Paranoia Agent

Paranoia-Agent

PARANOIA AGENT

Watched via Adult Swim/DVD

WHITNEY

CRYSTAL

PLOT: Paranoia Agent is a television series written and directed by Satoshi Kon. Many of his works explore themes of social media, psychoanalysis, and deviance. Satoshi Kon used this series as an opportunity to explore these themes in experimental ways he was unable to before in his prior filmography.

Paranoia Agent is heavily character driven and each episode follows a new character or subplot and their relationship to the entity known as “Lil’ Slugger”, a childlike criminal known for hitting people with a golden bat. This supernatural being is responsible for various real or imagined attacks on members of society. The story begins with Tsukiko Sagi, a character designer, being attacked by this mysterious figure. The police become involved in a search to find and identify this unknown criminal as his attacks begin to escalate. Over time more is revealed about each sequential event and the characters, however that doesn’t necessarily mean things become clearer to the viewer.

While Paranoia Agent remains somewhat cloudy of a story the whole way through, it is an outstanding exploration of the human mind and the narration of the series is adapted in ways to heighten the psychological state of being of each character as they are featured within the series. This may be hard for viewers to follow and at times might be seen as frustrating. This isn’t the sort of series to just hand out answers, rather it grants the viewer the opportunity to ask questions instead.

The format of the series lends itself well to examining a variety of stories and characters. In particular I liked the tutor’s story, in which she has multiple personality disorder. Her tale was just one example out of many that demonstrate how well the pacing and edits were used to strengthen the plot. As she pieces together her memories and struggles with internal and external conflicts with herself, we see a plethora of edits that break narration and create juxtaposition through montage or by match cutting. These transitions play with our sense of time and routine while making the series feel unstable and imagined.

PLOT: Tsukiko Sagi is a character designer at a company like Sanrio who’s responsible for the hugely-popular pink dog character Maromi. Since Maromi’s initial release, she has become popular along the lines of Hello Kitty, and Tsukiko is under pressure by everyone around her to create another wildly successful mascot character for her company. Understandably, this is a difficult undertaking, and it’s particularly intimidating for the shy, anxious Tsukiko, who only finds comfort in Maromi. Unfortunately, just before she’s expected to turn in the final design, she’s attacked by Lil’ Slugger, a boy in golden roller skates and a baseball cap, wielding a bent, golden bat.

Initially, the police suspect that Tsukiko made up her attack to avoid the stress of work, but soon there’s another Lil’ Slugger attack, and then another. Each episode of the series follows a different character as Lil’ Slugger’s attacks spread and affect more people. Interestingly, every victim was stressed out at the time of the attack, and the attack had a beneficial impact on their lives in the end. Furthermore, there’s no actual human suspect to follow, puzzling the police and eventually disrupting their career paths. And, most interestingly for viewers, the attacks affect people from many different walks of life, presenting a more diverse view of Japanese life than I think I’ve ever seen in anime. School children are affected, as is a prostitute, a salary man, a homeless woman, and a group that formed a suicide pact. It’s a fascinating kaleidoscope of Japanese society, showing the various segments interacting in a way that many anime skirt around.

Since Paranoia Agent was directed by Satoshi Kon, it necessarily twists your mind around and gets very surreal very quickly. Though the premise begins with an investigation of a street assault, the show turns into a commentary on how society avoids dealing with problems head-on and is an early metafictional portrayal of the spread of memes within a group. Paranoia Agent might be a bit heady for lay audiences, but I love it for being a mentally-challenging series that borders on fitting within cultural studies.

SETTING: I suppose Paranoia Agent takes place in modern day Tokyo, though that aspect of it is hardly important. The real take away for the setting is that these characters live in present day society in a large populated area. Here it is common for individuals to have little to no contact with each other. Satoshi Kon created a world full of deceit, duplicity, and conceit. While the characters live and deal with one another, it is done so with complete selfishness. Lil’ Slugger shatters the hard boundaries of the world the characters have built for themselves and opens up a world of imagination where each person can escape from themselves and what is tormenting them.

While the initial world portrayed was intriguing and informed the characters well, in the end I found the psychotic breaks in reality to be a bit over-the-top and distracting from the plot and its potential.

SETTING: Critically, Paranoia Agent takes place within Tokyo, where populations are crammed together, news spreads like wildfire, and a real-life meme like Lil’ Slugger could be born. In most anime, using part of Tokyo seems like one of two default options for the setting, and only a handful of anime explore Tokyo to a great extent. Paranoia Agent, like Durarara!!, explores the intersections of groups within cities and goes beyond the typical anime school setting. I love the amount of groups that are included in the main narrative and the way that the series doesn’t shy away from the uglier bits of humanity. The show unflinchingly portrays human selfishness and perversity on many levels, exploring just how twisted people can become while still existing within society. Of Satoshi Kon’s works, Paranoia Agent has the most to say about modern, mainstream society, and using Tokyo as its setting is a key component of its commentary on Japanese society.

I think you make a good point. While Satoshi Kon has explored some very extreme groups of people, this is the first series that looks at some of the more “regular” types of people. Sure they may all be a bit extreme, but they all function as part of the moving whole.

CHARACTERS: In addition to Tsukiko, her mascot creation Maromi, and the obvious Lil’ Slugger, there are a multitude of extensively designed characters, all more troubling and bizarre than the last.

Key to the plot are the two detectives, Keiichi Ikari and Mitsuhiro Maniwa. They are first put on the case when they find out Tsukiko has been attacked. They become completely absorbed in solving the case of Lil’ Slugger at the cost of their careers and home lives. The former detective is old fashioned and yearns for an older generation and time when matters were more black-and-white. His partner, who is younger and more idealistic, ends up getting caught up in the fantasy and drama of defeating society’s evils.

The victims of Lil’ Slugger are widely diverse. Two of them are young elementary students. They suffer from bullying and the need to fit in and be popular. Their greed pushes them to act out rashly and they are ultimately saved by the swing of Lil’ Slugger’s bat.

As I mentioned before the “tutor” of one of these boys ends up as a victim. Her dual personalities make her life unbearable. Her salvation comes in the form of uniting her separate selves. I loved her story and its direct relationship to Jungian theory and learning to accept one’s natural “shadow” self.

Then there is the odd father/daughter pair. Masami Kirukawa is a corrupt police officer who often video tapes his daughter through a hidden camera. Their relationship becomes strained as the result of his abuse, and the pair eventually finds consolation in ignorance.

While the characters don’t necessarily evolve to become better versions of themselves, it is still interesting to see how Lil’ Slugger is able to put their minds at ease once again. Their troubles all relate to common societal problems, and their solutions often relate back in contemporary ways as well.

I find it so interesting that, in this series, violence tends to be the answer to so many characters’ problems. I don’t think any of them are healthier for using this form of resolution, but it’s intriguing that brutal violence can calm so many minds.

CHARACTERS: Paranoia Agent uses an ensemble cast in order to fully explore the rise and impact of Lil’ Slugger, but there are some characters who stand out as the most important for the narrative. As the first victim and Maromi’s creator, Tsukiko stands out, and the narrative ultimately circles around her life and creations. Just as Lil’ Slugger’s fame spreads, Maromi’s fame grows within Japan, even leading to a TV anime. Tsukiko may be an irritatingly shy, nervous character, but she stands in for the many people who avoid facing their problems head-on, and her impact on the world, despite her wallflower nature, is profound.

Lil’ Slugger and Maromi, of course, are the mascots of the show, each representing escape in a different way. While Maromi is cute in the way you’ve come to expect from Japan (though made a little sad and saggy to really cash in on the problematic aspects of moe), Lil’ Slugger is brash and intimidating, swiftly attacking you and turning your life upside-down with one swing of his bent bat. Maromi makes you want to hug her for escapist snuggles, while Lil’ Slugger’s attack always hit at the height of a character’s stress, saving them in a way. After all, who hasn’t wished they could be legitimately sick so they could postpone something for a few days? Though Lil’ Slugger’s positive effect seems a little more counterintuitive at first, it’s just as real and impactful as Maromi’s, and its inclusion in this series really made me think.

The rest of Paranoia Agent’s characters, as I mentioned above, run the gamut societally, which I love. Each character seems fleshed out and realistic, even if they only show up in part of an episode, and everyone stands out sharply amongst the cast. I enjoy the police officers and old man best, but I appreciate how many people are included and how fairly and honestly they are all treated. You don’t see much like this in anime, so this is worth paying attention to.

Honestly I was let down by Tsukiko’s importance. I really enjoyed the secondary characters and became bored by her continued presence throughout the series. I kind of wish the ending had taken another turn.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Paranoia Agent has a fabulous budget, I suppose that’s natural considering it had such a famous director in charge of it. I have always liked Satoshi Kon’s work, and seeing how it has become adapted to television has been a very interesting experiment. Many anime series skimp on backgrounds, but not this series. The studio put a lot of detail into the various settings of Paranoia Agent, and I don’t just mean visually. You can tell from the way shots are animated and the storyboards are set up that the world has been carefully crafted and laid out. This is incredibly important since the series distorts reality. The more the animators can give us to go off of the better.

Another aspect of the series that works strongly is the character designs. Satoshi Kon does an excellent job at referring to popular culture while remaining removed from its tropes. His characters’s designs are all in some way stereotypes that reference social media, but say more about the world than the typical character husks that we are used to seeing in televised anime.

The only real complaint I have ties in closely with the plot. Without getting into spoilers, I’ll just say that I think Satoshi Kon went a bit too far into abstracting reality and the various pieces of the puzzle never seem to visually or narratively completely come together. By reigning back a little on the psychotic elements I think he could have told a more coherent and compelling story.

I think that Paranoia Agent, like Penguindrum, is one of those series where you have to piece it together on your own to find any kind of resolution. Thematically, I thought everything worked out, so I’m not worried about how coherent it was in the end. I don’t think Satoshi Kon set out to tell a coherent story, but an emotionally honest one, which I think he succeeds at.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Like the rest of Satoshi Kon’s work, Paranoia Agent’s character designs are rather realistic with a slight exaggeration that leans more towards caricature than your standard anime. Sure, some characters look cute and “normal” in the way you expect of anime, but the larger heads and detailed features look creepy and a little grotesque on the older characters, especially the men. Overall, the art style of Paranoia Agent feels purposely a little off, like how the Watchmen comic uses tertiary colors to convey a sense of unease. The designs here were all created to parody the general anime style and show how ridiculous it is in conjunction with the self-serving perversity of everyday life, and the combination works perfectly.

On top of that, Paranoia Agent didn’t skimp on its animation, even though it’s a show that clearly appeals to a very niche segment of the anime-watching population. From the creepy-smile-filled opening animation throughout every episode, the show looks good and constantly changes things up, mixing characters and settings in a way that’s honest to the story’s themes instead of to a small budget. I’m very glad Madhouse appreciated Satoshi Kon so much, since I imagine this show would’ve flopped if it had needed to take a bunch of shortcuts to save on budget.

The best part of the animation has to hands down be the awkward shoulder shake inducing laughter of every character featured in the opening/ending (I can’t remember which it is).

It’s the opening. The ending is everyone sleeping in a circle with Maromi in the middle (see the picture above). Creepy~

OVERALL: Personally I think all of Satoshi Kon’s works are worth watching. While it has taken me this long to watch Paranoia Agent, I am not disappointed I did. With that said, I don’t see it as one of his strongest works. That doesn’t mean it is weak, just that I think he has worked out the same themes in other pieces that were more powerful. Additionally this series is rather limited in scope of audience. The demographic is rather unclear and the lack of direction in storytelling leaves the take away rather vague. I suppose if you like psychological thrillers you’ll most likely love this series, but otherwise it could very well be a miss, rather than a hit.

While I loved the character and setting exploration, I never felt as if the series really resolved itself the same way that Paprika or Tokyo Godfathers did. As much as I appreciated the alteration in formatting as a result of television broadcasting, I have to say that Satoshi Kon’s films are by far stronger pieces due to their brevity and clarity. Paranoia Agent simultaneously takes on too much and too little and fails to find a perfect balance.

OVERALL: Honestly, I’m amazed that Paranoia Agent got made, as it’s such a narrowly-focused, largely-unmarketable series. Don’t get me wrong—I love it unconditionally—, but its existence, and the fact that it aired on Adult Swim, boggle my mind. I can only be grateful that some people know genius storytelling when they see it and back it, because I doubt we’ll get anything like Paranoia Agent for a long while. Even Penguindrum and Flowers of Evil, which are recent anime that critique Japanese society, have moe elements that lead them to appeal to a wider audience than I bet Paranoia Agent did.

If you like anime that makes you think, track down Paranoia Agent any way you can, and you won’t be disappointed. I doubt it’ll be license rescued, and the singles are long out of print, so it might take some work, but this show is absolutely worth it for its themes and questions. If you’re not interested in exploring the depths of how society works, you’ll probably be okay without watching this, but I think it’s absolutely necessary for anyone who’s even vaguely interested in cultural studies. And, if you’re a fan of Satoshi Kon, you owe it to yourself to check out his only TV anime series, which allows him to tackle so many intersecting issues from many angles. It’s too bad he died so young, since everything he made was solid through and through, and we could use another anime director whose works really make you think.

FINAL SCORE: (8/10) FINAL SCORE: (9/10)
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One thought on “Paranoia Agent

  1. Thanks for reminding me about this. I loved the late Satoshi Kon. I had been wanting to see this foverer, but Netflix only has disks 2 and 4. I have been waiting for them to replace 1 and 3. They have been in my saved q for three years now … but I am rambling again …

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