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FEATURING: Voices of Mamiko Noto, Shouzou Iizuka, Toshihiko Seki, Haruko Momoi (Japanese); Michelle Ruff, Michael McConnohie, Liam O’ Brien, Carrie Savage (English dub)
PLOT: Toy designer Tsukiko Sagi, under tremendous pressure after creating an enormously successful character “Maromi,” is attacked by a bat-wielding boy on skates—dubbed “Li’l Slugger” (or “Shonen Bat”)—or so she claims. The two detectives assigned to the case have their doubts, but more attacks occur, and the victims appear to be connected, and all under some type of mental distress.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: “Paranoia Agent” balances horror and humor adroitly, especially when seen from a perspective 20 years later. Aside from some minor points, the series doesn’t feel dated; it could have been generated within the past seven years. The credit sequence establishes the tone, with the main characters laughing hysterically despite their incongruous settings (underwater, in traffic, and before an atomic explosion, to name a few), while the upbeat theme song just adds to the unsettling nature.
“Paranoia has a stronger image than fantasy. Yes. Delusional, maybe. Right. The word gives an impression that a person is, in a sense… actively making himself delusional. That kind of strength is inherent in the word. Well, in order to go through life… everyone needs to have something apart from reality… such as fantasy, dream, or maybe paranoia. Otherwise, life can be surprisingly hard. Yes. The world as a person perceives… it is a world filtered through his fantasy or paranoia, I think. In that sense, I don’t think that fantasy and paranoia are necessarily unhealthy.”–Satoshi Kon
COMMENTS: For admirers of Satoshi Kon’s work, “Paranoia Agent” can be viewed as a grab bag or sampler of sorts. There are echoes from Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003), and you can see hints of Paprika (2006). “Paranoia Agent” grew out of concepts that did not develop into larger projects, and a proving ground for things that did show up later.
At the time of its creation and release, this miniseries could be read as social commentary on aspects of Japanese society in the early 2000s. Cellphones, the Internet and the beginnings of social media are present, providing plenty of distractions for people. The show is an effective commentary on fantasy vs. reality; as Modern Life becomes more unbearable, more and more people seek escape via fantasy. But “Paranoia Agent” underlines the necessity to live in reality, as escapist coping mechanisms are shown to be ultimately destructive. Some cultural aspects the show touches on, such as Denpa-kei and hikikomori, might not be familiar to Western viewers, but other themes—generational conflict and nostalgia for simpler times; sex (handled much more upfrontly than expected); the pressure for success and what one will do for it; suicide, and/or sacrifice—resonate universally. Overlaying it all is the “blameless society,” the lack of responsibility and the effort to shift blame to anything except oneself.
That’s a heavy load for any show to carry, but this subject matter is fortunately presented with a mordant and sardonic humor, as the blurring of the distinction between reality and fantasy enabled by Shonen Bat expands and evolves throughout the series; one example—a police interrogation is seen via gaming tropes. Kon includes sly visual touches (some which may only be recognizable to those who know Japanese pop culture—I’m fairly certain of a couple of references to the later work of director). There’s also a meta-episode set in an animation studio about the travails of finishing their latest project for broadcast.
Now, seen almost twenty years later and in another culture, “Paranoia Agent” functions equally well as current social commentary on the current state of the U.S. The above quote from Kon, seen from a 2021 perspective, may come off as being naive. But in context, it does speak a truth. Fantasy is a necessary thing for people to indulge in. But not to be overwhelmed by.
FUNimation Entertainment released “Paranoia Agent” on Blu-ray in late 2020. The 2 disc set includes all 13 episodes (both in English dub and Japanese with English subtitles). Special features include a discussion with director Kon and composer Susumu Hirasawa, and three “Paranoia Radio Audio Commentaries” with Kon and some of the production personnel, which are actually informative and interesting. The show can also be streamed on Funimation’s site or platforms like Amazon Prime.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“[Kon] effortlessly transfers the live-action technique that make his films so striking to the small screen, with freeze-frame, montages, slow-motion and dreamlike interludes all adding to the unsettling atmosphere… There are no obvious heroes, and the strange, almost joyous opening and closing credits and the bizarre riddle that follows each episode further suggest that there is much more to Paranoia Agent than this first third indicates.”–Daniel Auty, The Spinning Image (Vol. 1 DVD, Episodes 1-4)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
[Analysis] Paranoia Agent – an in-depth analysis episode-by-episode on the Hana Ga Saita Yo blog.
‘Paranoia Agent’: We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us. – lengthy analysis by Serdar Yegulalp
Paranoia Agent: A Case Study of Fear and Repression – perspective from “The Artifice”
Paranoia Agent Is An Ironic Social Commentary On Our “Great” America – Maya Phillips’ article on the “Black Nerd Problems” blog