Classic Review: Paranoia Agent
by Nick Creamer,
“Let's just accept reality,” said Keichi, after learning he and his wife would never have children. That's what this whole series has been avoiding, and what its horrors have represented - characters becoming overwhelmed by reality, and so retreating into a mild, meaningless daydream, aided by Shonen Bat. That's what we see in the opening song as well - characters laughing uproariously, happy in spite of the world falling to pieces around them. Smiling as the world falls apart around them, content in small personal realities as their communal world burns. That's the attitude these characters have come to embrace in part even as they rally against it, particularly Mitsuhiro, who has sunk so far into the fantasy that he embodies fantastical escape even through the character he's assumed to fight Shonen Bat.
In this final, tremendous episode of Paranoia Agent, Keichi first spends a little more time hiding in his fantasy. With Sagi now walking at his side, he roams the streets of his idealized old Japan, making idle chat with strangers and relishing the taste of an old cigarette. When Sagi questions his choice of tobacco, he mumbles “nothing matters.” When Mitsuhiro attempts to break through his reverie on a television, he shatters the device, only to be applauded by the townsfolk for getting rid of the poisonous, seditious thoughts. Eventually, Sagi shifts back into her own idealized escape, the daughter who was openly loved by her father, and who never let the dog Maromi die. Together they enjoy the festival fireworks, a perfect symbol of nostalgia to match the ways they complete each other's delusions.
But Mrs. Ikari breaks through. Lying on her deathbed in the hospital, her voice reaches Keichi, and though he first runs from her image, he's eventually forced to confront her. But Mesae isn't there to condemn him for his negligence - instead, she thanks him, and says she acknowledges the man she knows him to be. It seems that, in spite of her focus episode ending in sad loneliness, her conviction is stronger than Maromi's will. In a flood of poignant flashbacks, we see all the messages Keichi once imparted on his wife, now relayed by her as one last act of love, one final embracing of reality. And as Mesae's voice fades into a still heartbeat monitor drowning out the fireworks, Keichi turns to Sagi and says “who are you calling father?”
This was the crowning moment of the series, the thunderous embracing of the cruel truths of reality over the numb fakeries of fantasy. As a triumphant song played in the background, Keichi grabbed a bat and smashed his false Japan, flat paintings shattering into fragments with the cold acknowledgment that even though he no longer has a place to call home, he can at least stand on his feet in the real world.
After that, apparently angered by the thought Paranoia Agent was thematically opposing fantasy, Shonen Bat decided to get very, very real. A black smog of anxiety spiraled across Japan, sweeping up cars and buildings and every character we've seen through the hunger spawned by the lack of Maromi. Without the calming influence of Maromi, the violence of Shonen Bat overran everything, and though Mitsuhiro, Sagi, and Keichi briefly struggled against it, they too were absorbed by the dark cloud.
Then, at long last, we finally got to see the true story of Maromi's end, as Mitsuhiro's words forced Sagi to remember how her little dog had really passed away. While out on a walk, she briefly found herself doubled over by a stomach ache, and having let go of his leash, Maromi wandered in front of a car. A simple story (as Keichi says, “All this for a puppy. What kind of world do we live in?”), but the catalyst for everything that came after. Sagi feared her father, and so instead of letting herself be responsible for this small tragedy, she invented Shonen Bat and made herself the victim. But now, with her older self looking down on her younger one, Sagi took the poor dog in her arms, accepting the guilt and the pain of a world where sometimes cruelty has no meaning, and sometimes we have to take responsibility when it seems we deserve so much better. And with that admission, Shonen Bat waves a final goodbye.
Shonen Bat is the villain all of us see in a cruel world, one who eventually takes responsibility for our actions away. The world is strange and unkind, and so to make sense of it, we find villains where we can - in the older generation, in the younger generation, in the way culture is, in Shonen Bat. Shonen Bat is a fiction, but he can become incredibly powerful if we let him, and if we grow dependent on the peace he brings. And it's only through accepting responsibility for our own lives, and the consequences of our actions and past (in both a personal and societal sense), that we can truly escape his violent shadow.
The final episode of Paranoia Agent ended with a number of shots directly mirroring the first episode. There was the Tokyo skyline, now devastated by Shonen Bat's rampage. The rush of commuters crossing the street and riding the subway, voices drowned out in the overall screech of traffic. A white-haired man scrawling an inscrutable equation, though this time, the original old man was replaced by a frayed Mitsuhiro. The cyclical intention of these choices would be clear even if Mitsuhiro himself didn't spell it out at the very end - Paranoia Agent is just one story, and its patterns of behavior will occur again and again. But in spite of all its cynicism, Paranoia Agent ends with beautiful redemption and uncertain hope for both Keichi and Sagi. It's a satisfying and poignant conclusion to a truly remarkable anime.
Nick writes about anime, storytelling, and the meaning of life at Wrong Every Time.
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