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The Dreams of Satoshi Kon: Chapter V - Beautiful Delusion

by Ed Sizemore,

This is the fifth in a 6-part weeklong tribute to the work of Satoshi Kon (1963-2010). His filmography will be covered in chronological order by a series of different authors.

"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 as mystery."
Satoshi Kon, Paranoia Agent commentary track

In October of 2003, Satoshi Kon was finishing up production on Tokyo Godfathers, and as it happens, he enjoyed working with his production team so much that he didn't want to see them disband when the movie was finished. Kon approached Mad House to develop a new animation project that the production staff could work on immediately upon completing Tokyo Godfathers, and thus Paranoia Agent, Kon's first and only television series, was born. The show is 13-episode affair that aired during the spring 2004 season in Japan; Geneon snatched it up and released it the following year on DVD, which caught the eye of Adult Swim, where the show ran in the fall of 2005.

You know this isn't going to be your average television show when the opening song begins with the Japanese equivalent of a yodel and the line, "A magnificent mushroom cloud in the sky". Kon's concept was a show that explored the delusions people consciously create as coping mechanisms in the modern, stress- filled world. He chose the term ‘paranoia’ for the title because he felt it denoted as sense of intentionality that other words like ‘delusion’ lacked.

The series focuses on a string of attacks by the mysterious Shonen Bat. The victims describe Shonen Bat as an elementary-age schoolboy wearing golden in-line skates and wielding a bent, golden baseball bat. Detectives Ikari and Maniwa have been assigned to the case. The problem is finding a connection between the victims. What is Shonen Bat's motive? Why do the victims seem so relieved to have been attacked?

As news of the attacks get out, Shonen Bat becomes an urban legend along the lines of the Bogeyman. Pundits on television see Shonen Bat as a symbol of rampant youth violence. Housewives try to top each other with outrageous tales of Shonen Bat's exploits. Desperate people see Shonen Bat as a solution to their problems. You can't walk down the street without hearing someone talking about Shonen Bat.

Finally, a suspect is caught by detectives Ikari and Maniwa. Just when it looks like this case is coming to a conclusion, the suspect becomes a Shonen Bat victim too. At that moment, what once looked like a straight-forward narrative about a mysterious attacker takes a turn into more familiar Satoshi Kon territory. We enter a world where the lines between fantasy, urban legend, and reality don't just get blurred, but erased. Everything we thought we knew comes unraveled.

Paranoia Agent is a sardonic look at modern life and the fears that underlie the façade of civil society. For material, Kon had to look no further than then-current news stories. Shonen Bat was born out of a series of reports about youth violence, particularly one story of a young man beating his mother to death with a baseball bat. Other characters similarly jumped from the headlines. The professor's assistant, Harumi Chono, is based on a real story of a woman who was the typical office lady by day and high-class call girl at night. Masami Hirukawa is the typical corrupt cop found in every part of the world. The quick production time of a television show allowed Kon to be much more topical than he could be with a movie.

Kon's characters are flawed, imperfect people. Their realism can be both encouraging and cringe-inducing. Ikari is a good detective, but he has little patience for people not giving him a straight answer to his questions. He shakes a homeless woman to get her attention, a gut-wrenching scene to watch. Kawazu is a tabloid reporter who oozes slime; during his interview of one woman, he drops his spoon and tries to look up her dress while retrieving it. Everything about him makes your skin crawl. Ultimately, it's the surprising fortitude and bravery of Detective Ikari's wife that shocks us the most. We are treated to vast array of fascinating people through the series. They are as compelling a reason to watch as the narrative.

The little details in Paranoia Agent matter. A knowledge of Japanese headlines from 2003 and the Japanese language really pay off in this series. I'm not well-versed in either area, so I found Andrew Osmond's book Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist to be an excellent resource for bringing to light all the details an American audience is likely to miss. For example, Tsukiko Sagi's first name has the character for ‘moon’ in it, so her fansite is called "Moon Light". When her boss gets mad at her, he reminds her that the world doesn't revolve around her since she is the moon and not the sun. Kon rewards his audience for paying close attention.

Since most of the people working on this show were used to creating theatrical animation, the drawing quality is superb. It's a beautiful show to look at, with lots of lush details in the art. Kon likes to use symbolism throughout the series to give us clues about what's really happening. For instance, in episode 7, pay attention to which characters are shown in bright light and which are shown in standard lighting; there might be a clue as to their relationship to Shonen Bat. Since each character's name includes an animal reference, be on the lookout for when animals appear in the background. Paranoia Agent is constructed for multiple viewings; there is always something new you'll notice in the art.
Paranoia Agent garnered a lot of attention when it was released in the US. NPR ran not one, but two, positive reviews of the series. Unfortunately, critical praise hasn't kept the series in print. Like most of Kon's work, if you shop around the internet, you can still find a good deal on used DVDs of the series.

Paranoia Agent is television at its best: solid storytelling, great characters, stunning visuals, and a real message for the audience. Kon, his staff, and Mad House didn't skimp on any aspect of the series. While the birthed from the headlines of 2003, until either modern society or human nature radically changes, this show will always be relevant to viewers. Paranoia Agent is essential viewing for any anime fan.

Paranoia Agent is woefully out of print. Pester your favorite anime company to rescue this license!

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