Paranoia Agent

"And in the absence of a vision there are nightmares
And in the absence of compassion there is cancer..."

Bruce Cockburn, "Night Train"

I don't follow many directors and creative types in the anime world, but there are a few that always catch my attention. There are names both famous (Hayao Miyazaki, Leiji Matsumoto) and infamous (Rin Taro, Go Nagai), but many of them have been at work for over twenty years. This generation's anime wunderkind, however, is without a doubt Satoshi Kon. By age 42, he had directed three major motion pictures, all of them stunning, and had completed his first television series: Paranoia Agent. At turns fascinating and strange, intimate and global, Paranoia Agent shows a creativity and freshness that is rarely seen in any medium. In this format, Kon has expanded the horizons of what anime on television can be.

The story starts simply with an attack on Tsukiko, a beleaguered artist who is under pressure to develop a new character like her beloved Maromi, by a young kid with a baseball bat and roller skates. The two police officers assigned to her case don't quite believe her story, especially since she's already frazzled. But when reports start coming in of other attacks by the boy nicknamed Lil' Slugger, the investigation goes into high gear. Surprisingly enough, it seems that every victim is under huge stress right before their encounter with the bat boy. Is it simply a spreading delusion? Or is there a person...or even a force...stalking the streets of Tokyo waiting to find the next person who really needs a whap upside the head?

Paranoia Agent excels because it combines complex characters in a unique mix of storylines that all fit together in bizarre but compelling fashion. The animation mirrors this complexity, presenting a wide variety of individuals whose physical appearance, ranging from beautiful to painfully unattractive, reveals quite a bit about their characters. In the artistic department, Paranoia Agent looks spectacular, and it would look noteworthy even on a film screen. The visuals are unique, and at times they evolve into the surreal, but only to capture the full impact of what the characters experience. Paranoia Agent has a realistic quality to it that makes the moments of fancy all that more engaging. Kudos to Madhouse on that side of the job...and also kudos to the dub by New Generation Pictures, which is outstanding.

But Paranoia Agent resonated with me because it's got something far more important on its mind. The individual stories play out beautifully, but they all wind up discussing the central theme of alienation. All of Kon's films have had this theme to some extent, but Paranoia Agent explores it from unexpected angles. By the time we reach the cataclysmic ending, we can hardly believe the ground we've covered, the characters we've gotten to know, and the thematic material Kon has mined. I've seen far too many shows where I could predict what would happen from point A to point B. If anybody tells you they knew how Paranoia Agent would end from watching the first episode or two, they are lying. But what's most gladdening to me is that Satoshi Kon is making a statement about modern society that applies both to Japan and America. Ultimately, Kon's show is a warning to us...if we take the time to understand it.

I'm not sure exactly how accessible Paranoia Agent is to a typical American audience. That isn't meant to be insulting, but this was an unusual choice for Adult Swim to pick up. Yes, it's visually arresting at times, but the plot is far from linear and not rewarding in the typical fashion. Some episodes are side stories that further along the concepts without any of the central players participating. There is a mystery to be solved but no hero in the typical sense. All of this is fantastic for the patient viewer, but the kid just tuning in from InuYasha or Cowboy Bebop might be in for a rude awakening. If you like your anime to be lean and mean eye candy that doesn't require you to think, no matter how good this looks, you'll likely wind up disappointed. You really can't watch Paranoia Agent casually to understand the whole story. And be aware...this show is disturbing at times.

With that caveat in mind, I can't recommend Paranoia Agent highly enough. It is a suspenseful drama that rewards the viewer who is intelligent enough to follow its complexities and mature enough to not expect a lot of action. Satoshi Kon's next film, Paprika, is supposed to hit America in early 2007, and I can't wait. So far, the man has batted a thousand, and Paranoia Agent is no exception.

Paranoia Agent -- violence, profanity, brief nudity (in the unedited version), mature psychological themes -- A+