It’s been ten years since Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent first premiered on WOWOW in Japan, a little under nine years since the dub aired in the USA for the first time on [adult swim] via Cartoon Network, and just over 3 years since Kon so touchingly put down his pen, but the thirteen episodes which comprise his single-season series remain as visually and thematically distinguished, as emotionally effective, and as intellectually engaging and sociologically poignant as they were back in 2004. Paranoia Agent has the distinction of being the only TV series Kon conceived of and directed in its entirety, and the commentary tracks on the out-of-print, Geneon-distributed DVDs make it painfully clear what a miracle it was that the series ever saw the light of late night TV.
There was no shortage of influential, unique, and otherwise popular titles the year Paranoia Agent debuted; a short list, further abbreviated to cite such gems as Gankutsuou, Monster, Samurai Shamploo, and BECK: MCS, represents a goodly variety not only in theme and content but artistic and directorial styles as well. Production for Paranoia Agent was handled entirely in-house, as insisted upon by producer Satoki Toyada, and features animation by way of Madhouse and a script by Seishi Minakami. Those who had experience with theatrical releases were brought on board as the main staff, something which may not be immediately noticeable but should be infinitely appreciated once the vignette nature of the show is brought into consideration.
Episodes were produced out of order and, in most instances, edited from storyboards (not the norm) to accommodate time constraints and strains on creative resources. Myriad issues wreaked havoc on the show’s production schedule to the point that many of the staff, upset with the perceived product from their own vantage, initially refused to be credited by their given names (opting instead to adopt names of the fictional production crew in episode 10 “Mellow Maromi”). This changed as pieces fell into place and the larger picture came into much-appreciated focus, but the staff’s initial anxiety over pressure is ironic given the show’s overarching theme.
Kon’s work does not enjoy the same degree of popularity in Japan that it does abroad, something which can most likely be credited to content that, contrary to national politeness, confronts humanity with a realistic portrait of its seedier sides rather than a heavily airbrushed, complimentary abstraction. Paranoia Agent is no different. Minakami was instructed to write dialog that didn’t flow, that emulated a disconnect. This, combined with the portrayal of characters carrying out a compulsive martyrdom by repressing the burdens of societal pressure as a type of passive masochism (Shonen Bat’s/Little Slugger’s victims are always smiling afterwards), defines the absurd sense of escapism so scathingly portrayed in the show via its society’s obsession with an animated, pink dog-turned-pop icon named Maromi.
As mentioned previously, Paranoia Agent is executed in vignettes that present a puzzle via the individual stories told concerning particular members of society-at-large. Shared themes start to clue the audience in on the purpose of the non-narrative which links the characters, but there are curve balls a plenty. According to Kon in the aforementioned commentary tracks, “Even when we were writing the script, the most important issue was how much of the puzzle we should solve and how much we should leave a mystery.” Such is the engaging nature of this show and what draws the viewer in and keeps them in that world.
Breaking from its fractured form, the final three episodes present a more linear course of events which snowball to involve everyone and everything presented in the world thus far. But even though the storytelling’s more straightforward, there are still many more aspects laying in wait to surprise the audience. Such shocks can include introducing an enhanced bit of surrealism into the characters’ “real life” environment, moving characters into a surreal environment, and anything made possible by the in-between.
The brilliance of the puzzle is that, according to Kon, “If you try to analyze things only using the information you currently have, you’ll move further and further from the essence.” During each episode, it’s easy enough to identify with the characters via their realistic burdens and daily routines. When the final episode finishes, however, there’s an apparent uneasiness and no clear reason why. The uneasiness is the answer, of course, and the why lies in everything that’s been presented to the audience: what changes and (more importantly) what does not. The above quote begs the necessity of insight from the audience—not just regarding the anime but their experiences in real life as well—to complete the relevancy of story they’ve just invited into their subconscious.
So much of the story’s relevancy and appeal depends on the characters appearing to be “real” people, and this is one of the defining elements which make Paranoia Agent stand out against other shows released in 2004 (and ever since). As the most notable contrast, Monster features a realistic setting and character designs but characters who are caricatures, unrealistic, or at the very least figures of fantasy (the hard nose boss, a genius underdog surgeon with the heart of gold, an insanely talented serial killer, etc.). While the characters in Paranoia Agent are certainly not drawn for photorealism or even portraiture, the depiction of their times and trials are a decisive parallel to reality (surrealistic asides aside) that forms a bridge to the audience’s sense of world and self.
As a bridge within worlds, to show the degree of planning and attention to theme that went into each episode, Kon insisted on setting a certain pattern of sound in each episode. A symbolic sound appears in each episode—skates rolling, crowds cheering, birds squawking, etc.—to represent the characters themselves, reflect their mental fixations, and/or further embed tone and theme into the viewer’s subconscious.
As it was in 2004, Paranoia Agent is visually distinct from any anime currently airing. More stylized than outdated, the art (which was contributed to by several notable people—including Masashi Ando, Junko Abe, and Hideki Hamasu—who were either established then or are now) is isolated in its realistic portrayal of a working city and the people therein. It’s excellent to see wrinkles on faces, fat people, people with middle-aged paunch, bespectacled women who are meek but not moé; in short, it’s wonderful to see flawed physical forms. Not only do these designs speak to the diversity of the human form, but they also represent the warped traits which inhabit us all.
I cannot speak more highly of this show. It came together under the same harrowing pressure it used as a catalyst in its story and came out smiling after the strike of the bat. Despite the chaotic circumstances under which the episodes were assembled, everything—the art, the script, the voice acting, the perfectly unnerving OP and equally unsettling ED—managed to come together to give the world a real good look at itself. No matter how many times I re-watch the episodes, they make me think and feel. In the end, that is the epitome of art’s purpose and a testament to all of those involved who made it possible.