Mike wonders aloud which anime would be a good fit for the prestigious Criterion Collection.
Reviewby Bamboo Dong, Sep 27th 2004
DVD 1: Enter Lil' Slugger
It began with one incident. A shy character designer, creator of Japan's biggest mascot fad, was brutally attacked in a parking lot. Then one by one, the numbers increased. As each new person found themselves tangled in the last victim's web of influence, they soon became the prey of the person responsible for all of the attacks—an elementary school student nicknamed Shounen Bat. Wielding a dented golden baseball bat and sporting golden rollerblades and a baseball cap, this kid appears during the night to deliver people from the paranoia plaguing their lives. No one knows what his motivations are, or how he even finds these people, but the streets aren't safe anymore.
For as small as it is, the human mind is a place that man will probably never finish exploring. If anyone has a rough map though, it's Satoshi Kon. Famous for Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and his early psychological thriller Perfect Blue, he's hailed as one of the most gifted directors in the anime industry. Finally venturing into the world of anime series, it's of no surprise that he brought all of his talent and artistry along with him. Paranoia Agent takes the best parts of all his films and uses them as a springboard to create what is arguably one of the best thriller series ever animated. With touches of social commentary and a mind-blowing dive into human psychology, the show presents itself as a masterpiece that is both freakishly beautiful and incredibly creepy.
The instant the DVD menu flashes onto the screen, viewers know they're in for a ride like none other. With eerie images of old men with huge, contorted eyes, or little boys with evil smiles flashing on the screen, the ambience is set. From the first frame to the last, Paranoia Agent gives off the same sinister atmosphere that Perfect Blue did and keeps viewers bolted to their seats in awe. In the world of visual media, few things have the ability to give people the chills on a consistent basis. One of these though, is the image of little children giggling in an empty hallway, staring at you with blank eyes. Kon must have known that, because the opening theme, titled “Dream Island Obsessional Park,” is filled with nothing but the different characters standing around town giggling, vacant eyes bared for all to see. It is without a doubt one of the most unsettling opening sequences in recent anime history; by the time the show starts, you no longer know what to expect.
Right off the bat (dented, of course), the audience is greeted with a first glimpse of social commentary. The camera pans across seas of people all talking on their cell phones, completely cut off from the people around them, yet perpetually linked to someone miles away. It may seem like a trivial way to start the series, but it proves to be a reccurring theme throughout the episodes, especially with snatches of “I don't trust anyone anymore!” dispersed through the crowds. In fact, it's issues of trust and generational gaps that make the series as engaging mentally as it is on an entertainment level.
The first character introduced is a spacey woman name Tsukiko. She works for a firm that designs and markets mascot characters, including her recent smash hit Maromi, a pink dog-like creature with equally vacant eyes. On her way home from work one night, Tsukiko is assaulted by an attacker, whom she later identifies as a bat-carrying, rollerblading kid with a baseball cap. Hospitalized for serious injuries, she becomes the starting point for a police investigation bent on tracking down the mysterious “Shounen Bat.” At the same time, a tabloid writer is on her case too, wanting to know everything he can about her life and the people around her. Before long though, he falls victim to the golden bat as well.
What's fascinating about Paranoia Agent is the way that the characters all develop and feed off each other. Each episode is devoted to a new character, showing how they tie in with the previous characters, and how their lives lead them into contact with Shounen Bat. This continual tag-team effort is a breath of fresh air in the world of storytelling. It manages to focus on someone new each time, but weaves such an intricate net of character relationships and psychological bridges that it never feels episodic. From Tsukiko's brush with the golden bat, to the tabloid reporter, to a few students, teachers, and policemen, the relay hand-offs between episodes are seamless.
Psychologically, each character provides a differently angled view of the same things. This is where Paranoia Agent gets fun, pushing the show over Creepyville and into the Land of Mind-Shattering. Each character has his or her own psychological problem. Tsukiko sees her Maromi doll as a living, breathing thing that interacts with her. A student named Yuichi senses the world distorting around him everywhere he goes, feeling helpless in a land of self-created delusion. A professor's assistant continually fights with the other half of her multiple personality disorder… No matter how many times you watch these episodes, there will be something new to catch your interest. Watching these episodes is like analyzing case studies, only with a heavy Kon-esque flair that pushes everything into the realm of suspense that Perfect Blue was so well-known for.
Of course, anyone familiar with Perfect Blue knows that it's far from straight-forward and easy to understand. Paranoia Agent is no exception. Luckily, Geneon has included the perfect extra feature to help with this—an interview with Satoshi Kon. The answers are insightful and fascinating, and if viewers weren't already entranced with the series the first time around, the interview might just make them rethink their opinions. There's so much to be learned from the conversation that it really casts the show in a different light afterwards. To one-up it even further, Geneon threw on storyboards for the first four episodes onto the disc, too. Giving you the option to play through the volume with just storyboards, or have them in a separate screen next to the anime, this is a fun feature to mess around with, if somewhat useless.
Even so, the anime is where all of the magic is held. A series with so much artistic vision absolutely needs to be complemented with stunning visuals to match. With Madhouse, anything is possible. The animation is amazingly fluid and lets the scenes transfer just as swiftly between time and location as the story. If ever animation could reflect “stream of consciousness,” this is what it'd be like. Throw in a color palette that is so dark but lightly highlighted with vibrant colors, and the entire viewing experience is breathtaking. Even the eye-catches are gripping, carrying on the mood with splattered blood and other eerie images.
Aurally, it's just as mesmerizing. With a music score created by Susumu Hirasawa, the soundtrack varies between funk and industrial for some of its tunes, to blends of “noise.” Using everyday sounds like whooshing air, buzzes, heartbeats, and the clangs of subway bells, he fuses these together into a rhythmic soundtrack that rises and falls with the pace of the series. Manipulating human emotions with his music, Hirasawa creates a soundtrack that would be torturous to listen to by itself, but breathes life into the scenes that it's set to.
When it comes to sound though, there's another aspect of a DVD just as important, and this is the language tracks. Once or twice in all of the episodes, the sound dropped out a little in the Japanese track. It's not so major that it would hamper the viewing experience, but it is noticeable. It's possible that this was fixed for the final pressing of the DVDs, but there's no way of telling until the release date becomes closer. The English language track was devoid of such problems, so if anything, that should at least make dub viewers happy. If that won't, then maybe the stellar dub will. New Generation Pictures has put out some incredible dubs in the past, and they live up to their reputation well with this project. The voices are amazingly well-cast, and the actors chosen all deliver their lines impeccably. A lot of work was put into making sure the voices match the characters' personalities to a tee, and it shows. In terms of bilingual releases, this one is a surefire winner.
Even just four episodes in, it's safe to say that Satoshi Kon's directorial foray into serialized anime was a huge success. Bringing all of the experience and ingenuity that he's garnered through his other works, he makes Paranoia Agent one of the best series to be released this year. With the careful way that Geneon has handled this property, viewers can be assured that they'll get their money worth. Paranoia Agent is a beautiful thriller deserving of only the best praise.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Intricate storyline and breathtaking atmosphere
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