Paranoia Agent Complete Collection (DVD)

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Paranoia Agent Complete Collection (DVD)

A psychological thriller that strives for social commentary, PARANOIA AGENT is an anime series from director Satoshi Kon (PERFECT BLUE, MILLENNIUM ACT...

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Review of "Paranoia Agent Complete Collection (DVD)"

published 22/03/2006 | berlioz
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Excellent
Pro A brilliant piece of cinematic quality, story-telling and intelligence not seen often
Cons Plot a little too confusing and ending leaves some questions unanswered
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"PARANOIA STRIKES"

Tsukiko Sagi

Tsukiko Sagi

WHEN DARKNESS OVERCOMES THE HEART, SHONEN BAT APPEARS…

Satoshi Kon is a name that has really taken the world of anime in a completely new and original direction since his debut with 1997's Perfect Blue, a film that has generated a lot of controversy among the anime fandom. His follow-up's with Millenium Actress and The Tokyo Godfathers on the other hand have been almost unanimously praised for their dramatic and interesting stories. All of these films have been characterised by Kon's unique style that usually does not feature picture-perfect characters, but take on a more realistic and even downright ugly and perverted appearance. With these films under his belt, he then followed them by turning his attention to the most unexpected direction, television, and creating his first TV series, Paranoia Agent (Mousou dairinin). Along with him came his distinctive characterizations, strange storylines, particular stylistics and a distinctly "cinematic" feel. This in itself is a rather interesting move from Kon as it is not often that directors make a jump from directing feature films to actually directing a whole TV series. Usually these types of endeavors easily end up as watered down versions of the script done by other directors, but in having the screenwriter himself directing the endeavor can often lead to some real magic, and Paranoia Agent is a perfect example of this.


TO BEGIN WITH: TSUKIKO'S DILEMMA

The very first scene of the series immediately sets up the stressful and hectic life of the world known as Japan, with hundreds of people going about their lives, cell phones ringing, obligations and work pushing everybody along, and the constant demands on their lives causing much perturbation on the people. To this world belongs one Tsukiko Sagi, an introverted and very sensitive woman, who has of recent been getting more attention than she bargained for upon her creation of an anime character, a fluffy, large-eyed, pink doggie by the name of Maromi. Maromi has caused a nationwide obsession with the character with a massive amount of merchandise from Maromi-pillows, keychains and stuffed toys to backbags, clothing and huge balloons all sporting the loveable character on every corner and attracting the affections of everybody, young and old. This has, unfortunately for Tsukiko, caused her to attract a lot of attention and the production company behind Maromi are now eager to cash in on this success by having Tsukiko design a new character in record time, one that would be even more popular than Maromi.

Lacking in inspiration, and with a deadline pushing on her, she starts to feel the desperation approaching, and during one night, on her way home, this desperation gets too much, pushing her to a breaking point where nothing seems to be going the way she wants. And while she is crying alone in a car lot, a figure suddenly appears from behind and smashes her on the head with a bat. As the police later interrogate her as to who attacked her, she says it was a young boy with a bent, golden baseball bat, golden rollerblades and baseball cap, but whose face she didn't see (she even makes a rough sketch of him). In the public consciousness, due to the high-profile of the incident, this attacker soon gets the name of Shonen Bat (or as the American's have translated rather amusingly "Lil' Slugger") and becomes the talk of everybody. The incident of Tsukiko sets into motion a mystery that is one of the most fascinating I have ever seen and one that has so many interconnections you couldn't possibly realise them all at just one sitting.


THE STORY EXPANDS

The unfolding of the story is one of great mastery. Instead of taking a linear direction in having the two detectives assigned to the case, Keichi Ikari and Mitsuhiro Maniwa, start their investigation in finding Shonen Bat in the basic mold of a cop series, the second episode takes as its center a completely new character, that of schoolboy Yuichi Taira. Yuichi is extremely popular and does very well at school, has charm and is running to become class president. He is called "Ichi", because he is always No.1 and often sports a golden baseball bat and rollerblades. After the incident of Shonen Bat enters the public consciousness, Ichi soon finds himself rapidly losing his friends and popularity, and he believes the naïve new student from the country, Shogo Ushiyama, is blackballing him in the running for class president. It is a fascinating episode to see unfold as Ichi gets more and more paranoid about Ushiyama and seriously wishes that Shonen Bat would attack him, all the while his life is rapidly deteriorating by the rumors that are circulating of his connection with the crimes. And when Ushiyama actually is attacked, it doesn't bring back his popularity and his life continues to spiral downwards.

The third episode takes on a new angle in the form of Harumi Chono, who was seen as being Ichi's private tutor in the last episode. But the seemingly ordinary life she led in Episode 2 is given a new twist when it is shown that she has a serious case of schizophrenia, her other personality "Maria" being a prostitute, and every night takes on many male customers. When she receves a marriage proposal from a co-worker at school, she decides to leave this life behind, but this turns into a furious battle between the two personalities as Maria refuses to go away. In the fourth episode we again concentrate on another character, this time a local police officer Masami Hirukawa, who has run into serious debt with some villanous thugs and has to resort to robbery in order to get out of it. The character of Hirukawa also gets very much development later on in the series as his daughter comes into play and we learn of his twisted family life, but all of this is only disclosed in the long run. All of these characters are suffering from some form of anxiety or have been driven in a corner where there seems to be no way out. And when one is driven to a corner is when Shonen Bat comes and relieves them (temporarily) of their worries.


DEVELOPMENT AND GROWTH OF AN URBAN LEGEND

It is interesting to follow the development of Shonen Bat, and to a lesser degree of Maromi, who are the two leading leitmotifs of the series. Both are the opposite sides of the same coin, Maromi being the delusion of comfort and security that people are willing to embrace for this reason alone, while Shonen Bat is the negative side that brings another form of delusion in that striking people with his bat he is relieving people of their problems (these two, however, are nothing more than temporary solutions that work like masks over the real problems). Maromi as a happy entity doesn't really evolve into anything else since there is no need. Shonen Bat, on the other hand, goes through much development from the shadowy figure attacking Tsukiko in the dark, to an urban legend spread about by people with many elaborations, continually feeding his hunger on the paranoia and stress of those people, all the while getting stronger and stronger, and more prevalent, finally coming on its head when Maromi is taken out of the equation.

What is so great here is that nothing is played out as straight as it could have been. Those first four episodes are really only the introduction as the plot twists, turns and goes upside down most of the time, lending the mystery a constantly changing angle which is just fun to figure out. The negative side of this is that the plot does tend to get a little confusing and some of the directions it takes can just blow your mind when you try and keep up. However, this is not to say the plot is confusing just for the sake of being confusing, but there are constant threads weaved through it that, when looked at closely, make perfect sense.

Episode 5 in particular is interesting as it takes a completely different approach to criminal interrogation. As the detectives Ikari and Maniwa interrogate a suspect of the crimes, named Kozuka, they are pulled along into a fantastical role play where the interrogatee becomes a "Holy Warrior" that does battle with monsters taken from a video game guide book in order to save the lives of "villagers", his ultimate goal being to beat the evil Gouma. While the older Ikari finds all of this absurd, the more open-minded Maniwa himself takes an active part in the play that will eventually become an important feature in the battle against Shonen Bat as he too starts to lose his grip on reality. This concept of actively taking part within somebody else's imagination, however, is not new for Kon as he had used the same approach with Millenium Actress before. This doesn't diminish its effectiveness here (it is quite interesting to get more in depth with the twisted world view of Kozuka), but it does perhaps have the feeling of Kon being a little lazy since he is resorting in using old, well-proven tricks.


THE "FILLER" EPISODES

The odd bits in the bunch, though, are Episodes 8-10 that are what can more readily be called as being filler. These three episodes are fascinating in and of themselves, but do seem to have less importance in the bigger picture of the plot. The first is perhaps the most humorous of all the episodes as it deals with the attempts of three people, the old man "Fuyubachi", the young man "Zebra", and the little girl "Kamome", trying to commit suicide. These three have met in a Maromi discussion forum and have gotten together, though the two men had no idea that Kamome was actually only about 14 years old, and therefore try to ditch her, while at the same time trying to find new ways of killing themselves by gathering tips from the forum. This episode is filled with a lot of black humour that is at the same time amusing and disturbing. It is fun to watch these three completely different people form this kind of a dysfunctional family, while at the same time trying to take their own lives. They even come into contact with Shonen Bat, but amusingly turn the tables on him and start enthusiastically chasing after him because he is so notorious. However, one needs to keep a close eye on the events, otherwise the big surprise turn of that episode can go completely unnoticed.

The following episode is also quite fun, as it details the significance that Shonen Bat has garnered in the culture of Japan. This is seen through the urban stories of the gossiping women of an apartment building complex, who tell stories more and more fantastic about how Shonen Bat has attacked friends and the friends of friends. The odd one out is a new neighbour who is having difficulty fitting in with the others and has all of her stories shot down by the them, even though they are just as fantastical (this is mainly because her husband is a screenwriter). After being completely humiliated by the others, she trudges home only to find Shonen Bat has taken a visit on her husband and he is now begging for her to call an ambulance. Too bad his wife now only sees an opportunity to get a story to tell the other women.

The third of these episodes details a production crew of a new Maromi anime, that features the hectic deadlines and work the people in the industry do, while a bungling production manager Saruta Naoyki is constantly causing disruption and trouble to the production. Things escalate even more as Shonen Bat seems to one by one kill members of the crew, told in flashback by Saruta while Shonen Bat is harassing him on a rainy highway as he is delivering the finished Maromi tape to the TV station. As a fun little sidenote in this episode is the little information blurbs of Maromi telling what each of the crew members exactly do in these kinds of productions, which makes for quite a fun little inside look at the industry. It's also funny to see how "appreciative" the crew is when Tsukiko's personal assistant brings a gift of Maromi-pillows to the stressed out workers. I bet that would be something all of us could relate to on some degree.


TSUKIKO AND SYMBOLISM

But above all Paranoia Agent is not about Shonen Bat per se, but of the characters and how their lives are affected by the stresses life puts them through. It is from their plights that Shonen Bat becomes what he becomes, and the way the different people cope with their anxieties (with submission, defiance, or other) is really great to follow. Tsukiko being the driving force, from whom both Maromi and Shonen Bat get their strength from, there is a lot of hints as to the importance of Tsukiko in the mystery, but at no point is this made completely blatant, making the viewer question whether Tsukiko is in fact only a victim or something completely different. She often imagines the Maromi doll she constantly carries along with her getting up and telling her that none of the things that are happening are her fault, thus giving her another reason to cover behind a false sense of security. It is not until the final episode that all is made clear once and for all what exactly is Tsukiko's part in the story.

The series is also filled with a lot of symbolism that features a lot of Japanisms, such as all the main characters are named after animals and can often be seen substituted with these animals (particularly in Kozuka's fantasy game); allusions to the moon can often be associated with Tsukiko (her first name meaning "moon child") and the progression of the story as a whole; the crows in Episode 3 are open allusions towards an old Japanese symbol for schizophrenia that Harumi Chono is suffering from; or the multiple representations of baseball bats, the most notable of which is Shonen Bat's bent bat that can be seen as either the twisting of truth or as a subtle allusion towards the ultimate truth of the origin of Shonen Bat that is revealed in the final episode's final climax. At the end of the series there are certain plot points that are deliberately left hanging, as is the ending's rather ubiquitous conclusion, that are designed to raise questions and debate. The epilogue that is tagged on the end can be seen as an indication that the story in fact will never be over, and history has a tendency to repeat itself.


VISUALS, CHARACTERS AND MUSIC

The character designs are on par with most of Satoshi Kon's other work in being given more realism than to your stock anime characters you most often see. It is interesting to note that none of the characters or backgrounds use outlines, but rather shades that further add to the realism. While this does make the colours a bit flat, there are times when there is such a richness and vibrancy to the colour that it really makes these moments stand out even more. Since the show is so much based on dialogue-heavy scenes, the animation is often more based on stillness that works beautifully, particularly in the more tense scenes (you know I just love slow-moving, dialogue driven, and intelligently constructed drama rather than simple action). And the entire series has such a fantastic cinematic feel to it, that at times you can almost forget you're actually watching a TV series rather than a very long movie. The Japanese voice actors are perfect for their respective roles and each make the character just the way they are supposed to be. The English cast I have only sampled, but didn't find anything really bad about their performances, so no disappointment on that quarter either. And, despite the wide variety of characters, none are surplus and most have deep histories appended to them (quite an undertaking in itself).

The opening title sequence, as well as ending sequence, are another thing that are quite interesting in their polar oppositeness. The main title, "Dream Island Obsessional Park," features most of the main cast members imposed over several different settings (in heavy rainfall, on top of buildings, under water, on the Moon, etc.), all of them laughing almost with a creepy and demented air of madness, looking a bit like bobble heads. The music further adds to this by presenting a driving mix of pop, techno and rock with birdsong effects and an operatic soprano heard in the background. Yes, I know the description sounds terrible, but honestly, it actually works really well. The music is strangely catchy and enjoyable in all of its weirdness that really accentuates the images it accompanies as do the lyrics that talk about a "marvellous mushroom shaped cloud in the sky" and of an "afternoon of the little birds feeding in an alley". The end title is the complete opposite by presenting a calm music box-like theme (called "Maromi's Theme") over images of the whole cast sleeping on a grassy field with a gigantic Maromi sitting in the middle of the question mark they form (yep, Kon is really trying to beat it in our heads to question and think). Surreal, strangely beautiful, haunting and so appropriate. Otherwise the music of Susumu Hirasawa sets the mood very effectively, but is nothing to really write home about.


OVERALL COMMENT SUMMARY

Overall, Paranoia Agent is an amazing series. It is intelligent, dramatic, and above all, enthralling. The plot is far from being completely clear cut, so it is suggested that if your brain-capacity cannot get beyond the brainless crash-and-bang, Hollywood action flicks in the way of intelligent story-telling, then avoid Paranoia Agent like a plague. It's not for you. But for those appreciating well-made, atmospheric and strong films and series, then I urge you whole-heartedly to try this one on for size. The series consists of just 13 episodes and is well worth the effort to track down. And as a word of warning, don't get driven to a corner, otherwise you just might find Shonen Bat right behind you. WHACK!!!


© berlioz, 2006


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Comments on this review

  • tom1clare published 13/04/2006
    This is perhaps one of the most impressive anime series I've seen - the invention and quality of each episode was brilliant, though as with most of Satoshi Kon's works, I felt the end was a little brief. Millennium Actress is my favourite of his - anyone who thinks animated film can't prove emotional viewing obviously hasn't seen that lol! Superb writing as ever :) tom
  • garleon published 26/03/2006
    Very thorough. TO quote the comedian Steven Wright " I recently bought a dog. A Paranoid Retriever. You throw a stick for it and it brings back everything it can.......just in case". I know you will like that one. Everybody says i'm paranoid.....all of them.....can't you hear them whispering? gar
  • steerpyke published 23/03/2006
    what a great review.....Dave
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Product Information : Paranoia Agent Complete Collection (DVD)

Manufacturer's product description

A psychological thriller that strives for social commentary, PARANOIA AGENT is an anime series from director Satoshi Kon (PERFECT BLUE, MILLENNIUM ACTRESS). Kon makes the leap to the small screen with the same fluid professional images and mature plotline and themes that mark his films. Utilizing an episodic structure, PARANOIA AGENT focuses on the attacks made by the serial assaulter Shounen Bat, a mysterious adolescent who beats random victims with a baseball bat and quickly rollerskates away. As the detectives charged with investigating the Shounen Bat assaults find only confusion, the city itself threatens to explode with pent up rage, frustration, and paranoia. This release contains all 13 episodes of the enigmatic and dark series.

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