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Paranoia Agent (2004)

By 2003, Japanese animator Satoshi Kon had several titles to his name. His debut thriller, Perfect Blue (1997), cemented his reputation as a psychological auteur, while his followup films Millennium Actress (2001) and Tokyo Godfathers (2003) expanded Kon's repertoire even more, showcasing his ability to balance dark, cerebral themes with romance and humor. Versatility is the mark of a great artist, but perhaps even more valued is his ability to effect change--to inspire viewers in a way that truly makes the world a better place. Released in 2004, Kon's follow-up to Godfathers made a noble push toward that goal.

Compared to Kon’s prior work, Paranoia Agent is an outlier. It is the only series released by the auteur and, rather than follow one character, consists of interwoven vignettes. In Episode One, Kon introduces us to Tsukiko Sagi: a young, anxious designer who is struggling to meet her next deadline. Wary of displeasing her boss, Tsukiko maintains an air of control, refusing to vent her concerns to anyone in the office. The act proves to be too much for Tsukiko, however, and she starts to have a nervous breakdown in the company parking lot.

Then, things get interesting.

Just as Tsukiko’s anxieties come to a head, she is attacked by a strange, bat-wielding figure. The assailant vanishes as quickly as he appeared, but Tsukiko manages to give police an idea of his appearance, describing him as a rough, school-aged boy who travels around on skates. Detectives Keiichi Ikari and Mitsuhiro Maniwa quickly take charge of the case, doing all in their power to catch the criminal, nicknamed Little Slugger, before he strikes again. Unfortunately, he does strike again, and as the scope and ferocity of his attacks increase, it becomes more and more vague just who, or what, Little Slugger is. Only one thing is clear: anxiety is his lure; it draws Little Slugger to his victims like a magnet. Just as they are about to break, he swoops in and strikes. From schoolboys to working professionals, all those attacked are bound by a shared sense of existential angst. How and why Little Slugger can sense that feeling remains a mystery.

In anime, title sequences are everything; one could argue they constitute half the viewing experience. On that front, Kon wastes no time grabbing our attention, opening with an image of Tsukiko atop a roof: barefoot, shaking, and skirting the edge of a multi-storied building. Her endgame is clear; many Japanese people remove their shoes before suicide. Rather than ease viewers into his story, Kon throws us headfirst into Tsukiko’s personal hell, marking her as a figure of concern and establishing the general tone of the show. The title sequence ends with a montage of similar scenes, each disturbing in its own right and featuring more of Little Slugger’s victims. It is an unnerving sight that visibly defies the mood of more upbeat, mainstream openers. Scary as Little Slugger is, the psychology of his victims is exponentially more frightening, and Kon’s intro gives us a raw look at how disturbed they truly are.

Indeed, the menace of Paranoia Agent comes less from Little Slugger himself and more from the feelings that induce him to strike. Time and again, the characters in Kon’s world struggle to meet expectations. Tsukiko cannot meet her deadline, Keiichi and Matsuhiro cannot solve their case, schoolboy Yuichi cannot remain the class favorite, floundering writer Akio cannot pay his debts, and clumsy animator Saruta cannot please his boss. These characters, while strangers to each other, are tied together by a common thread: the pressure to perform. Like the troubled star of Perfect Blue, Mima, they feel forced to meet a standard of perfection--and when they are unable to do so, they come unhinged.

Little Slugger offers these characters an out. His victims state that they feel relieved after being attacked as if he were able to free them from Earthly concerns. He is not a little boy but Suicide itself. In this light, Paranoia Agent can be seen as part of a broader narrative. Kon began at the top, highlighting the struggles of one celebrity, and has made that struggle more relatable by ascribing it to the public. Paranoia Agent appears to be a criticism of culture or, more specifically, a Japanese culture that is slowly killing its members. If the purpose of art is to inspire, then this series is more than praiseworthy; it is a cry for change and key to understanding Kon’s work as a whole.

Inspiring as it is, Paranoia Agent has its weak points. Kon’s survey of Japan shows us the full extent of Suicide’s reach, but there are simply too many characters on stage for a 13-episode show. Except for Tsukiko, Keiichi, and other central figures, many of the characters make one appearance. We hear their stories, start to connect with them, and then are quickly removed from their world and placed in another. It is a frustrating narrative technique but, in Kon's defense, may have been intentional. If Little Slugger is the only common denominator in this tale--if these characters rarely interact with each other--then perhaps Kon abbreviated their stories to convey how lonely they are, isolated even from those watching the show.

Visually, Paranoia Agent is perfect. While not quite on par with 2006's Paprika's aesthetic, the series is a fitting prelude to Kon’s last film, beautifully-drawn and featuring the iconic “woman on the run” sequence that has become the auteur's trademark. The series climax stands out, as well, its hallucinatory premise foreshadowing the equally-warped parade scene that ends Paprika. Musically, Kon also makes a few strides. Rather than confine Paranoia Agent's theme to the title sequence, he plays the song during one of Little Slugger's attacks. Unfortunately, this character-song pairing, scary as it is, happens just once. Like the shark in Spielberg's Jaws, Little Slugger could have had his own leitmotif, and composer Susumu Hirasawa his own John Williams moment, had Kon pursued this idea further.

All in all, though, Paranoia Agent is a worthy watch. While frustrating at times, its poignant commentary on suicide is sure to move any social justice advocate, be they a Kon fan or otherwise. Little Slugger is truly terrifying, but, more importantly, his youthful appearance complicates his image. More than a symbol of suicide, he represents the child in all of us: tired, alone, and angry with his older, world-weary self.

Now, he has had enough.



IN A NUTSHELL: A needed look at suicide and inspiring reproach of Japanese pressure culture.