Japanese Title: Mousou Dairinin
Similar: Perfect Blue
Watched in: Japanese & English
Length: 13 episodes
- Great music.
- One wild ride.
- Wacky at the expense of clarity at times.
Finishing Paranoia Agent is a bittersweet experience for me with Satoshi Kon being one of my favourite anime directors. He was one of the few directors whose anime I could be sure to watch on his name alone. Ironically, my experience with Kon’s work started in disgust as he disturbed me for years with the psychological horror Perfect Blue. I put off watching Paranoia Agent for the longest time since it would mean I have none of his filmography left to watch. However, when a dear reader requested it, I couldn’t make any more excuses.
I can best describe Paranoia Agent as an amalgamation of all his work. It has bits of everything. The psychological unease of Perfect Blue, the mind-bending trip of Paprika, the endearing adventure of Tokyo Godfathers, and the visual storytelling of Millennium Actress are all present. To gather so many varied elements in one place and have them work together is no easy task, so how does Paranoia Agent fare?
It follows the case of Lil’ Slugger, a boy who zips around town on rollerblades beating people with a bent baseball bat. The detectives’ task seems an impossible one with the kid appearing and disappearing at what feels like random. He makes no sense.
As soon as you start Paranoia Agent, you know it is Kon’s work. That opening sequence of the cast laughing uncontrollably with soulless eyes, ethereal vocals blasting behind them, is just the right levels of insane and unnerving to set the tone (see video above if you haven’t). The plot seems to start normal enough when Lil’ Slugger attacks the creator of a beloved animal mascot, but once people question if there really was an attack – did she make it all up for attention? – a plushie of the mascot comes to life to comfort her. All in her head, of course. Simple enough to explain.
Then we move onto episode 2, where a popular kid doesn’t like that the fat kid he kept around to make himself feel better starts getting more attention than him. He wishes Lil’ Slugger would attack his “friend” so that he could save him and be hailed a hero by all. He daydreams of the applause. His wish comes true, except everyone thinks he’s the attacker. With the world turned against him, his reality distorts and life begins to melt away. Further and further we, the audience, descend into a world of madness that is difficult to describe and follow. Episode 3 enters full Perfect Blue territory that I won’t give away. Another episode has a student sneezing out his math knowledge. Literal formulas expelled from nose and mouth. And wait until you see what a kid, a middle-aged man, and a geriatric get up to.
For a while, the series feels like an anthology of short stories as it focuses on a different victim each episode. One must wait until the end for it to come together and make sense – well, for the most part. So if you feel lost along the way, don’t worry too much.
That said, Kon could have put more work into making the audience understand what is going on in the moment. I’ll use an early example. During an interrogation, a suspect believes they’re on some fantasy adventure and any questions the detective asks make no sense because they don’t fit the fantasy. The co-detective has the idea to roleplay as a party member to extract bits and pieces within the context of the fantasy world. The lead detective finds this ridiculous, of course, growing increasingly frustrated as they have to humour these delusions. However, when he reacts, it is as though he is a participant of the fantasy world, which doesn’t quite make sense, since he is a non-believer. In short, the fantasy exaggerations go too far and just cause confusion.
Instead of having him in the fantasy, cutting back to the detective should have shown him sitting there irked in boring reality while others play pretend like weirdos next to him. It feels like Kon overindulged in the fantasy element that would become central to Paprika, where it works better, two years later.
Kon truly knows how to make the audience uncomfortable at every turn. His use of creepy imagery and minimal audio makes for tension that grips to breaking point. Even the way a character animates puts one on edge. The journalist hounding the mascot artist has an ordinary enough design, but when he’s looking into the camera at the perspective character and you in the audience by extension, his every mouth movement feels as if he’s about kiss you in the most horrid manner. You want to get away from him – just like the woman does.
Only upon reaching the end of the anime can you receive any relief from all the madness. It’s a wild ride. Paranoia Agent isn’t as good as his more focused films, but it is still a Satoshi Kon work all the way through.
Art – High
Sporting Kon’s realistic art style and creative visuals, Paranoia Agent is a great looking anime. There is a downgrade in animation and detail compared to his movies.
Sound – High
Kon uses one of his (and my) favourite composers, Susumu Hirasawa, having worked previously on Millennium Actress and later in Paprika with him to make a damn weird OP sequence. (Hirasawa is also responsible for the superb Berserk soundtrack). Despite the great tracks, Kon allows a lack of music to unnerve the audience in key scenes.
Story – High
A rollerblading kid with a baseball bat terrorises residents, prompting an investigation by the police that takes a turn for the mental. Not all pieces quite fit together, but Paranoia Agent is a thrill ride nonetheless.
Overall Quality – High
Recommendation: Watch it. Paranoia Agent will be too weird for many, yet I still recommend it to all but the faintest of heart. Its strangeness is worth experiencing at least once.
Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)