Sunday, October 23, 2011

Paranoia Agent (2004)

While I tend to focus on movies on this blog, I do like to point out anime television series and Original Animated Videos (OAVs) I think are worthwhile. Well this series comes from one of my favorite directors Satoshi Kon. With 13 half hour episodes to unleash his imagination in, we get a wonderfully disturbing explosion of creativity. But is Paranoia Agent too inventive for its own good?

A new urban legend is creeping around the city and terrifying folks. It’s name is Lil’ Slugger, a young man on rollerblades who clobbers people with a golden baseball bat. His first victim is the shy Tsukiko Sagi (Michelle Ruff), the creator of the popular character Maromi (think a pink dog as popular as Hello Kitty). Sagi is beaten badly but not killed. Many of Lil’ Sluggers other victims aren’t as lucky.

As the attacks increase a couple of detectives are hot on the case, trying to piece together clues from the various attacks. But the deeper they dig, the more random the attacks seem to be. Is there a copycat? Is something supernatural at work? Or is everyone in the city going collectively crazy? The series twists through 13 episodes until it delivers a conclusion that my render you the next victim of the Paranoia Agent.

Good Points:
  • Visually tricky and disturbing, using Kon’s trademark skill with dream logic
  • An excellent musical score by Susumu Hirasawa
  • Mixes horror, thrills and dark humor
Bad Points:
  • The series breaks down a bit after the halfway point
  • Anyone looking for logic is going to be disappointed
  • Some of the humor is a bit too over the top
If you love Kon’s approach to dream worlds and warped fantasy this series is a goldmine. He creates some memorable characters and fills his setting with tension and darkness. But there are plenty of laughs to be had, with gallows humor being the order of the day. In the end the series doesn’t quite come together, losing its focus a bit in the final third. The last episode is a solid finish, but still leaves you wanting a bit more closure.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review

After tackling a story rooted in real life with Tokyo Godfathers Satoshi Kon decided to come back to the dream worlds he was so successful with in Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue. According to Kon, many of the elements in Paranoia Agent came from concepts, brainstorms and one offs created during the previous three films. He grabbed these elements and created a story around them, revolving around Lil’ Slugger and the themes of reality and perception.

Kon’s approach is similar to another series from 2000 called Boogiepop Phantom. Both series approach each episode as a separate story, but provide you with insight into the larger story at work. By the time the series is over, the final piece of the puzzle is laid and you see the whole work. Both series don’t answer all the questions they lay out, but do some clever working of elements. Sometimes you’ll see the same event from three or four points of view, each very different and each providing a little more meat to the overarching story.

Paranoia Agent focuses on those characters attacked by Lil’ Slugger or those hunting him down. The viewers are invited to play detective on their own, watching the victims I their daily routines up to the attack by Lil’ Slugger. This gives us an advantage over the detectives in the show who aren’t able to see all the angles. As a result we feel that we’ve got it over those two dopes – until the show throws a couple curveballs at us.

That becomes the name of the game here, pulling the rug out from under the viewers. Kon has done it before, especially in Perfect Blue. But here he really goes to town, twisting logic, perception and storytelling back on itself. An event we saw with one character plays out very differently in the eyes of someone else. Motivations we thought we understood become very twisted a couple episodes later. Even the character of Lil’ Slugger isn’t immune to the warping, going from a malevolent killer, to a pathetic loser, and into a supernatural horror over the progress of the series.

Kon appears to have carefully structured the first half of the series, to constantly keep viewers riveted and off balance. Each new episode is a new revelation and with the end of episode seven, we’re hopelessly lost in Kon’s web of dark fantasy. Then come two episodes that break the spell and end up feeling like Kon just wacked us upside the head.

In some ways episode eight and nine could work as stand alone elements, and were probably some fun ideas Kon generated at some point down the line. But in the scope of the rest of the story they are too silly, and kind of pointless. The humor of episode eight is way over the top. It deals with three people who want to kill themselves but are afraid to do it. One is a little cheerful girl! There is some hilarious dialogue done in a pitch-black manner, but some of the humor is so broad and moronic that it just sticks out like a sore thumb. Episode nine at least connects with Lil’ Slugger in a way, but is mostly about how people glom on to urban legends and end up warping them into something very different. Its an interesting concept, but one that Kon is already exploring in the wider scope of the series. Why this episode focuses only on that and not the overarching plot is beyond me.

Episode 10 brings us back into the main story. The final two episodes are well worth the effort of surviving episodes 8 and 9, as they answer several key questions and Kon gets to go bananas with his concepts. The finale is a precursor to some of the visuals he’d use in Paprika. In fact, viewers will notice plenty of little nods to Kon’s previous work including one of the most infamous lines from Perfect Blue giving a disturbing new context, a reference to some of the movies from Millennium Actress and even some of the same settings from Tokyo Godfathers.

Animation-wise, the series looks pretty good. The backgrounds are very detailed, giving us a gritty look to the city, but nothing as dark or grimy as Tokyo Godfathers. The character design is typical of Kon with characters spanning the range from cute to outrageous. The animation quality certainly dips a bit here and there, with detail being lost in longer shots. Strangely the eighth episode looks particularly bad, with a lot of flat looking characters and settings. Maybe Kon was saving some money for the final episodes.

Kon uses his old tricks of switching up animation styles, depending on who is telling what story. He combines dreams, stories and reality into one scene, always keeping the viewer wondering what they are really seeing. He does some great stuff generating tension and horror. In many cases this series has a lot of horror elements in it, giving it a closer relation to Perfect Blue than most of his other work.

Kon also reunites with the composer Hirasawa who provided the very unique score from Millennium Actress. This time he also fashions the opening and ending themes, and uses them with great effect in the final score. The opening theme is insanely catchy and cheerful even if the images during these credits are sinister or bizarre. The end credits music is soothing and light, and yet Hirasawa turns it very sinister in places during the show, putting a whole new spin on it. The score is mostly electronic, but very creative and effectively used in all the scenes. Kon would return to Hirasawa for his final feature Paprika.

I could go on writing about Paranoia Agent and talk in depth about its themes of reality and perception of reality. I could talk about its exploration of the human need to tie a story to everything. I could write about the way it paints our modern society as a group of people looking for excuses for everything – especially our most tragic faults. But I think I’ll stop here and let those of you who are curious about it check it out.

For me this is Kon at his most unleashed. He lets go with Paranoia Agent and the results are both fascinating and frustrating. At times it feels a bit too self indulgent, like he’s having a joke at the viewer’s expense. At other times, his themes and messages are crystal clear and the series is a blast to watch. His visual style and creative voice are very strong and threaten to overpower the need to have logic in our entertainment. In this way he reminds me of David Lynch at his more obtuse (see Lost Highway or Inland Empire). But I’d rather have a mixed bag that is interesting to watch than something boring and safe. So as long as you know that the trip is fun if not a bit bumpy, I think you’ll find plenty to enjoy here.

Kon would take many of the elements here and refine them to a sharp point, taking direct aim at human dreams and jumping in. Paprika just maybe this director’s masterpiece.

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