This Week in Anime
Why is Paranoia Agent Such a Big Deal?

by Nick Dupree & Michellie Liu,

The late Satoshi Kon was a visionary filmmaker whose oeuvre includes the haunting Perfect Blue, the heartfelt Tokyo Godfathers, and the sci-fi brain-diving Paprika. Only once did Kon cross over from the silver screen to television. In 2004, Kon directed the television anime Paranoia Agent at Madhouse. The psychological series and its focus on anxieties of modern Japan quickly rose to "required viewing" status but after its physical release went out of print in North America, the series became harder and harder (and more expensive) to see. Funimation just added the series to streaming services for the very first time and we got veteran viewer Nick and newcomer Micchy to discuss why this series is such a big deal as both part of Kon's legacy and for anime as a whole.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead. NSFW: Discussion of sexual topics and suicide/self-harm.

@Lossthief @Liuwdere @A_Tasty_Sub @vestenet

Well Micchy, the Oscars screwed it up yet again. Now I mean no disrespect towards Bong Joon Ho or his fantastic movie Parasite, but I can't overlook what was clearly a huge snub by the Academy by not giving Best Picture to the groundbreaking cinematic masterpiece that is Joker.

Thankfully TWIA gives us a platform to right this wrong.
Alright, fiiiiiine. We can talk about an actual cinematic masterpiece instead. One that's finally broken free from licensing hell after a decade! The Soothing Adventures of Mellow Maromi.
Nick you get that candy-colored monstrosity out of my face. We're actually here to talk about Paranoia Agent, the one major Satoshi Kon project that hadn't been picked up for rerelease in the last few years.
IT'S BACK BABY. While I got into the anime pipeline through the standard Toonami and Shonen Jump entryway, Paranoia Agent was one of my first looks into more typical TV anime, and it blew my brains out back in high school. Images from this show stick with me to this day, so when Funimation announced they'd licensed it I lost my shit.
This was actually my first time seeing it! I've been meaning to watch it for years, but never actually got around to finding a copy. But having seen this cult (?) classic for myself, I gotta say: dang, y'all weren't lying when you said this was the good shit.
It's a really unique creation. It's only TV series ever produced by the late, great Satoshi Kon and, upon rewatch, it reaffirmed that Kon was a one-of-a-kind talent and losing him was a tragedy for art in general. Even 16 years later just watching the premiere made me realize that there's nobody quite like him out there.
Kon's so good at manipulating tone, cutting between reality and illusion just often enough that we're disoriented and squirming in our seats a little. Like, this man made good friggin' art. Which I kind of expected going in! But y'all never mentioned how dang funny this series is when it wants to be.
Oh for sure. Kon could pull a ton of different styles and tones out of his hat when he needed to, and PA puts that on display really well. While it has an overarching plot that drives events on a macro scale, this show is primarily a series of character vignettes that are all strikingly different in content and presentation. Which means you can go from a harrowing maelstrom of fear as a character's sense of identity crumbles in their hands and tears their life apart, followed by a goofy fantasy adventure where a chuuni nerd kid tells police he attacked people on the street to save them from JRPG monsters.
Oh, the chuuni episode is an absolute riot. Bonus points for very relatable "what the fresh hell am I looking at" reactions from Ikari.

The individual vignettes are connected by the common thread of Shōnen Bat, a baseball bat-wielding, roller-blading certified Cool Kid (who may or may not be real) beating up people who have nowhere else to go. Which is real cool of him.
The whole thing kicks off with Tsukiko, a character designer who seemingly lucked into the hottest thing since Hello Kitty with this adorable smooshy mushroom of a dog.

But when she's pushed to come up with second miraculously successful character, she feels the pressure closing in and just as she's about to have a total breakdown, Shōnen Bat (or Lil' Slugger in the dub) shows up to give her a break. Literally. In that he breaks her leg and skull.
The attack stirs up a whole media frenzy about Kids These Days and what video games are doing to the children. But for all the panic, the idea of Shōnen Bat is out there now, and well, he seems to come for anyone.
Meanwhile the police are convinced the whole thing is a hoax. Which, on the one hand, is kind of a jerk thing to assume. But also Tsukiko doesn't seem all there what with her stuff mascot toy walking and talking to her.
You say that like you've never seen a Furby.
Anyhow, the first incident kicks off a string of attacks on tangentially related people, including a writer for a gossip rag, a lowly policeman, and this dweeb whose dream it is to become class president, mayor, and perhaps even President of the United States. Never mind that he's in Japan.
The first full-on character focus episode is for this brat, Icchi, and his slow descent from being a popular narcissistic jerkwad to being an unliked narcissistic jerkwad.
Little kids are unfortunately not immune to media-seeded paranoia, and once word gets out that he fits Shōnen Bat's description, everyone kind of bails on him, leaving him with no friends but his mom and his hot tutor.
To be fair, Icchi brings part of it on himself. The rumors start out as playground gossip, but when he starts going after a kid he arbitrarily decided was the one who started it, his own ugliness gets brought into the light of day.

Yeah, knowing how much of a jackass he is, I wouldn't blame you if you want to give him a wedgie.
I'm not saying we need to cancel a 10-year-old for being a shitty kid. But a key part of Icchi's story is that, as the pressures on, he starts to project his own judgmental nature onto the world around him.
Eventually he gets desperate enough that he comes up with the world's brightest idea for clearing his name: bait Batboy into beating up the fat kid so he can catch the culprit, because that totally won't backfire and make him look worse, no sirree. No, he's not particularly smart, so it's especially ironic that he thinks everyone else is an easily fooled dumbass.
He's a mess, and ultimately the pressure starts to shatter his own reality - a thing that happens a LOT in this show, ftr - and eventually who shows up to "save" him but Lil' Slugger himself. After all, what better way to show you're not the culprit than to get attacked yourself?
Not that that method is entirely foolproof (ahem, Tsukiko). But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Anyway, for as messy as Icchi's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is, it's training wheels compared to his tutor's episode. Turns out Ms. Harumi has enough problems for two people.
You said it. For one, this dang bird won't stop following her around.
For two, there's two of her.
And they're not particularly good friends! Goodness gracious, Harumi and her alter-ego Maria are like toxic exes to each other, leaving each other nasty voicemails, throwing out each other's stuff, trying to hog all of each other's time; you know, everything you're not supposed to do with somebody you literally live with.
It also runs into some very weird questions when you factor in Maria moonlights as a sex worker. Harumi's determined to get married and have a "normal" life to make Maria go away for good, but her alter ego refuses to be suppressed.
I'm not going to go into how the show handles its depiction of dissociative identity disorder, but if you'll indulge me and look at it purely metaphorically, damn is that a madonna/whore duality if I ever saw one. They even have separate sides of the closet, isn't that sweet!
Yeah, PA is definitely running on decidedly unscientific models of psychology, but it's all in the service of character exploration. Harumi/Maria's situation is ultimately an exploration of their perspectives on suppression and freedom. To Harumi being a "normal" person is a relief, but to Maria it's a cage that denies part of who she is. And since they're kind of the same person you can see how those dueling emotions spiral into a total meltdown, all directed with the same fervor as a slasher movie. Only the killer is an answering machine.
As to whether Harumi or Maria is the "real" one, it's kind of both, or perhaps neither. Both the call girl Maria and the homely secretary Harumi are just as real as the other, and trying to suppress one of them entirely just tears them from within. Which you might take as a critique of how limiting Harumi's idea of "normal" really is if it can't accommodate both her wants and Maria's, I dunno.
There's a lot to chew on for just a 20 minute episode. From the weirdly sterile way Harumi and her Fiance interact to the uh, predilections of Maria's clientele.
Yeah, about that guy. He comes back (blegh).
Yeah we'll get to him shortly. But not before Harumi/Maria's conflict coalesces into dragging their shared body screaming into the street, tearing eachother apart for dominance just in time for Harumi to remember something Icchi said to her after his run-in with Lil' Slugger.
Ask, and thou shalt receive. So yeah that's how she ends up a bloody mess wearing clown makeup that's neither recognizably Harumi nor Maria.

More importantly, why do I always get saddled with the clowns?
There's no shame in being a clown. Especially compared to this absolute piece of garbage.
By "honest" he means "totally corrupt" and by "good man" he means "a creepazoid who has the hots for his own daughter." Yeah, what a delight Hirusawa is.
Dude is absolute scum. Like it's creepy enough when we just know he's a scuzlord who cheats on his wife with call girls where he makes them call him "daddy" and that he's taking bribes from the yakuza. But then we pick back up with his family in episode 6 and discover he's even worse than we thought.
He was fun for a hot second when he was voicing over montages of robbing little old ladies with lines from his favorite macho man manga! But then when you realize the creep factor doesn't stop at his uncomfortable preoccupation with being a homeowner and head of the family, welp.
See that part was probably the most skewering. This dude is doing deplorable, humiliating shit because he got high on his own supply with the yakuza, and he narrates the whole thing like he's a determined freedom fighter lone wolf badass. It'd be pitiful if it weren't so hilarious to see in action.
What follows is a really daring tonal shift, to go from cheekily lampooning this guy's idea of masculine independence to the absolute horror of finding out that he's been creeping on his kid the whole time. But Paranoia Agent handles it so deftly and so neatly, with bonus points for revealing his scumminess via the most rookie of boomer tech mistakes: forgetting to clear out the trash folder.
And what's more is, sandwiched inbetween these two episodes is a goofy comic relief ep where the detectives catch Lil' Slugger, only to realize he's a copycat who's been imagining himself as a Dragon Quest hero fighting monsters while beating the hell out of randos on the street.

To jam that in between 2 episodes about the darkest, shittiest character in the show and make it work is nothing short of masterful. Kon was a real one.
I especially like how Ikari spends that whole episode grumbling about kids these days while his partner goes around LARPing with the chuuni kid.
Ikari's defining character is that he is Too Old For This Shit. What shit? All shit. But especially anything to do with the kids these days.
He just doesn't get the Pokeymans and the Nintendos, man. In fact the thing that dates Paranoia Agent the most imo is that nobody says "ok boomer" to Ikari, not even once.

Joke's on him, Maniwa's newfound LARP hobby comes in handy when the guy you're trying to arrest isn't a person at all but a literal manifestation of fear and paranoia.
Oh man, I had totally forgotten how great Maniwa's episode is. The entire thing is a descent into madness as the detectives try to make sense of Lil' Slugger when there's none to be found. I especially love how Serial Experiments Lain-esque its direction is. All washed out lighting, unnatural digital effects, and a constant sense of wrongness in every hum or buzz of a piece of machinery.

At that point he's like 3 forum posts away from going full tinfoil hat.
It's wild. As Maniwa slowly discovers the truth of Lil' Slugger's existence as a personification of paranoia, he himself is consumed by it and broadcasts it out to the world at large. By trying to defeat the monster he only makes it stronger.
The more he tries to warn people, the more rumors spread and the larger Lil' Slugger becomes. It's only a matter of time before the public imagination seizes onto him and turns him into the Very Big Slugger with every addition to his tall tale.

He offers an escape to some, an easy scapegoat to others; wherever there's someone who can't or won't deal with their fears, he shows up. And seeing as people tend not to be very good at facing the things they don't like, he has plenty to feed on. Except for, of course, the trio of dorks who are so eager to face death that they cannot die no matter how hard they try.
Oh yeah, so the thing about eps 8-10 of the show is they're...not really about the show? Like they're tied into the idea of Lil' Slugger and the overall theme of paranoia, but they're essentially Twilight Zone episodes that play out on their own. Thus we get a goofball Black Comedy about a trio of internet friends trying and failing to commit group suicide. Which in any other hands would NOT work, but here it's just adorable.
They are SO precious. Such a wonderful little found family of suicidal weirdos, at least one of whom is in it just to be part of something.
That it turns out they've been ghosts for most (all?) of the episode ends up not even mattering. In fact I hope they all get to spend the rest of their afterlife enjoying themselves. They deserve it.
That said, this stretch of episodes does have probably the weakest section of PA. Like I get the the idea behind an episode of chattering housewives sharing ludicrous stories about Lil' Slugger being behind every piece of nasty gossip, but the individual shorts just aren't very engaging.
I dunno, I think Fetus Slugger is very interesting.
I mean it's all worth it for the image of Lil' Slugger popping up in the middle of an O. Henry story but still.

Next they should do Gift of the Magi where the lovers ironically buy each other a baseball bat and roller blades.
I guess there's also the Shirobako episode featuring the world's worst production assistant whose name isn't Taro Tanaka?
I can't tell you how tickled I was to find out this dude was voiced by Hiroyuki Yoshino. It feels like destiny.

Episode 10 is probably the most tangential - it's essentially a dark comedy about a literally fatal anime production cycle - but it works because for a decade there was basically nothing like it.
It also seems kind of prescient of problems that plague the industry today - overproduction, bad scheduling, animators dying at their desks, you know, all that. Not that they weren't also problems in 2004, but there's a lot more anime being made now than there was 15 years ago, so the episode feels even more topical now.
It's also just fucking biting. For all of Kon's clout I still can't believe he got away with a scene like the producer literally prying the finished episode from an animator's cold, dead hands like it's nothing.
Now all of this has fuck all to do with LIl' Slugger in a broader sense, but it sure is a neat little self-contained story!
Lil' Slugger's just along for the ride on this one.
And that's the advantage of a TV series - you wouldn't have time for an interlude like this in a feature film, but one 24-minute episode? Sure, knock yourself out!
And they do make for some nice levity before we kick back into gear with the last 3 episodes. Because hoooooooo boy are those episodes A Lot. Word of warning: if you've never seen Paranoia Agent before and what we've described here sounds at all interesting, go watch it right now before you read another word. The conclusion to all this is something you should see for yourself the first time.
The last few episodes really hit hard into the show's humanist thesis, what Slugger and Maromi really represent, and the links between them and Tsukiko's trauma. One of the most critical (and least subtle) moments in the series comes when Lil' Slugger comes for the ol' visit to a terminally ill woman only for her to essentially tell him to buzz off. Roller blade bat boy isn't real, he can't hurt you, and no matter what roller blade bat boy looks like he still only has as much power as people assign to him.
Sometimes subtly is overrated, and if you really want to get your thesis across there are few ways better than just having a character stare down your main monster and dress it down. And Misae absolutely throws Lil' Slugger on his questionably corporeal ass.

Lil's Slugger is human. He's just not A human. He's the manifestation of his victims' desperate desire for an escape from their own circumstances, and even in the face of her impending death she tells him to piss off.
What Lil' Slugger offers isn't freedom, but a temporary escape from reality or a permanent end altogether. He doesn't offer a better reality any more than TV does. And that's why, in a sense, he's not that different from the sugar-sweet, unchallenged fluff that is Maromi's entire franchise.
They're both ultimately forms of escapism. Which can be fine in healthy doses! But when your only escape from the anxieties of daily life are meaningless ignorance from a cartoon dog or near-suicidal nihilism, what constitutes "healthy" becomes terrifyingly nebulous. And even as Misae confronts Lil' Slugger head on, we see her husband, beaten down by the changes of a world he doesn't see himself in anymore, retreat to a world of nostalgia.
Good ol' Ikari, fired from his position as Bad Cop so now all he can do is complain about the kids these days with a guy he arrested once upon a time, back in the old days of [checks watch] the Showa era. That's a whole two emperors ago by now!
It'd be easy to blow him off as just out-of-touch, and part of his predicament is his own stubbornness when facing new ideas, but I think it's telling that PA doesn't invalidate his feeling of displacement. In the end his nostalgia is for a time when things seemed simpler, even if they were always just as complex and gnarled as they are in the present, and taht's a feeling a lot of people can get regardless or age or era.
It's telling that his Maromi-fueled dream world is populated entirely by flat kamishibai cutouts. What he remembers as the good old days is only a partial understanding of what the world was like then, all the dimension and complexity forgotten. And those memories are valuable! But they aren't a replacement for what's right in front of him.
All told he's still handling things better than Maniwa, who took his termination as an opportunity to pick up the imaginary sword and fight Lil' Slugger himself! Only now it's more the Very Big Slugger.
Hey, I'd say he holds up pretty well for a LARPer with a pointy umbrella.
I guess, but in the end he still needs the help of some anime girl figures to google an old police report and find the REAL first appearance of Lil' Slugger.
Surprise surprise, Tsukiko made him up. She convinced herself he was real to cope with the guilt of killing her dog, and once she truly believed in his existence he essentially became real. Ya girl never learned how to grieve or deal with consequences so she dreams up mascots and goo monsters to take the blame, which grow exponentially when the public latches onto them.
In a way she ended up doing exactly what she was trying to. Tsukiko crafted a character that captured the imagination of everyone just like Maromi, a figure that could at once embody the nebulous fears most can't put into words, and a morbid escape from them. And it sweeps over the whole dawn city as that fear propagates.

And all of this could have been delivered in a domineering cadence where Ikari or somebody scolds Tsukiko for her failings, but at least to me it reads as sympathetic. We have all had things we've wanted to run from, to pretend never happened, but in order to move past them they're something we have to face, and Tsukiko finally does that in the end.
What makes it work is that Tsukiko comes to the realization herself and steps into her own memories as if to let her younger self know, "it's okay to be scared, to want to run away, but you can't do it forever."

Her last goodbye to her favorite little pupper is ugly and bloody and messy, but it's something she has to do if she's ever to move on. She has to take charge of the healing process herself, with no bat-swinging scapegoats to blame, no talking pink dogs to tell her what to do.
And it's worth mentioning that while Tsukiko's act banishes Lil' Slugger, it doesn't magically change or reverse what happened. In the end we learn that Tsukiko, Ikari, and the other characters have in some way moved on, if only because that's the way of life, but the pressures of daily life are still present, and the desire for escapism still exists. It has a different face and name, but this is still a Maromi.
Fmeow can stuff its fmeow up its fluffy fbutt, though I suppose it has a right to exist. Just don't give it control over the whole world; that would be bad.
While it's a bit somber, PA does end on a hopeful note. Perseverance won't change all the problems we face, but there's growth and value to be found in facing them nonetheless. It's a message that managed to stick with even my dumbass teenager self when I first watched it, and I hope it can find at least a few new people now that it's been relicensed.
With enough patience and effort, we can push aside the lies we construct for ourselves. It's painful, but on the other side is a truth waiting to be discovered, one that can't be replaced by simple escapism or whatever.
That all being said, who at Funimation do I gotta bribe to get a Maromi plushy? I don't care how self destructive that thing is it's too ugly cute to not have.
Trust me, you could make a killing off of Maromi merch. It might also kill some people, but that's a small price to pay, right?
Don't worry I know exactly who we can blame instead.

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