rob its victims of all connection to reality, reduces their bodies to emaciated corpses, and tops it off by sprouting beautiful angelic wings from their backs. On their travels they contend with despotic puppet governments, gang-backed inquisitions, and wade through the mass graves of quarantined refugees.
So you’re saying it’s not light reading…
Ah, but who was expecting light reading from someone like Satoshi Kon, creator of such brilliant mind-orgies like the paranoid Perfect Blue and surreal-beyond-surreal Paprika. Except of course, he wasn’t alone in the endeavor–the plot was co-written by Mamoru Oshii, creator of the transhuman masterpiece franchise Ghost in the Shell. The series’ backdrop is an Asia that’s been severely decentralized thanks to both the panic of the seraphim plague, as its called, and also a political blockade cutting the region off from the other half of the world. It’s a fascinating piece of future-fiction that frequently references Asian politics past and present, from Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, to the historically disenfranchised Hakka-Chinese populations.
Does it look like anything Satoshi Kon or Mamoru Oshii have done before?
Surprisingly, I’d say no, not at all–the apocalyptic, semi-mystical feel has much more in common with Neon Genesis Evangelion and Akira, the former for its use of mythologized Christian terms and themes, and the latter for its depressingly believable vision of the future. Expect no colorful, free-wheeling adventures, or optimistic feats of the human imagination, as seems to be Kon’s forte. It definitely feels more like Oshii’s brainchild in its preoccupation with real-world trends and anxieties, but it’s safe to say that he was far out of his comfort zone as well with Seraphim. Kon is recognized as the series artist, Oshii as the creator, but Seraphim‘s evolution and final execution are accredited to both.
With Satoshi Kon holding the pen, the visuals must be incredible!
They are, but be prepared for something much darker than the styles of Millenium Actress and Paprika. The most visually arresting panels are the horror-stricken ones: gas-masked extermination squads roving a Mad Max‘ed-out Shanghai with their glass eyes reflecting in the light; an alcove housing the desiccated corpse of an angel, surrounded by disease-stricken pilgrims; ruined cities like massive parking structures. Even the silent girl-messiah Sera has this blank, unearthly look about her, that just intensifies the feeling of an uncaring, amoral reality bearing down on humanity.
But the plot was unfinished, you say?
Yes, and I’m not going to lie, that fact is quite frustrating. Kon and Oshii created something with a feel and dynamic wholly its own, something with one foot in the dark reality of human nature, and the other foot in quasi-scientific mysticism, with a plot that felt like it was spiraling towards something truly impressive. But unfortunately, the series ended prematurely thanks to creative differences and disputes over directorship between the two personalities. Given its incompleteness, the book is still a worthwhile purchase, as it gives a new dimension to what you thought either Kon or Oshii were capable of–namely, believable, frightening, and fascinating apocalyptica.
So what’s the final verdict?
I’ve spent most of this review talking about how fascinating Seraphim is, but it isn’t without drawbacks. The pace of exposition requires some patience, as you’re expected to sit back as the storytellers turn page after page of unexplained body horror and mystical hoodoo before getting down to explanations. It wasn’t until I was about a third of the way through the book that I felt I had a real grasp of the situation. Additionally, you’re given very little interaction with these characters–the silent girl never really talks, and the professor speaks mostly in panicked confessions of their true mission. Altogether, Seraphim can come off as a very impersonal, cold book, with its eye unwaveringly trained towards a dark vision that will never see completion, but it’s definitely a vision worth exploring.