Reviewby James Beckett,
Tsukiko Sagi is the young and reserved designer of the latest mascot to take Japan by storm: a little pink dog named Maromi. Her already anxious life is thrown in to complete chaos when she is attacked by a mysterious figure in the middle of the night, a boy on golden roller skates who strikes his victims with a bent baseball bat. As Detectives Keiichi Ikari and Mitsuhiro Maniwa investigate the seemingly random assault, people all around Tokyo begin reporting similar attacks by the boy, who the public comes to call “Lil' Slugger.” A victim of schoolyard bullying; a sex worker with a fractured psyche; a wannabe mobster with big ambitions – people from all walks of life soon find themselves in Lil' Sluggers path. As the mystery grows more sinister, and the connections pile up, our detectives must begin to reckon with who – or what – Lil Slugger is, and what the consequences will be once the entire city is consumed with the chaotic fever of paranoia.
It's been years since Paranoia Agent has been legally available to watch or own in the West, what with Geneon's original DVD release being out of print since the mid-2000s. Given that this is the one and only television series to come from the mind of the late, great Satoshi Kon, it would be an understatement to say that Funimation's acquisition of Paranoia Agent is kind of a big deal. While it'll be some months yet before we can get our hands on the upcoming SteelBook Blu-Ray set, all thirteen episodes of the show can be streamed via Funimation's website and app, so newcomers and old fans alike can learn just why Paranoia Agent has been so well-loved and remembered in the decade-and-a-half since it originally released.
Anyone who is familiar with Satoshi Kon's cinematic filmography – specifically Millennium Actress, Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika – will immediately recognize the director's signature vision and style all over Paranoia Agent. In fact, it wouldn't be entirely unfair to describe the series as a kind of grab bag of Kon's favorite visual motifs and thematic obsessions. As an anthology series, it has the benefit of being able to throw in all manner of disparate moods, plot points, and themes. One episode will be a moody, psychological thriller about a woman whose various identities are starting to come into violent conflict, and the shades of Perfect Blue will be obvious to any fans of that movie. Just a couple of episodes later, then, you'll have the series' two detectives running around in a suspect's farcical fantasy RPG mindscape, which will make anyone who loves Paprika as much as I do very happy, indeed. As in Millennium Actress, many of the episodic stories in Paranoia Agent deal with the recursive and fragile nature of memory and experience, with Lil' Slugger's rampage affecting its victims on just as much a psychological level as a physical one. This is also a uniquely Japanese story, like Tokyo Godfathers, where the lost and culturally disaffected are painted in broad but nevertheless human strokes.
To be clear, Paranoia Agent's willingness to plumb the wells already explored in Kon's other work is not a weakness. The fact that these stories take the form of a television series allow for the show to be playful, experimental, and diverse in a manner that isn't often possible in a single feature film. Not every character's story is going to hit with the same impact for each viewer, though, and that lack of consistency may prove frustrating for folks who prefer a more uniform viewing experience. Some episodes try to walk the razor's edge between existential horror and humor in a manner that is often beautiful and heartbreaking, but that dissonance can be hard to parse. There is specifically one episode that I had completely forgotten about, for instance, wherein the attempted suicides of two adult men and a young girl are played for very dark laughs, a kind of Waiting for Godot in anime miniature that sticks in the craw of the mind. I loved it, and I think viewers that are willing to play along with Paranoia Agents multiple trains of thought and purpose will be greatly rewarded, but the show is just as much an acquired taste now as it was back in the day.
It helps that the show's sterling direction and generally impressive production values hold up to this day. The art style that Studio Madhouse is working in might be considered a bit old fashioned compared to glossy, modern anime, but few shows in the last fifteen years have achieved such consistent and compelling feats of atmosphere and tone. Many stories stick purely within the realm of realism, or they at least make gestures towards realism, where other head-trips devolve into phantasmagorical nightmares to supremely entertaining effect. Susumu Hirasawa's music also cannot be overlooked as a key ingredient to Paranoia Agent's success; at turns eerie, hilarious, and weirdly infectious, the score perfectly captures the different faces of Paranoia Agent that manifest throughout its episodes. The Geneon dub is just as good as I remember it, too. There's just the right amount of mid-aughts cheese to balance out the genuinely well-done voice-acting, and the English script manages to be faithful without getting too mealy-mouthed in the translation.
What is the most important thing to remember about Paranoia Agent is that it is a mystery story where the answers to the mysteries are not as important as the questions they raise. There are answers there for those that seek them, but they exist like the spider-web fissures that spread when one makes a wrong step on the surface of a frozen pond. For every satisfying splinter of truth that splinters and cracks out from the epicenter of the Lil' Slugger attacks, it only becomes easier to see how dark and murky the depths below really are. If each individual human heart represents a world unto itself, Paranoia Agent is about what happens when those worlds are given up to their own little apocalypses, where the predictable malaise of life can suddenly swell up and strike with the catastrophic fury of an atom bomb. Whether it's the struggle to make ends meet in a world ready to swallow you whole, the crises that come with shaping together the jagged shards of a broken personality, or the simple, everyday terror of being pursued by a shadowy figure brandishing a crooked baseball bat – Paranoia Agent understands that the most evocative and haunting stories are borne from the tiniest pinpricks of suggestion: A rumor whispered in the dark; a half-forgotten dream; a pang of long-buried shame and panic that spreads across the mind like a fever. The virus of our collective fear is right there just waiting to be released - to be indulged - and all we can do is bear witness to the ones responsible for putting their worlds back together in its aftermath.
Overall : A
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ A haunting and deeply felt fable of human experiences told with Satoshi Kon's signature flair, eerie and funny in equal measure, visuals that will stick with you for years to come
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