I’ll preface this article by saying I am not a fan of anime, I’ve seen perhaps three series fully and found myself not particularly enamoured with the genre. This is possibly why Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent stood out to me as a simply excellent show. It’s labelled as an anime show but suffers none of the negative traits often associated with the genres, the characters are not all fashionable wide-eyed teens with questionable morals, and none of the traditional archetypes are present. Paranoia Agent is a cut above the rest of the genre, and fully deserves to be recognised as an excellent animated TV show, but it has never quite got this acclaim. One would presume this lack of acclaim comes down to its slightly awkward position in the genre. It is an anime show that shares very little with other anime. Conversely, being branded anime and being released in Japan turns many potential western viewers away. Paranoia Agent is a spectacular anime that is fully deserving of everyone’s attention whether you’re a fan of anime or not.
The high quality of Paranoia Agent should come as no surprise to the people accustomed to the work of its director Satoshi Kon. Famed as one of the great Japanese directors, rivalling the likes of Hayao Miyazaki. Kon passed away having directed only 4 feature films (one of which being Paprika) at age 46 of pancreatic cancer. Paranoia Agent was the only TV series he directed, which makes it stand out among his other work by genre alone. Paranoia Agent was made to utilise ideas Kon had conceived during his feature films that could not appear in standalone films, but Paranoia Agent’s cohesive and engaging story shows no trace of this.
Paranoia Agent follows the story of a violent criminal known as “Shonen Bat”, Lil’ Slugger in the English release. He is a child with rollerskates and a golden bat, who attacks his victims seemingly at random. Broadly several episodes focus on the stories of individual characters and their struggles, before their inevitable encounter with Lil’ Slugger. It is, evidently, a strange show, but its quality comes from constructing believable characters with real-world problems. If you’re in any way familiar with Kon’s work this isn’t surprising. One character, Harumi, is a prostitute by night, but a tutor by day. She seemingly suffers from a split personality disorder, as Harumi leaves abusive and hateful messages for herself when she wakes up in the morning, taunting herself that she’ll never leave the life she lives by night. She tries to destroy this split, and settle down with a man who wants to marry her, but finds the reality of doing so much harder than she anticipated. Harumi finds herself victim to Lil’ Slugger. It is a deeply emotional story, and Paranoia Agent touches on many uncomfortable and dark subjects on purpose. But the story of these characters and Lil’ Slugger is far more complex than at first glance.
The progression of the story is unexpected, but it’s hard to say that anyone would want a particularly predictable ending. There are some more fantastical elements, including a ridiculous tonal shift midway through the series, but it serves the greater message of the show. The real issue for anime fans watching this is how much Kon critiques Japan, it’s culture, and by extension anime. One episode ironically focuses on the overworked and underpaid anime industry. Another is a strangely amusing but dark and engaging look at the attitudes towards suicide in Japan. The overarching message of the series is one of critique of Japan’s entire societal structure, some critics going as far as to link it to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. The purposeful avoidance of traditional anime archetypes is due to this message from Kon. But it’s freeing in many ways, even the animation style is purposefully different, creepy characters have large leering faces that contort, and older characters have softer kinder round features. I find myself hesitant to really describe it as anime, given its messages and far more interesting style.
You can tell everything you need to know about Paranoia Agent from its intro. The intro song is not some pop track by a famous artist designed to sell CDs (which is fairly standard for popular anime), it’s unnerving and the visuals of the characters laughing still doesn’t really make sense to me. The lack of merchandising in the series shows Kon’s artistic integrity, no characters are designed to be supermodels or superheroes to sell figures. Everyone in the show is distinctly human. Despite critique levied at other anime series introducing depth where none exists, Paranoia Agent is an exceptionally complex show, and its complexities levy serious questions. I found myself piecing together it’s more intricate moments days after watching it from various blogs and forums. Paranoia Agent is an amazing anime series that positively subverts everything you’d expect from an anime series. The characters are engaging but human, they suffer and sacrifice for the greater good. It’s also starkly realistic, by the end not everyone gets what they deserve, and not everything ends as cleanly as you’d hope.
Paranoia Agent is available to watch on Crunchy Roll now.