Classic Review: Paranoia Agent
by Nick Creamer,
If last week's Paranoia Agent was Satoshi Kon taking lukewarm stabs at a half-dozen general topics, this week was a surgical strike on one very close to his heart. The mascot Maromi-chan is still a hit, meaning plushies, advertisements, and yes, also anime, all produced in Maromi's goggle-eyed image. This week we visited the anime studio responsible for bringing “Mellow Maromi” to life, where the anime production life was revealed to be a lot less glamorous than you might hope.
Our viewpoint character this time was Saruta, a production assistant responsible for making sure all the files and folders and various artistic byproducts of the animation process made it safely from Point A to Point B (essentially Aoi's job at the beginning of Shirobako - and incidentally, if you haven't watched Shirobako, watch Shirobako). Unfortunately, Saruta's is terrible at his job - constantly dozing off, forgetting to inform people of critical deadlines, carelessly sabotaging the work of his coworkers, and constantly bleating “it's not my fault!” Through the framing device of a night drive through a storm as Saruta rushed to deliver the final copy of Mellow Maromi's first episode to the broadcast station, we got to see a number of slices of Saruta's daily life, as he slowly drifted in and out of dreams, nightmares, and production-based memories.
The episode opened by directly portraying the first minute or so of Mellow Maromi, a trick that allowed Paranoia Agent to briefly debut an entirely distinct visual style. Crayon-styled drawings and vividly colored backgrounds set the stage of a simple story about a boy with a bat. Though the visuals were intended to evoke a children's show, the way the show used pastels and exaggerated horizon lines made the whole scene feel somewhat artificial and claustrophobic, maintaining Paranoia Agent's critical sense of unease. As the scene continued, fully colored scenes were replaced by penciled keyframes, and eventually just simple storyboards. Using the actual materials of an anime production allowed the episode to play in new visual space and establish precedence for future aesthetic fluidity while also smartly segueing into the fact that Mellow Maromi was drastically behind schedule. But of course, all this turned out to be a memory being dreamed by Saruta, as he faded into sleep in the recording booth and woke up at the wheel of his car.
That combination of classic Kon tricks (the fadeout from one potential reality to another centered on a character's face, emphasizing both audience claustrophobia and the frightening malleability of perspective) and unique visual highlights (the playful but tonally appropriate use of new visual aesthetics) continued all throughout this episode. At one point, as Saruta got dressed down for failing to meet the broadcast time, he looked down to find his own drawings were becoming frayed and indistinct - his color gone, his whole self being replaced by a sketched draft version. Not only was this an engaging and appropriate visual trick, the introduction of this nightmare as a flash-forward from the car ride centering the episode jarringly disrupted the episode's prior flashback formula, casting doubt on the reality of all the episode's little production vignettes. Characters were introduced through cute Maromi-chan title cards before falling one by one to Shonen Bat, as out on the road Saruta found himself seeing a boy on skates in the corner of his eye, in the rearview mirror, always approaching and always out of reach.
Not only did this episode succeed as both a demonstration of Kon's usual talents and a clever application of new animation-focused, somewhat meta visual tricks, it also came off as very, very angry. The whole idea of Shonen Bat is that he comes to those who are cornered, meaning we usually see an entire episode of one person slowly succumbing to unique pressures in their life. In this episode, Shonen Bat came off more as an inevitability - one by one, nearly every member of Mellow Maromi's production team succumbed to anxieties, either quitting the production or being found by Shonen Bat first. Even the most talented and productive members of Mellow Maromi's team were clearly stretched to the breaking point, painting an extremely dire picture of the realities of anime production.
Beyond the outside presence of Shonen Bat, the relationships necessarily fostered within this environment were defined by exaggerated callousness, a mercenary instinct to “get the job done” at the cost of all else. At one point Saruta picked up overdue key frames from an animator lying dead from Shonen Bat's strike, never checking to see if the animator was sleeping or worse. With most of the studio gone, the production manager ended up yanking the final episode copy out of one of the animators' dead fingers - and when Saruta wound up bleeding on the pavement in front of the broadcast studio, they too dragged the episode from his body, muttering happily about how the episode arrived in time. The messages of this episode are loud and clear - anime production is a brutal field, everyone's constantly overworked, and getting by almost demands a callousness towards how much everyone else is struggling too.
Of course, this is Satoshi Kon we're talking about, so the utter hopelessness of existence depicted here just might be slightly exaggerated. Either way, this was one of Paranoia Agent's best episodes, full of great horror tricks and creative visual ideas, cleverly composed in order to both keep focus and cover as much production info as possible, and brimming with fierce thematic anger. Paranoia Agent nails another one.
Nick writes about anime, storytelling, and the meaning of life at Wrong Every Time.
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