“Let’s just accept reality.”
The above statement is one of the key ironic refrains of Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent, his penultimate work before his death, and like the show itself it defies straightforward explanation. This is Satoshi Kon after all, the man that brought us Millennium Actress, Paprika, and an episode of the notoriously, uh, bizarre JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise – the potential for general weirdness here is set pretty high. That said, the extent to which Paranoia Agent can draw in the viewer, immersing them in seemingly-realistic detective drama one moment and surreal psychological innerscape the next is riveting. In terms of sheer cinematic quality, combining subtle philosophical inquiry (unlike, say, Deathnote’s blatant exposition) with every artistic flourish from repeat extended metaphors to stinging social satire and parody, Paranoia Agent is stands as one of the finest animated examples I’ve yet seen – and all this while remaining accessible on a surface level and maintaining surreal imaginative exploration that makes Twin Peaks feel like a particularly daring episode of, well, the crappy second half of Twin Peaks. It gradually gets that weird without ever becoming convoluted or inaccessible to one-off viewers – and it’s glorious. Just look at that intro:
Speaking of Twin Peaks – half of which is also glorious – to give away much of Paranoia Agent’s structure beyond the initial setup is to do the viewer an immense disservice, and so any reading up on the plot is generally discouraged. Suffice to say that each episode focuses, roughly, on the life of a particular character, all of whom are intimately connected in some sense. All of whom are somehow also connected to a string of apparently random violent assaults throughout the back-alleys and hideaways of Tokyo – assaults perpetrated by a young man with a crooked baseball bat named Shonen Bat (or, in lame english dub, the less symbolic Lil’ Slugger). Each episode digs deep into a particular character’s inner psychology, frequently exploring their dreams, the mundane details of their lives, their psychological complexes, and the ways in which modern society seems to isolate them from their peers – one of Paranoia Agent’s major, overarching themes. Things get very bizarre very quickly, and to say any more is to ruin many of the show’s most rewarding surprises, however viewers with an appetite (stomach?) for psychological drama, horror, surrealism, metaphor-heavy dialogue and strange, black comedy will, as I did, likely find themselves blown away by the extent to which each character’s subjective reality is explored and interrogated. Paranoia Agent demands patience, certainly, and a certain comfort with meandering and dialogue-heavy storytelling whose various vignettes won’t always yield a central conflict, and almost never an easy resolution.
Yet for those viewers willing to prioritize thematic content over visceral action, I can hardly think of an anime series more easily recommended. There’s an extent to which Paranoia Agent, especially in its masterful and quietly life-affirming eighth installment, is an extended discussion of suicide – discouraging not the act, but the antecedent factors and isolation that can lead to its seeming inevitability. That episode, I must stress, is absolutely incredible, and made all the more so by an exploration of Japan’s long and unique social relationship to suicide, as well as cataclysm as a central cultural theme in many Japanese narratives. That Paranoia Agent can play into these discussions, and in as simultaneously impassioned, didactic and passive ways as it does – all while remaining an anime complete with anime tropes (many of which are heavily critiqued) – only stresses its importance as an artistic work. This is an anime that eventually comes around to aggressively attack the culture of escapism, sardonically attacking itself in the process. That there’s a story to be had, however loose it will come to seem, is a bonus. That the quality of the animation is high, and that the direction fully embraces cinematic aspirations, is a bonus as well. Paranoia Agent radically alters visually from time to time, and always with great effect. It’s a show that often manages slapstick comedy, psychological horror and interpersonal drama within the same 20-minute time frame, often with several swaps in visual style. Satoshi Kon’s legacy may lay in his films, but the writing in Paranoia Agent, at its best, stands among the most interesting series I’ve seen.
While this wasn’t specifically meant to be a review – the show’s 9 years old, I imagine The People have more or less spoken by now – I can’t get by without mentioning Paranoia Agent‘s flaws. It can be slow. We’re talking really slow. On at least one occasion an episode makes its central point within the first five minutes, and then proceeds to flog a dead horse for fifteen more. Mercifully, there’s only one particularly egregious example of this, and the show itself is a mere 13 episodes long, doable in three sittings (as this reviewer did). Problematic as well is the storyline itself, which while metaphorically rich can just as easily be read as preposterous nonsense if the signals are ignored. A warning from the get-go: if you aren’t prepared to watch carefully for symbolic devices and the other sorts of things they taught you way back in arts-school, Paranoia Agent probably isn’t going to do it for you. It’s probably going to seem like pretentious nonsense to you, and that’s pretty much okay: this sort of show occupies a niche interest for people that love to read extremely far into their media. Thankfully, this happens to be me, and Paranoia Agent’s discursive payoff happens to be enormous.
As weird as it is frequently confusing, sometimes slow and on several occasion utterly horrifying, I really can’t recommend Paranoia Agent enough. I got into it on a whim recommendation from Akira The Don, himself apparently late to the Paranoia Agent party, from his post on Satoshi Kon’s deathbed note which is gorgeous and you must read (original here). As Akira put it, “I have never seen anything that made me feel the way this thing does.” For better and sometimes worse, I agree. Paranoia Agent has kept me happily occupied these last three nights, and I happily rank it amongst the best anime I’ve yet seen – and easily the most meditative in its pacing. Go watch those intro and outro videos again; they’re as spoiler-free an advertisement as I can give. Trust me, this one’s worth your time.
Oh right, also the music is gorgeous. And gorgeously creepy.
(because this is apparently a review now.)
Posted right here, January 2013.
Paranoia Agent is easily one of my favorite animes ever, but I also really enjoy strange anime. Man, I miss Satoshi Kon. I wish he was still with us.
Totally agreed, but weird is so fruitful when it comes to anime! Weird pays off so often! I’ll basically be tracking down everything he’s ever done, now. There’s a calmness to Agent’s surrealism that really gets me, so I’ll certainly be hunting down more in the same vein. His death-letter is pretty much heartbreaking and beautiful.
Have it cued up and ready to dig into tonight; ready to expect something crazy. Yet again, an amazing article.
I thank you thoroughly, friend. Get on chat later and we can discuss symbolism – it’s rich territory. Bomb through the series! Much credit to the man that got Me to watch it. Luck o’ the internet.
…Also, make sure to watch it in Japanese with subtitles. “Lil’ Slugger” is an offensively dumb name for such an important character. Sure it’s a little clever, and arguably necessary given translation stuff, but there’s symbolism and wordplay that gets passed over.