Director Satoshi Kon, Takuji Endo (co-director for three episodes); Screenplay Satoshi Kon, Seishi Minakami, Tomomi Yoshino; Producer Mitsuru Uda, Satoshi Fujii
by Stephen Russell-Gebbett
What does fear look like? Does it have a demented smile? Does it wear roller skates and wield a golden bat?
Society is sick. Anyone in Paranoia Agent will tell you. Violence, disrespect, a morbid obsession with pop culture, sexual depravity. What is more, people are unwilling and unable to face the aberrant and torturous realities of modern existence. They flee from the here and now, yammering into their mobile phones to some distant listener, worshipping cuddly Maromi, a soft toy totem for the latest craze.
Paranoia Agent suggests this broken Japan could be a self-fulfilling, mass psychosoma. Tsukiko, a character designer, is the first of many to be attacked by Lil’ Slugger (Shonen Bat or ‘Bat Boy’, literally). She is the first to welcome him into her life. She is under pressure, afraid of not reaching a deadline, worried that she might humiliate herself. She feels boxed in, cornered, and the teenage boy, who swings his bat with vicious force, offers her an escape – to a hospital bed and to a place outside of the system.
He may not be real, albeit there’s a copycat on the loose, but he is the ‘incarnation’ of a very real malaise. He is a hologram that no-one gets close enough to pass their hand through. Once the incident is in the papers, on the TV, gossiped over in the backstreets, he becomes an agent of paranoia akin to a chemical agent. Fear of fear itself embraces myth and goes viral, eventually consuming the whole city.
In a later episode, a lady (Misae) comes home to find Lil’ Slugger there. As if in a confessional she unburdens herself to him and as she does we see him grow as she despairs and shrink as her resolution strengthens. If we acknowledge fear then his stare will weaken us into submission.
Life is too much, too full of obstacles that may be our downfall. The end of the series shows a city destroyed by a fear grown beyond anyone’s control. Laying his eyes upon the devastation, a man says “it’s like after the war”.
Some maintain that this refers to a decision taken by Japan in 1945 after the Potsdam Conference. They say it refers to Japan’s unwillingness to face reality when President Truman delivered an ultimatum that if they did not surrender to the allies that a “powerful new weapon” would be used to assure their “prompt and utter destruction”.
It is also said that the series functions as a potted history of Anime itself. Maybe it is dangerous to read too much into it, especially given Kon’s cheeky explanation that the disturbing opening credits (mushroom clouds, drowned children, maniacal laughter) and cutesy soporific end credits are there to wake people up for the late-night show and then get them ready for bed!
Whatever the most salient reading, Paranoia Agent is a work that reeks of pain, a crippled struggle for peace of mind.
Sometimes it is hard to watch. In one episode three people (two adult men and a young girl who ‘meet’ each other on the internet) arrange to meet in order to fulfil a suicide pact. Ironically, these strangers grow closer than any of the other desperate ‘victims’ or desperately concerned onlookers who fuel society’s fire.
Satoshi Kon laid puzzles and traps and played games with his characters and his audience in Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress and, most recently, Paprika. Though there is complexity of structure and of form in these films there is little emotional complexity. Paranoia Agent isn’t just a brilliant mind-trip. Rather it is a brilliantly rounded story, sharply and colourfully animated (with characters more round than the usual wide-eyed waifs) of a world complicit in its own downfall, yet a world that attracts no less sympathy for it.
Paranoia Agent is the pinnacle of Anime series.
A little taster…the first part of the first episode: