Classic Review: Paranoia Agent
Episode 4

by Nick Creamer,

These are dangerous times we're living in, and dangerous times require a dangerous man. Officer Hirukawa is ready to be that man - a family man who's tough on crime, ready to make the tough calls and crack the big cases. Though he's beaten down by villains and harried by his past, he won't falter in his goals. He's going to crack this case, stop these thugs, and build his family the house they deserve.

Of course, this is Paranoia Agent, so Hirukawa's actually terrible. Jumping focus characters again this week, we got an episode focused on the most crooked of cops, a man funding his dream home with money extorted from a prostitution ring. When the flunky pimp he's been browbeating is replaced by a boss wanting his money back, Hirukawa is forced to turn to petty robbery to keep himself afloat. And as the stakes get higher and Hirukawa descends into his own delusions of grandeur, it begins to look like Hirukawa himself might need a hero, one reflective of this strange, undefinable age.

This was a more straightforward episode than the last couple, with less of a focus on evoking a very specific tone than either Yuichi or Harumi's stories. The execution was more workmanly overall, telling a more familiar story spiced up by a couple well-chosen stylistic diversions. The first and most noteworthy of these was Hirukawa's slowly building delusion of heroism. From the title “A Man's Path” onward, the episode used consistent cuts to an old-fashioned manga to depict Hirukawa's internal self, contrasting this with sequences of him bowing and scraping to mob bosses or stealing purses from little old ladies. It was a neat stylistic trick and a handy framing device (one that accompanied this episode's repeated cuts to both billboards and Hirukawa staring at his house-to-be), but it also served to center this episode as directly focused on the question of justice and heroism in the modern age.

Because the focus character was one of our chief investigator's coworkers, we got to spend more time with our eternally put-upon chief, who put his own big question in very stark terms. At the beginning, he once again stated his fundamental belief - “there has to be causality between these cases.” The chief is a traditional man, and he believes in traditional answers. But by the end of this episode, he's forced to concede that some crimes just might not make sense, and some criminals “might not have so many motives anymore.” “That's the kind of generation we're living in,” he continues, casting the blame for modern insecurity on the young people of today. But he's not going to take this lying down - he's “going to grab hold of this generation!” Good for him.

Of course, in an episode focused on a tired old cop falling into delusions of grandeur, the chief's words ring a little hollow. What separates him from Hirukawa, the man who sees himself as an old manga hero in a world far simpler than our actual one? What makes him just, and not just a relic of an age that never really existed? The episode's climactic conversation between these two emphasizes this disconnect through their visual and conversational interplay - as the chief steels himself with his simplistic credo, Hirukawa cheers him on and lauds the bar for its choice of old-fashioned matches. For all Hirukawa's debauchery and the chief's firm justice, in the end they might just be two old men rambling into their cups.

Hirukawa, at least, eventually seems to realize he is not a hero, but is in fact just as in need of a savior as anyone. “Can't somebody stop me?” he cries at the end, begging for someone to save him from himself, from his responsibilities, from his displacement in his own world. His cry echoes the thoughts of all the characters so far, and once again, Shonen Bat arrives. The hero of the day, ready to strike you down and take your worries away.

Unfortunately, Hirukawa's still all hopped up on drugs and adrenaline from his robberies, so he takes the hit like a champion and comes back swinging. So now Shonen Bat is captured, Hirukawa's more or less an actual hero, and we're only four episodes in. Huh.

This was a very solid episode of Paranoia Agent, trading the oppressive tonal focus of last week for a more straightforward story that let the show more directly attack some of its central questions. It was a bit less of an aesthetic highlight (though Hirukawa's very expressive face was excellent, and the contrast of manga and reality in the final sequences were compelling as well), but that's because it had other priorities. And beyond that, this episode also went some distance to address my central complaint from last week - though Hirukawa was fairly despicable, it seemed like this episode had a real sympathy for the chief, even as it undercut his proud words. He might not be a real hero, but he's at least trying to be one.

Rating: A-

Nick writes about anime, storytelling, and the meaning of life at Wrong Every Time.

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