Satoshi Kon has one of the most impressive filmographies of any animator, but what of his 13-episode television series? Some call it a masterpiece, others call it pretentious, Matthew Roe (@TheCriticlysm) heads back to Studio Madhouse to take a look at Paranoia Agent.
What is Paranoia Agent? Is it a dark comedy with satirical social overtones? Is it a human melodrama, propelled by the lies we tell ourselves and those around us? Is it a crime drama, using sprees to dissect the generational gap and the inevitable worldly changes which we all must face? Or is it a fever dream of psycho-surreal imagery that’ll either set your teeth on edge, or will seem too looney to take seriously? Well, it’s all of these things.
The works of Satoshi Kon straddle the line between arthouse abstruseness and mainstream appeal. His dream-fueled visual and narrative elements are grounded through very human aspects such as isolation, loss, and how macro changes in the world impact us as individuals. He manages to transform the mundane into something spectacular, while also presenting the fantastic as a tool for discovering simple truths. And if you were already thinking it, there is something to it when people compare Kon’s filmography to that of Christopher Nolan, another largely successful mainstream filmmaker who marries intellectualism and social examination with mind-bending plots and visuals.
The large significance that separates the two — that I find, anyhow — is that Nolan focuses on meticulously layering his big ideas through his narratives to a point that many of his characters are simply plot vehicles, and their interactions are just to espouse the cool concepts which Nolan wants to talk about. That isn’t to say that Nolan doesn’t direct his actors well, or that these characters are not written to have relatable motivations and emotional responses. Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar and Guy Pearce in Memento easily make us believe they are who they say they are. Nolan’s approach to his subjects has been referred to as “cold” and “distant” — based on the calculated precision in which he extrapolates on his themes — whereas Kon is almost his inverse.
Kon’s eye for storytelling involves as many big ideas as Nolan — so much so that Nolan is still called a rip-off artist in some circles because of the similarities between Paprika and Inception. However, what sets their dichotomy firmly in place is Kon’s attention to emotional reality, despite the very evident unreality which infects his stories.
Kon’s genius — obviously among other things — was the ability to create a vivid, thriving world (with a matching cast of characters) where minute and seemingly inconsequential elements all add up to form a magnificent final image, one that you’d rarely fully understand until the work’s final moments. While Kon’s movies all play with this expectation, his series Paranoia Agent is the petri dish which allowed him to fully realize an ideal marriage between surrealism, absurdism, intellectualism, and the human experience. We’re given these huge ideas and comments on society, culture, and our progression as a species, while focusing on a smattering of loosely connected vignettes around a plethora of contrasting individuals.
As a result, what starts as a simple mystery surrounding a supposed mugging, evolves through family dramas and extortion rackets into an apocalyptic fever dream. So without any more preamble, let’s jump through a quick synopsis before we get to the meat of this analysis.
Tsukiko Sagi, a character designer who created an immensely popular pink dog named Maromi, is walking home one night when she is attacked by an elementary school boy riding golden inline skates, and carrying a twisted metal baseball bat. The following day, the detectives Keiichi Ikari and Mitsuhiro Maniwa are assigned to the case, and soon thereafter a series of mugging victims crop up all spouting the same story. The attacker, named Lil’ Slugger by the press and gossiping public, is increasingly credited for a wave of violence snaking its way through Tokyo. However, while Ikari and Maniwa pull out every stop to track down and stop Lil’ Slugger, the case becomes continually convoluted and seemingly devoid of logic — a fact which weighs heavily on the detectives, forcing them down separate paths as a means of coping. One lamenting at his loss of purpose and place within a new world he doesn’t understand, and another adapting so extremely to these new times that he loses sense of the man he once was. The series concludes with typical Kon zaniness, blending reality and fantasy — you may notice that similar ideas echo in the climax of his final feature film, Paprika.
I know that this synopsis hardly scratches the surface of some of the major details which occur throughout 13 episodes, and that’s kind of the point. Kon went on record, stating that Paranoia Agent was the byproduct of unused ideas which had been left over after his previous films were completed. None of these were large enough for him to turn into full stories on their own, so he took this compost heap of leftovers, and created a “relay race” of smaller instances where seemingly unconnected individuals are all brought together by the actions of one little mugger. Probably the best overt example of this is in the episode “ETC,” where a group of women gossip about increasingly ridiculous rumors surrounding Lil’ Slugger, trying to constantly one-up each other while hazing the newest tenant of their building — the wife of a screenwriter, who is trying to fit in. At least, that’s how it all appears when looking at its individual parts. What we end up getting is an involute character study of how people react to change, and whether ignorance is truly bliss or is fuel to a dumpster fire raging behind closed doors. Kinda reminds me a bit of Shadow of a Doubt, which is just another reason to sink your teeth into this show.
Within the initial frames of the first episode, “Enter Lil’ Slugger,” we get a montage of people going about their day as we listen in to their conversations. We witness excuses, deflections and situational projections which ordinary people spin into their normal day without much thought as to their consequence. They range from those simply refusing to acknowledge their own part in whatever they are railing against, to those openly lying through their teeth as to their present predicaments. Whether genuine or deceptive, all in all, everyone seems to be having a pretty typical Monday. While this small sequence lasts just under two minutes, it does a considerable amount of heavy lifting. Not only does it set the tone for nearly every major plot point moving forward, as well as fully encapsulating the main themes of the series, it also works to establish a completely understandable stasis without a single character providing exposition.
The dictionary definition of “stasis” is a period or state of inactivity or equilibrium. In the screenwriting sense, it refers to the state of the world, both at the beginning and end of the story. With the initial stasis, we need to establish the world and rules of the narrative, and to adhere to them as we go along.
While Paranoia Agent doesn’t start fully off the chain, as when the world is being swallowed by darkness, the inner and outer conversations blend into a cacophony of bruised egos, reactionary emotions, and distracted minds. It then quickly dips into a scrawl of seemingly nonsensical equations. This moment’s pause introduces the characters of the crazed master, who currently resides in a hospital, and Tsukiko Sagi, on a bus on her way to work. Several small children ride by on rollerblades before the bus moves and reveals the episode title spray-painted on a wall. We know the time and place of the story, the scattershot perspectives from which the narrative will be woven together, and many subtle clues as to how this episode, and likewise the series, will approach conflict. All within two minutes, and not an info dump in sight.
Now, that isn’t to say Paranoia Agent doesn’t have expository scenes or dialogue. Almost every fictional narrative needs them in order to function, and we get plenty within this series. However, their use is reserved for moments like police interrogations, where a string of questions and answers is expected. But when this isn’t the case, most of the characters simply speculate on what is happening, or contemplate it in solitude. Either way, Paranoia Agent relies largely on sleight-of-hand misdirections during these barrages of information, and the devil is really in the details, as the truth of each segment is buried in the minutiae. Slight tells are written across people’s faces, and background details further elaborate on the situation and the relationships of those involved. As aforementioned, this series is designed around subtle details, even while the world implodes. So this time, you’ve got to put the laundry away and pay attention while you’re watching it, otherwise you’ll be even more lost than Ikari.
While every episode is strong in its own right when utilizing minuscule elements and misdirection — and I really had a hard time choosing one episode in particular to showcase this, because so many episodes are fantastic examples — where I think this really pays off is probably in Episode 10, “Mellow Maromi,” which follows the exploits of Naoyuki Saruta.
Throughout the episode, Saruta acts as production coordinator for a Maromi anime trying to get its first episode out the door. While this episode also acts as a great metatextual introduction to the ins and outs of anime production for anyone who wants to know about the industry, we bear witness to how one incompetant person can throw the whole production into jeopardy. Saruta cannot seem to get a solitary thing right. Among his greatest hits is losing an entire cut of the episode because he carelessly trips over a power cord, ruining a scene’s background art by folding it into squares, or simply forgetting to tell people vital information about due dates, thus throwing the whole production schedule into disaster mode in order to clean up the mess. But throughout all of these events, Saruta never once claims responsibility for his very evident fault, insisting that everyone else is to blame for his actions or inaction, as the case may be. By this point in the anime, we are well acquainted with the fact that Lil’ Slugger seemingly goes after individuals who consider themselves emotionally cornered and are looking for a way out. While Saruta may be overtly in denial over his complicity in his own failures, he cannot outrun the truth of the matter. Which is exactly why I believe the episode is structured as it is. The framing device of Saruta driving the tape of the first episode to the network in time for it to air that night is a fantastic pace-setter. While he keeps an eye on the clock, with only minutes to spare, he continually dozes off while driving, his dreams reliving major moments of the production.
Throughout the story, key members of the anime staff are picked off by Lil’ Slugger nearly one by one, and eventually Saruta is among the only ones left. But as the work piles on for those remaining on the project, we see how violent their reactions to Saruta become — from mild irritation and exasperation, to straight-up assault seasoned with verbal abuse. As he becomes more defiant against these constant claims, his co-workers find him more and more unbearable. When he tries to vent his frustrations in a bit of a positive way, away from prying eyes, he still manages to ruin key frames of the animation because he’s not paying attention to the boxes he’s hitting, or that he simply doesn’t care.
Though, in all honesty, by the halfway point through the episode, I was surprised he hadn’t been fired. Speaking as someone who makes a living as a freelancer – I’ve worked on film and television sets of all sizes, in various positions, and this guy wouldn’t have lasted a solitary day on the projects I’ve been on, especially if he were in an important leadership role like a production coordinator. But, for the sake of the vignette, I still think it works well enough to prove its point. Because the idea of Saruta’s incompetence is also a projection of the other characters as well, using him as a lightning rod for other aspects of the production which can lie outside their realm of control, or because they themselves screwed the pooch. This is most notable within an earlier moment when the producer Oda is on a hunt to replace the series writer, and Saruta outs him in front of the whole crew that he had no other options because everyone notable had already turned him down.
But while the plot of this episode isn’t anything strikingly unique, the manner in which we experience it absolutely is. Because Kon has such an interest in minor details building a major picture of the people we’re observing, we get a lot out of the setting and scenario. We see how the appearance of each character slowly degrades over the course of the narrative as they succumb to sleeplessness and poor morale, with the backgrounds artist literally leaving a note telling people not to search for him — that he was so traumatized by the experience (whether or not it was because of Saruta or Lil’ Slugger remains oblique) he’s literally gone AWOL.
The whole episode is likewise shrouded by Maromi, and not just because they are working on the anime. While they have things like key chains and coffee mugs, it is when they are all gifted a ton of huggable pillows by the company responsible that things really start going downhill. The staff clearly doesn’t want a thing to do with the pink dog more than they already do, with this situation being so obviously ironic because of the massive time crunch they are all currently under. While the others know there isn’t going to be much sleep between them, Saruta almost immediately uses the new pillow to take a nap. As the deadline approaches, more and more Maromi merch fills cabinets, with boxes sitting atop shelves overflowing with even more lidless eyes of the omnipresent dog. Honestly, the crew probably could have side-hustled as Maromi resellers.
This overabundance of plushies — along with Maromi’s little animated interludes, and repeating of the phrase “take a rest” in the final moments — works to enhance the uncanny valley vibes to reach critical mass by the episode’s end, while also retaining the overall trajectory of the main arc. Saruta is finally fired by Oda when the color director is thinned from the crew. But if that is the case, why have we been following Saruta as he drives to the network? How’d he get a hold of the tape? Did he get rehired?
Well, the series doesn’t answer those questions in a way we may initially anticipate. Maybe it’s because Oda snapped his tether — murdering the final crew member as soon as the episode is finished — and when Saruta thwacks him with a bat, it was because he was trespassing in the studio so that he could steal the credit for getting the tape to the network on time. Or maybe Saruta is the murderer of the other crew members, as they all seem to disappear or violently die after some kind of altercation or interaction with him. Or maybe because that Lil’ Slugger has truly been systematically killing each of these people, working his way to the one person who feels the most trapped, savoring the sweetness of the hunt like the deranged serial killer the rumors are turning him into.
There are a number of valid theories, with each one relying on different details to prove their point. Which is exactly why Paranoia Agent‘s many stories remain as timeless as they do. With each revisit, the characters we follow either reinforce our feelings toward them, or make us see things in a different light, depending on where we are in life. We uncover more buried tid bits which provide further context or complexity to the story, and continually are given a sickly thrilling and darkly comic journey through dreams, excuses, and paranoia. It’s beautiful — in a very demented way.
While I have gushed about the narrative elements and devices for considerably longer than I had originally intended, how does the actual anime hold up on a technical level? Well, the answer is equally complicated. Kon’s feature films are often a sea of rich animation, art direction, and character design, and his collaborators — most notably the brilliant screenwriter Seishi Minakami — usually manage a cohesive experience which marries the visuals to the narrative with expert allocation of their resources and craft. But with Paranoia Agent, even with his longtime partner, Studio Madhouse, backing the production, this remains the most visually inconsistent of Kon’s work besides Perfect Blue. Now I’m not saying that there isn’t visual splendor in either this series, or in Kon’s iconic first film — far from it. What I am saying is that with Paranoia Agent, its visual experience ranges from jaw-droppingly gorgeous, to eerily creepy and atmospheric, to washed out, bland, and stiff. And while there are absolutely moments which call for particular shifts in visual language, these notable differences aren’t always because of that particular intention. I normally chalk up these inconsistencies to the television format, and you can reference the “Mellow Maromi” episode to understand again why these shortcuts were probably taken.
Having said this, the soundscapes are solid. Sound director Masafumi Mima really hits it out of the park when needing to construct a bustling city street with an elevated train roaring by, or a small room with a character pulling down a bookcase, along with any sense of safety. Hammering at construction sites, radio feedback cutting against the whistle of passing wind, the crunch of metal as Lil’ Slugger proves he ain’t so little anymore — when the sound needs to hit, it certainly pulls its weight. This is compounded by the original score by Susumu Hirasawa — yup, we’re back talking about his awesome musical talents yet again (see my Berserk video to get up to speed). Full of rattling cymbals and droning synths crashing against scaling background vocals and thrumming baselines, the score is dependable to get any mood across when needed. Is it as iconic as his score for the 97-98 Berserk? No. Does it have the same emotional resonance as his score for Millennium Actress, the only animated movie which has ever made me cry? No. But, like most of Kon’s films, the use of score is very economical — it is only used when absolutely necessary, and is employed to maximum effect. I really appreciate that.
Both Japanese and English voice casts are strong enough to propel their respective storylines without the need for over-intrusive musical accompaniment, and I love that. It doesn’t mean I prefer musicless animation — I grew up in the ’90s, you really couldn’t escape music in animation if you lived in America, though I am thoroughly thankful that more and more animated movies in the US are generally breaking away from the musical. The phenomenal voicework manages to augment the natural power of each scene. I feel for these characters, and the more I learn about them, the more I empathize. I may not always like what I find in them, with a couple being outright despicable, but I always seem to find something to understand about them, due in large part to the raw emotional core of everyone’s performances.
So as we wind down, how does Paranoia Agent fair all these years later? Well, considering Satoshi Kon remains my favorite animation director, you know I can be biased when approaching anything the man made. Even when I take the messy visual inconsistencies into account, as well as the slightly underwhelming musical score (again, a relative point since all of Hirasawa’s soundtracks that I have experienced are anything but pedestrian), the series manages to remain just as fresh, entertaining, and thoughtful as it ever was. Unsettling ideas about humanity thrown into a blender with wry wit, vantablack humor, and a love for all things art, make Paranoia Agent something which can almost defy categorization. Sure, it won’t be for every casual anime fan off the street, but I’d honestly recommend any self-identified anime fan watch this series at least twice — once really won’t be good enough.
While sociologically-charged stories come around each year, wanting to say something profound about our experience here on earth, Paranoia Agent may be the one anime that managed to capture that debate, nearly perfectly. It is a series which tells its audience, “It is never too late to correct your path and find a positive way out of your corner. We all hurt, we all experience trauma, and we all have the potential to heal.”
Thank you to everyone who’s watched this video essay to the end, you make this job really worth it. I know I didn’t touch on the OP and ED in this video, just wasn’t able to squeeze it in with the 3700+ other words in this script, so I’ll at least say that both are awesome. They give away a lot of great nuggets of the story without being overly blatant like a lot of modern opening and closing sequences. Kind of reminds me of Monster, which has one of my favorite OPs. I also did a review on that anime a while back, exploring the thriller genre, over on my personal channel Criticlysm. So you check that out. If you enjoyed (or have taken issue) with my review and analysis of Paranoia Agent, leave a comment down below to let me know. Subscribe to the Anime News Network — we release new content every week, so be sure to ring the bell. I appreciate your support and feedback. Until next time.