Paranoia Agent Volume 1
Running Time: 98 minutes
US Certificate: TV-14 UK Certificate: 15
Stressed by a pressing work deadline, toy designer Tsukiko is walking home one night when she is assaulted with a baseball bat by a boy on gold-coloured rollerblades. The two police detectives assigned to the case are baffled, and suspect at first that Tsukiko may have merely imagined her attacker – but as more people fall under the boy’s bat, a mystery begins to unfold. Who is the skater dubbed Lil’ Slugger by the media, why does he resort to apparently random acts of violence, and what (if anything) connects his victims? The younger detective, Mitsuhiro Maniwa, insists that the case be approached “scientifically” – but it is soon clear that something far more irrational is going on, way beyond the reach of any conventional investigative methods.
‘Paranoia Agent Vol. 1’ comprises the first four episodes of the thirteen-part animé made for Japanese TV by celebrated director Satoshi Kon (‘Perfect Blue’, ‘Tokyo Godfathers’, ‘Millennium Actress’). Each episode presents a new character/victim, and is told in an entirely different style – but all are framed by the ongoing police investigation, connected by a recurring range of enigmatic elements (a mysterious old man whose crazy formulae scribbled in chalk seem to be some sort of key, a toy that apparently knows more than it says, etc.), and end with an absurdly cryptic ‘Prophetic Vision’ of the events in the next episode.
Yet amidst all this obscurity, what more obviously binds all the characters together is a general crisis of identity under the pressures of modern life. In Episode 1 (‘Enter Lil’ Slugger’), Tsukiko has retreated so far from ‘reality’ that she finds it less easy to hold a conversation with people than with Maromi, the cute toy dog (with pink underpants) that she has created and Maromi talks back, opining that various (other) things happening to Tsukiko are “too strange”. In Episode 2 (‘The Golden Shoes’), teenaged Yuichi Taira, accused of being Lil’ Slugger, is torn between his dreams of success and popularity, and his absolute terror of their opposite. In Episode 3 (‘Double Lips’), split by multiple personality disorder between being a staid university assistant and an uninhibited call girl, Harumi Chono engages in a war with herself, waged through her answering machine. In Episode Four (‘A Man’s Path’), lowly substation cop Masami Hirukawa moonlights as a masked robber to pay off his debts to the yakuza, while fantasising about being the heroic protagonist of his favourite manga.
So far it remains uncertain how (or indeed if) the mystery of Lil’ Slugger will finally be resolved by this series, but the allegorical intent is somewhat easier to grasp for Kon presents his characters as anguished and confused by the different, often contradictory expectations of a fragmented Japan that has lost touch with its roots. In order to find the peace and resolution they desire, Kon suggests that they need to have some sense literally knocked into them and what these ‘victims’ in fact get from their bludgeoning encounters with Lil’ Slugger is a miraculous kind of clarity even if it hits them hard in the face. So here it is the realities – not to mention fantasies, dreams and nightmares – of contemporary Japanese society which are being investigated as much as the crimes of a solitary skaterboy (who may or may not exist).
To my mind, compared with the similarly reality-bending surrealism of Serial Experiments: Lain, the artwork in ‘Paranoia Agent Vol. 1′ is somewhat tame but its highly involving storytelling (especially in Episodes 3 and 4), engagingly complex characterisation and tantalising mystification will leave viewers clawing the walls for the next instalment. Like Lil’ Slugger’s weapon of choice, this stuff is headache-inducing but in a good way.
It's Got: Mystery, intrigue, surrealism, a cherry-chewing allusion to Twin Peaks in the first episode, and a schizophrenic approach to characterisation.
It Needs: The animation could be a little wilder.
DVD Extras Anamorphic widescreen; scene selection; choice of English 2.0 or Japanese 2.0; optional English subtitles (including subtitles for signs only); interview with director Satoshi Kon (5min); storyboard/final version comparison (with multi-angle function) for the entire first episode (minus credits); trailer reel. Version reviewed: Paranoia Agent 1 (MVM Films) DVD Extras Rating: 4/10
'Paranoia Agent' strikes an attention-grabbing blow for the cause of imaginative animé.