The best works of horror don’t simply scare us, but give our fears form and make us look objectively at them, help us understand what it is about them that is so frightening. To that end, Paranoia Agent is terrifying in the best way — it’s scary not just because of what happens, but because the bigger implications of what it presents are even more unnerving. Its antagonist is not a shadowy urban legend who skates out of the night and attacks without warning, but a monstrous embodiment of the inability of our fellow man — and by extension, each of us alone — to own up to ourselves and be honest about our frailties and failings. It's easy when the enemy is some monster lurking in the shadows; all you have to do is kill it. What if the enemy is human nature itself, and thus borne from every heart, your own included?
I was in truth reluctant to describe Agent as a "horror story", since during its runtime it so easily shrugs off that label and swaps it in turn for urban-legend thriller, black comedy, police procedural, psychological study, and many others which defy any single easy category. Perhaps this is the most prominent attribute of a true original: no matter how many other things it encompasses or includes, the end result doesn't deserve to be described by anything but its own name. If Satoshi Kon had left behind nothing else save for this show as his legacy, that quality alone — its maverick unclassifiability — would have guaranteed it masterwork status.
Exit light, enter Li'l Slugger
Many shows looking to make an impact begin big — another world, another time, great powers in collision — and then zoom in by degrees on a specific character or three. Paranoia Agent works the other way around, by starting small and widening its scope by creeping degrees. Tsukiko, a reticent young woman who works as a character designer for a toy company, has given her employers (and their licensors) a big hit with “Maromi”, a cartoon dog figure that looks like a cross between a pink Snoopy and a melted marshmallow. Some success: her co-workers despise her, her boss has been leaning on her doubly hard to come up with a worthy successor to Maromi, and, insult to injury, her creative well has run dry. She sits in front of her computer for hours, blank-eyed, and just wishes that all of this pressure would go away.
One night on the way home from work she’s attacked and beaten by an unknown party. The detectives who visit her in the hospital are put off, for she behaves almost exactly the same way out of the hospital as she did in it — meek, silent, almost autistically so. After much cadging, the detectives finally get her to supply them with a description of her attacker: a pre-teen hoodlum zipping around on rollerblades and wielding a baseball bat “bent like a dog’s leg”. The press waste no time in giving him a sobriquet: “Shonen Bat” (or “Li’l Slugger” as he’s known in the English version). But it isn't long before suspicion turns back on her somehow having engineered the attack on herself, and that Shonen Bat is nothing more than a fictitious bogeyman along the lines of the "bushy-haired stranger" invented by those shifting the blame for a crime away from themselves (he even has the bushy hair). The palpable level of guilt oozing through Tsukiko is reason enough to believe that explanation; there is a masterful moment early in the episode where she scrolls through a sheaf of get-well messages on her laptop, only to discover that they are mutating into go-to-hell-and-drop-dead messages.
But is that really what's going on? Especially since Shonen Bat doesn't seem content to leave it at just one victim? With each episode he singles out one new victim after another, and while each victim is peripherally related to the next, that's used more as a narrative device (a la Marcel Ophüls's La Ronde) than as an explanation. The real reasons, it seems, stem from the way each victim works him- or herself into a kind of corner, one where having a phantom come along and club your brains out will seem like a relief. A junior-high-school kid who is desperate to become the best in his class at everything has his confidence in himself unseated by a dumpy, good-hearted classmate, and is then widely presumed to be Shonen Bat himself. A teaching assistant who moonlights as a prostitute turns schizoid, with the Madonna and the Whore fighting each other for supremacy in the same body. A corrupt policeman who borrowed money from the mob to finance his home is tricked into becoming a thief.
Insanity is contagious
The detectives — an older, troubled man who feels like a relic of another age and his younger, more easygoing partner — see no outward connection between any of these things at first. They eventually do arrest a young boy, a game- and fantasy-obsessed kid who seems like the right match — after all, he matches the description of the attacker and even has the right weapon. But maybe he's nothing more than a copycat, and why he would single out any of these people remains tenuous. The kid's episode is one of the show's high points: as the kid recants his hallucinatory, fabulist version of what actually happened, the detectives find themselves participating all the more directly in it. What looks like a stylistic device — an allegory for one detective playing along with the kid while the other fumes at the stupidity of the whole idea — turns out, in retrospective, to be a kind of foreshadowing. It won't be long before the fantastic paranoia of others (and themselves) really does run riot and envelope them this thoroughly.
Faced with this morass, the detectives circle back to the simplest explanation being the most likely one — namely, that Tokiko did it to herself to get attention. That theory lasts only as long as it takes for yet another attack to take place while Tsukiko is in custody, but the theory that comes to replace it — that the victims conjured up Shonen Bat out of their sheer need for a way to escape from their situations — is even harder to swallow. But soon the detectives themselves feel the same pressure, and soon Shonen Bat is running wild once again.
What becomes clearest out of all this is that Shonen Bat does not exist as an individual, or even a copycat. Rather, he's a social conceit, a force of will made flesh by those who believe strongly enough in him — shades of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, or better yet Clive Barker and Bernard Rose's brilliant Candyman. Despair, self-doubt, the need to escape from the traps one sets for one's self, being one's own worst enemy, believing one's own lies at all costs — all of these things are what give him power.
But even if Shonen Bat is just a “meme”, an urban legend given some kind of lease on life by the hysteria of crowds, how does such a thing split open heads and leave people for dead? Something had to have given it life in the first place, and the two detectives (each sliding into their own respective variety of madness and self-recrimination) hurry to find out what triggered all this off before Shonen Bat becomes powerful enough to destroy civilization itself. He is not the real danger. Whatever it is that allows people to believe in him is. The only weapon against that is to confront one's self and accept responsibility for one's actions — and that means the one who started it all, Tsukiko, who has been descending into a series of increasingly creepy hallucinations involving Maromi, has to also be the one to end it. If she can, that is.
Laughing until you bleed
Thrillers are typically constructed by providing us with what looks like a plausible explanation for events, only to have that yanked out from under us as a way to thicken things up. Paranoia Agent does this not only to the audience and the characters, but in time the very substance of its story: by the time we've hit the home stretch, we're not in thriller or even horror territory anymore, but the kind of surreal genre-jumping and -mashing seen in Takashi Miike's movies (Gozu, Izo, the Dead or Alive trilogy, etc.). It takes masterful writing and direction to not have such ambition simply vaporize into heat and noise, and by the climax we don't feel like the show has shirked a perfectly serviceable thriller plot for something too outré to connect with. Rather, it started on familiar ground and made successively bolder jumps into the unknown, landing on its feet each time.
The most impressive gear-shifting pulled off by the show is the way it zigs between comedy and horror, and zags between thriller and comedy. Sometimes this is woven into the substance of a given episode — e.g., the one involving the likely Shonen Bat culprit which turns into a send-up of fantasy-adventure tropes — but a number of entire standalone episodes are set aside to allow things to go as bananas as possible. The blackest, and possibly also funniest, of the bunch involves a suicide-pact club who try to summon Shonen Bat, not just once but many times, and for whom the show reserves a punchline that is worth seeing to savor.
Equally funny (or horrible, you choose) is a segment about the creators of a spin-off animated show for the Maromi character; it functions nicely as a standalone satire about the pressure-cooker drudgery of the animation industry. But then Kon turns around from those things and whacks us with the kind of heart-in-mouth psychological horror that powered his earlier giallo homage Perfect Blue, and it becomes clear which side of the comedy-horror divide he comes down on.
The later episodes become progressively more experimental and daring, and by the time the show reaches its final stretch it’s abandoned objective reality almost completely — although by that point, the show has already ventured into those waters multiple times, so it seems less like a leap off the deep end and more like the logical development of the tendencies it was cultivating all along. What's more, since a good deal of what happens in the show takes place inside people’s heads, that might have been the best approach. I liked how Kon uses markedly different design elements to delineate each person’s fever-dream fantasies: The detective retreats into his past (a stylized, nostalgic 1950’s Tokyo, reminiscent of Ryōhei Saigan’s manga Kamakura Story), while his partner plunges into deranged shōnen-manga-esque heroism and finds what facts he can about Shonen Bat’s true history before going completely mad.
I also admire how Paranoia Agent is able to comment on its own material; the urban-legend aspect of the story’s plain enough, but it’s mirrored in little ways and not just big, obvious ones. Consider the way it deals with Maromi, the cartoon dog: there, the show has something to say about the way people can form obsessions and attachments and unprecedented reactions for things that have no real value or intrinsic existence. In the show, people line up around the block to get their hands on soundtracks for the Maromi TV show — a product of a product of a product. Whatever value the dog has is what people give to it, and the show makes it clear that they do so at a cost. (Remind you of anything?) Tsukiko herself clings totemistically to a Maromi doll throughout the show, even after it starts to speak and move on its own. It not so much tells her what to do as it gives her incipient paranoia a voice and a face, which is the last thing she (and it) needs.
Kon does TV
Paranoia Agent was Satoshi Kon's first and only foray into television, yet another hint at how variegated and diverse a career he could have had, had he lived longer. But then again, he had covered a remarkable amount of territory in his lifetime: he started as a manga-ka, then graduated into animation as a character designer, background artist and scenarist (he wrote the screenplay for Katsuhiro [AKIRA] Ōtomo’s live-action production World Apartment Horror), and first came to prominence as an animation director for his segment “Magnetic Rose” in the anthology film Memories. Agent was apparently a kind of resurrection ground for many of the ideas he’d accumulated during his time on other projects, but which he didn’t have a specific place for (much like Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories).
That doesn't make the show into a mere dumping ground, though, as the ideas are blended together instead of merely forced to coexist, thanks to ingenious plot construction. I mentioned how the show uses an A-to-B-to-C storyline to interrelate and weave through the lives of all those touched by Shonen Bat and his victims. The teaching assistant in episode 3 is the tutor of the boy in episode 2; the policeman in episode 4 is a client of the prostitute; and so on. Everyone’s connected, however distantly, but how we use those links can either heal or kill. They can be lines of communication, or vectors for disease. There is no waffleheaded New Age sentimentality here about all being one (if all is one, does that mean I can use your credit card?).
The other main theme presented by the show ought to be plain by now: ideas are not abstractions. In the hands and minds of living beings, they are living things, and they can be given the power to crush lives and destroy worlds. Avoiding responsibility for one’s actions is what incrementally creates hell on earth. Seeing Shonen Bat creeping up on a victim pales in comparison to realizing that his victim’s careless words have caused someone else’s life to implode. They are the real monsters, not him.
Maybe that's why the most chilling image in the whole show is not anything in it specifically, but rather the opening credits, which depicts the entire cast laughing hysterically — as if this world were nothing but a joke for the careless to jeer right out of existence. They come awfully close to doing so in this show. The rest of us, in our own way, are not far behind.
Postscript: Paranoia Agent was originally distributed on DVD in North America by Geneon back when that company still had an overseas distribution arm. The company has since shut down and reopened as Geneon Universal, and a number of former Geneon titles have shown up courtesy of FUNimation — e.g., Ergo Proxy, Texhnolyze, and Black Lagoon. Unfortunately, Paranoia Agent has not yet been announced as another such reissue title as of yet. Here's to hoping that will change.