Film Reviews

Paranoia Agent Satoshi Kon

Rating - 9/10

The thirteen-episode anime series Paranoia Agent (2004) and I have an interesting personal history that dates back over two years, a time when its official Geneon DVD releases were still in print and the maestro Satoshi Kon was still living and working in the industry.

In the summer of 2007, realizing my past associations and affinity for futuristic and psychological science fiction, I formally compiled a list of 'cyberpunk' literature, film and games (which makes this a shameless plug); through much cataloguing and revision, I finally caught up with Paprika (2006) in May 2008, Kon's most recent feature at the time, which clearly referenced the psychology of Philip K. Dick.  In the film, a futuristic Japan experiences a new form of psychotherapy that utilizes dream analysis to treat specific patients.  While I deemed the film to be less than stellar with other overly familiar associations to Serial Experiments Lain (1998) and Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, I was intrigued enough by Kon's narrative flow and signature "synergy of dreams and reality" to pursue deeper into his repertoire to his supposed masterwork, the mysterious Madhouse mini-series Paranoia Agent.  Until this past November, I considered it a shame that my subsequent search was hindered by the inevitable distraction of other social media and a scarce region one DVD box set that Geneon had discontinued in late 2007 after the company was acquired by Funimation.  However, I now fully recognize the serendipitous occasion for the delay.

A few months after watching Paprika, I was able to attend Baltimore's famous anime convention Otakon in early August in search of the Geneon set at a reasonable price.  Again preoccupied by other titles and creative outlets, primarily the eclectic genius Suda51, and only uncovering the sporadic pricey individual volume of Paranoia Agent, my hopes were dashed.  A mere six months later in February 2009, I ended up trekking to ('Winter Otakon') Katsucon in Arlington, VA, and once more, I left empty-handed.  Here, many vendors were hocking the box set for $80-90 and refused to haggle due to its out-of-print status and revered reputation.

Finally abandoning hope of owning the official Geneon versions, this past summer, well over two years after my first encounter with Kon, I considered acquiring the region-free Hong Kong version of the series, mostly commonly priced at $25 at online import merchants, a fraction of the cost of the Geneon copies.  But, work responsibilities and city relocation plans conveniently proved to be diversions once more; the convenient eBay auction I was watching for a few weeks suddenly closed during the week I was planning to buy.  Fed up, I reconsidered my whole way of thinking.  Instead of chasing gouging peddlers or settling for ownership of bootlegs and lesser versions, I would simply rent the Geneon releases.  Without immediate access to Netflix, I first needed to find a store expansive enough to carry OOP titles; and apparently, here in Madison, Wisconsin, I was in luck.

After moving to Madison this summer, I quickly found solace in the downtown haven for film aficionados, Four Star Video Heaven, a mere few blocks from my apartment when I initially moved.  Regarding its selection, Roger Ebert once uttered the historically dry tagline, "Four stars to Four Star!" that has prominently found its way onto the back of every rental box in the store.  While Ebert's critical assessments are often incongruous to my own, perhaps was right in this circumstance; Four Star Video Heaven may in fact possess every U.S. DVD ever released.  After eluding me for years in the desired format and issue, I signed up for an unlimited monthly rental plan, and November 2010 became centered around the pockets of time where I could cherish Paranoia Agent.  The experience was not only relieving, but I began to realize it was something of an achievement.  Beyond the literal viewing, the series became symbolic of the transforming state of my life.  By confronting troubling personal issues in my oppressive home environment in Central Pennsylvania, I was able to seek something more than a temporary escape (like foreign film, for instance).  In Madison, I could dispel disillusionment and isolation to discover a more fulfilling reality.  Any serious artist aspires for the individual to redefine perspective through unique revelation; furthermore, Paranoia Agent as a standalone work has also delineated or transcended its own categorization by its rebelliously anti-escapism message.  My viewing experience prompted me to wonder if it was Kon's intention for Paranoia Agent to become a sort of 'anti-anime,' the catalyst or origin point to a new subgenre or categorization.  

A first impression may suggest a sole concentration on the labored anime realm as Kon's influences are post-modern and speculative enough; he is noted to have been primarily influenced by two novelists, Philip K. Dick (one of the essential fathers of modern science fiction and cyberpunk) and Yasutaka Tsutsui (a lesser known sci-fi author responsible for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Dreamtree Hill Junction, and the original Paprika story), but of course Kon's animated visuals also move beyond the literary to evoke the surrealism of David Lynch.  Like Lynch, Kon frequently intends to blur the lines between the literal and the metaphysical to achieve a higher truth or awareness of one's perception.  Paranoia Agent begins as an obscure crime drama and evolves into an almost Bergman-esque self-aware comedic commentary of the illusion of civil society.  Its moral is decidedly against the rampant escapism usually found in animated productions, yet Paranoia Agent reveals reality and truth through an extreme degree of dream-like imagery (expressed in physical manifestations, narrative structure, and amalgam of artistic designs).  Metaphorically speaking, Kon wants viewers to realize the absurdity of ignorance in any of its incarnations.

Regarding any 'anti' terminology in regards to its Japanimated origins, most long-running (and seemingly unending) marketable modern anime series exist within predetermined bubbles of hackneyed self-seriousness and awkward zaniness, exemplifying the absurd heights of entertainment much like the majority of American television.  Like sitcoms, characters are introduced then disappear on a whim, emerging subplots break the series' original intentions, cliffhangers recur, and catch phrases are developed to reduce characters to mere caricatures.  With a mere thirteen episodes produced entirely in-house, Paranoia Agent is decidedly more cinematic in its approach, both in its visual makeup and enigmatic pacing.  In an interview, Kon has stated, "My aim was for each episode to be a distinct stand-alone piece of work but also be a recognizable part of the series."  Paranoia Agent is also intriguingly subtle through its use of sound and dialogue in particular.  During the final episode's commentary track on the Geneon DVD, the production team notes aural themes and emblematic sounds in individual episodes as well as the stilted manner in which characters talk past one another.  Obviously, a distinctive lack of verbal coherency paired with relentless visual abstraction lends the series an impenetrable fascination, a sense that the imminent is distant, and uncertainty may be the only certainty.  Each episode, while different in tonality, returns to the central image and incident in the first episode, the attack by a unknown youthful assailant in golden roller blades with a askew metal bat nicknamed Shonen Bat (or Lil' Slugger in the American dub).

While employing elements of surrealism, Kon exploits a sense of darkly topical pre-existing paranoia in modern society.  As an Anime News Network feature has documented, "Shonen Bat was born out of a series of reports about youth violence, particularly one story of a young man beating his mother to death with a baseball bat."  Other characters were similarly lifted from the headlines and fitted to Kon's premise, as the article dictates.  "The professor's assistant, Harumi Chono, is based on a real story of a woman who the typical office assistant by day and high-class call girl by night."  Harumi, however, is provided with a dissociative identity or bipolar disorder, and she attempts to extinguish or stop one of her destructive personalities (Maria) with the stability and normality of her other.  This third episode entitled "Double Lips" marks one of the most sinister storylines in the entire series and most bluntly projects the emerging theme in the later phase of the series.  As Tim Brayton's Antagony & Ecstasy blog has simply but effectively captured, "We break (our world) every time we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves."  Instead of appropriately and honestly revealing her condition to a prospective husband, Harumi secretively and disastrously attempts to destroy the possessions and other physical representations of Maria, her other identity.

Without delving much into the specific subplots and linkage of the remaining ten episodes, it's that third episode in which Kon most efficiently illustrates the fragility of human nature with a disturbing clash of behavior.  Instability and opposition force us to insulate ourselves from the functioning world and "find ways to make everything bad go away by, in essence, ignoring it (Brayton)."  Obviously, as the series demonstrates, a lie can escalate beyond oneself so easily to either literally or metaphorically destroy lives and become a nationwide phenomenon (as is the case with the first episode's focus, lonesome artist Tsukiko Sagi).  Beyond the allegorical implications of Shonen Bat's presence, Paranoia Agent's other emblematic image is her beloved pink cartoon dog, Maromi, who has charmingly gripped the entire country.  Maromi clearly embodies more than a lovable cartoon character, as it foreshadows Tsukiko's innocent façade and turbulent character arc, most notably through her hyperreal conversation with an anthropomorphic version of Maromi in the opening episodes.  In turn, the dog becomes her will to dispel personal problems without any active effort or therapeutic confrontation.

Story wise, Paranoia Agent is not intent on precisely paralleling the life of its viewers (and it simply couldn't with elements of pervasive fantasy and shifting artistic direction), but it is significant because it inspires one to analyze the past's direct effect on the present.  In other words, "it tells us that what you believe is what you will experience (Brayton)."  For me, solitarily moving 900 miles across the country from a rural-suburban area to an urban center was a courageous refusal of cultural isolation and predominantly antiquated values to believe in a more assimilated place burgeoning with modern ideas.  Paranoia Agent repeatedly references a specific incident that triggers the will of a character to escape personal conflict (a 'cornered' feeling); while my experience and life reassessment can certainly be traced to a specific incident in my hometown, the decision was based more on collective reasoning and theoretical projection, which prompted a desire to more actively seek artistic stimulation.  For me, that meant accepting a greater reality or truth as one may define.  Paranoia Agent may possess a stark ambiguity throughout a majority of its duration to bait viewers, but it ultimately remains resolute in relaying the purpose of confronting the past to preserve a hope for a prosperous future.  And I hope I have done that.