|Starring||Michelle Ruff, Michael McConnohie, Liam O'Brien, Sam Riegel (English dub)|
|Release Date||February 2004 - May 2004|
Paranoia Agent is a psychological horror story about a series of assaults on an unwitting populace. It is also the only television series from the mind of Satoshi Kon, creator of such experimental favorites as Paprika, Perfect Blue, and Tokyo Godfathers. The show revolves around a young antagonist with a broken baseball bat who attacks seemingly random individuals. However, when the connection between victims is revealed to be emotional despair, things take a turn for the worse… and the weird.
This reviewer watched the Funimation English dub of the show. Language and other considerations will be for the dub, not for the original Japanese or English subtitled versions. Because of this, I will also refer to the antagonist as “Lil’ Slugger” and not “Shonen Bat.”
Violence: This anime revolves around the assaults of multiple people by Lil’ Slugger (Shonen Bat in the original Japanese). While most of the attacks fade to black, some are depicted onscreen with blood spattering and squishing sounds. Blood and dead bodies are shown often, along with other tragedies and disasters. A home invader threatens inhabitants with a weapon. One character is burned with a cigarette as a form of torture. A homeless woman is seen drowning in a river while someone stands by and watches. It is implied she survives, but viewers do not see this occur. The theme of one episode is suicide, but the atmosphere is comedic as the characters try and fail to kill themselves. A scene was removed in a UK broadcast due to the content of hanging. This episode, in particular, showcases multiple ways of dying from jumping in front of a train to creating a gas chamber. Another episode depicts the systematic murder of multiple people at a particular business. While the murders themselves are not shown, the audience sees each victim with open eyes lying in a pool of blood.
Scary Images: Paranoia Agent is a psychological horror anime. Therefore, everything about it from music to animation style has been crafted to unsettle the viewer. Its antagonist Lil’ Slugger is a young boy with an obscured face and a disturbing grin. His appearances can occur after a suspenseful wait or out of nowhere, creating jump scares. Animation styles occasionally change to suit the current protagonist, and some of these shifts can create an unsettling atmosphere, even if the viewer is unable to explain the cause. The anime opening and closing songs both have disturbing connotations, which will be explored further in this review.
Language: Occasional use of d***, h***, b******, g*******, and s***.
Drug/Alcohol References: Adult characters drink in various episodes, and one character gets drunk.
Sexual Content/Nudity: A nude picture of a young woman in a pornographic pose is shown to minors. This picture is seen from the front and captures her breasts and the top of her crotch. A character tries to look up a woman’s skirt. One protagonist is a prostitute, and that episode relies heavily on her job. Sex noises can be heard in one scene, and the camera shows a couple nude after the fact. The woman’s breasts are seen, but the rest of their bodies are obscured. Several female characters are shown in bras while getting dressed. A teenage girl’s father records her undressing without her knowledge. One married man frequently sleeps with prostitutes. A vending machine selling condoms is seen with the inscription “Happy Family Planning,” the title of the episode. Female dolls have nipples visible through their clothing.
Other Negative Content: One boy becomes a bully to advance his social status. A woman struggling with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) fights with her alternate identity. The yakuza threaten a corrupt police officer, who turns to crime. A teenager runs away from home. Suicide is a central theme of one episode, and it is presented in a comedic, carefree manner. An Internet suicide cult is the central focus, and one member is a little girl excited to die. Nowhere in this episode is suicide depicted as negative or wrong, except perhaps by the adult members trying to save the child. Women spread negative gossip about their neighbors. A man escapes to a fictional world instead of dealing with his problems.
Spiritual Content: A young boy believes himself to be a holy warrior, assaulting people to free them from demonic control. Post-credits scenes of each episode show “Prophetic Visions” where an old man cryptically discusses what will happen next. Within the show, this elder supposedly has the ability to predict Lil’ Slugger’s victims.
Positive Content: People work together to stop the assaults in their town. A schoolboy stands up for someone being bullied. Characters at the brink of sanity learn the need to deal with their personal issues. Police officers are genuinely concerned about the citizens and do the best they can to catch Lil’ Slugger. One character is immensely in love with her husband and recounts how they have stayed together through infertility and job loss. Family and friends surround loved ones during troubled times.
A True Summary
At first, Paranoia Agent sounds like a typical mystery thriller. An unknown assailant comes to town and begins hitting people over the head with a baseball bat. No one knows who this assailant is. The show follows this mystery man’s victims and the detectives trying to nab him. Everything sounds very Agatha Christie or Alfred Hitchcock at this point. Then things begin to diverge. The assailant is a middle-school-aged boy with golden roller skates and a broken golden bat. No one has ever seen his eyes, but he smiles every time he attacks someone. This kid shows up out of nowhere and only assaults people in significant emotional distress. Instead of being upset, the victims are often relieved to be assaulted by Lil’ Slugger, and some of them even beg him to hit them.
That description is the technical plot of this show. However, Paranoia Agent is so much more than a typical thriller. Viewers must be ready for a cerebral dive into the broken psyches of society. Each episode follows a different character, to the point where there is no major protagonist. Some episodes veer into completely new ideas, hardly referencing the main plot. The audience is expected to make their own connections between relevant story aspects and minor details.
Those familiar with Satoshi Kon know his works are rarely straightforward. Perfect Blue deals with the identity crisis of growing up while Tokyo Godfathers tackles the concept of family. Regardless of the theme, Kon is celebrated for movies that make people question their own eyes, and Paranoia Agent is no exception. Even after watching every episode and discussing with a friend, I felt it necessary to seek other opinions about what I just watched. With each subsequent clip, I noticed new details that complemented the story. On the other hand, I know there are many others I will never notice until after a second run of the show.
Creating the Unsettling Atmosphere
Speaking of details, Kon has atmosphere down to an art form in this anime. The name is Paranoia Agent, and everything is designed to make the viewer feel (what else?) paranoid. Lil’ Slugger is a young boy who could appear to any person at any time. I found myself on the edge of the couch cushion, waiting for him to appear in every rearview mirror and dark doorway. Before we even see Lil’ Slugger in action, we get to watch this opening sequence:
Almost every main character shows up in this video, surrounded by tragedy and laughing hysterically. The music itself is a disjointed mixture of opera, bird chirps, and yodeling. The Funimation English subtitles show the lyrics as a harmless romance woven seamlessly with hazardous disaster:
*yodel* A magnificent mushroom cloud in the sky
*yodel* In the afternoon of birds pecking at food in an alley…
Carry the sound of the waves in your heart; sink your blues.
Stretch a bridge to tomorrow; never worry about tsunami.
As disturbing as this, it sets the feel for the whole show. The citizens of Tokyo are obsessed with Maromi, a mascot created by the first protagonist, Tsukiko Sagi. In fact, Maromi is a recurring character and theme throughout the show. It appears as advertisements, backpacks, plushies, and keychains. One episode even revolves around the creation of a Maromi anime. Even while Lil’ Slugger is ruthlessly attacking people, everyone is focused on Maromi’s success. The closing theme shows the potential danger in this mentality.
Another way Paranoia Agent unsettles the audience is through animation shifts. As previously stated, each episode follows a different character, and the art style reflects this. For the most part, characters look like others in Satoshi Kon’s works. They are not drawn as a perfect ideal but as realistic, even grotesque. The eyes lack the shines of a shojo romance and muscles of a shonen fight. Instead, the cute artist has minimal facial expression, and the sleazy journalist’s eyes bug out like a frog.
These typical animations change during crucial points in the story, though. In Maromi’s anime episode, the mascot pops up during freeze frames to give the viewers information on creating anime. This is the only fourth wall breaking in the whole show, and it is within an episode about an anime. One character wishes Tokyo would be more traditional, and his episode relies on old-fashioned wood-carved scenes. Another character is a sickly woman stuck at home. While her illustration style does not change, most of her episode is a monologue, requiring no movement from a single room. This scene breaks the “show, don’t tell” rule, but it works because of her personality. Paranoia Agent‘s storytelling depends on the characters’ diverse personalities and bringing the viewers in their mindset.
Character Cases and Mental Illness
On the surface, Paranoia Agent is a mystery about assault, but the name hides a deeper plotline. This show is primarily about paranoia. Still, it pushes other mental illnesses to the forefront, like Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly “Multiple Personality Disorder”) and suicidal ideation. The first episode seems to be a normal thriller, but only up to a point. This is a spoiler for an event in the first episode, but it is a necessary concept for understanding the show and ruins nothing about the plot. Tsukiko is in the hospital after an attack by Lil’ Slugger. She is being pressured to create a new character, and now she has to deal with a police investigation for her assault. She drops a plushie of Maromi onto the floor. The plushie picks itself up, speaks to her, and crawls back into her lap. At this point, viewers either wonder if they are watching a fantasy show or discover not everything is as it seems.
Every character feels backed against a wall. They are stressed, desperate, and in need of saving. Unlike a typical anime, Paranoia Agent takes separate case studies and connects them to make a single coherent storyline. Each person deals with their stress differently. Therefore, every episode has a different feel, animation style, and break from reality. One centers around a schoolboy, who sees the world melt as he loses his popularity. Another cuts between the protagonist and his favorite samurai manga, satirizing his petty actions as honor. A couple of notable episodes do not have a single protagonist at all Instead, they follow small groups of people through adventures or stories.
The main character is not Tsukiko, the police officers, or even Lil’ Slugger. It is the city itself and everyone in it. Lying housewives cause just as much panic as a misguided holy warrior. Suicide groups on the Internet encourage running from problems into the arms of death. While the anime does not explicitly state every connection, the viewer can infer how various cases relate to one another.
One character living with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) tries to escape the sinful life of her alternate personality, only to find herself disappearing instead. Her case is not treated as comedic relief, like Toko from Danganronpa, or as a plot twist, like another anime (no spoilers). She is a person dealing with real issues. Such levels of stress cannot be expressed in words alone. In fact, visual mediums can be some of the best ways to depict mental illness. (For another example of this, see my review of the graphic novel She Could Fly.)
As paranoia spreads, the characters’ delusions and breaks from reality become more pronounced. Very few anime I have seen deal with mental illness in such a relatable, touching manner. Of those, Paranoia Agent is set apart by dealing with the issues of not one character but an entire city. Even though we may not identify with the particular struggles, we have all felt desperate. Everyone lives in a world polluted with sin, and nowhere is this more evident than in Kon’s version of Tokyo.
Paranoia Agent is not for everyone, certainly not for the easily disturbed. (Its unsettling opening alone haunted me for days.) The premise seems simple, but most of the true show lies beneath its surface. While pretending to be a thriller about a boy with a bat, this anime is a satire on society, a look into mental illness, and a warning to the desperate. The episodic adventures of characters connect, however loosely, to the overarching narrative of a city trying to avoid its problems. Its unsettling atmosphere, animation shifts, and broken characters all contribute to the haunting tale of warning.
If you want a simple storyline, loveable characters, and a straightforward ending, you will have to look elsewhere. However, maybe you are looking for an anime that forces you to discern fantasy from reality. Or perhaps one that makes you feel sympathy for characters, even when they make bad decisions. An anime that reminds you why Jesus is so necessary in our society and in our personal lives. If that is the case, then Paranoia Agent is a must-watch.
The Bottom Line
Paranoia Agent is a cerebral masterpiece about repression disguised as a thriller. Not for anyone wanting a simple storyline or characters, it is perfect for those wanting something to make them meditate on life's brokenness.