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Paranoia Agent, a break from reality

“Paranoia Agent” is a Japanese animated TV serie created in 2004 by director Satoshi Kon and produced whithin Madhouse studio. The serie follows several characters around an investigation carried out by two police detectives to stop the always more violent and frequent attacks by a mysterious and elusive roller-skating kid the medias nicknames Lil’ Slugger.

Lil’ Slugger actually is a lie born in the mind of star designer Tsukiko when in her teenagehood she unintentionally let her puppy die. Instead of taking responsability for the death, she invented a fake offender wearing inline skates and armed with a bat. Then, as the coming release of a animated TV serie starring her mascot Maromi accompanies an unprecedented media and folk frenzy, and as her employer pushes her to create a new popular character, Tsukiko summons Lil’ Slugger once again to freed her from that professional pressure, thus giving life to a character which will set in the collective unconscious as Maromi’s negative double, whorshipping the first fuelling their fear for the other, and vice versa. In the climax of the serie, Tsukiko’s creations eventually fight each other like two Godzillas, in the tradition of Japanese monster movies.

 
Lil’ Slugger, who is revealed to appear only to people under grave emotional stress, turns out to be the embodiment of a social despair which is transmitted like a virus through the two main information vectors: television firstly uses his attacks to its advantage (seven first episodes) before the folk rumours kick in and exaggerate the phenomenon (three central episodes outside the main plot) until they eventually distort – quite litterally – reality (three last episodes).
 
In a scene from “The last episode” (#13), a yakuza, a secondary character seen in episode #4 (“A man’s path”), turns the TV on: the newscaster is commenting on the black wave’s inexorable spread before he himself is a victim of said wave, right on television studio. Then, coming out of the TV screen as if it had the ability to go through the studio’s cameras, the black wave suddenly invades the yakuza’s room!
 
Under the television’s influence, the sporadic and individual attacks have become an exponentially growing overall phenomenon; and the define form of the roller-skating bat-armed kid has become a monster (ep. #11, “No entry”) and finally an abstraction, that “black wave“, metaphysical representation of a collective paranoia.
 
For Satoshi Kon, the 13 episodes are an ideal ground to develop his favorite themes and experiment his visual and narrative ideas. Throughout the episodes, one can recognize:
  • the serie’s social scope resonates in other Kon’s movies, most notably in “Tokyo Godfathers” (2003), which features homeless characters like one of “Paranoia Agent”‘s main character, the old lady who witnesses Lil’ Slugger’s rebirth in the first episode.
  • confusion between reality and fiction is a major theme which Kon renews from film to film. In “Paranoia Agent”, that theme even becomes the main narrative feature as Lil’ Slugger’s attacks increase in number and tamper with the natural order. In the climax of episode #7, when the copycat arrested in episode #4 and pushed to his limits during interrogation himself becomes a victim of Lil’ Slugger, his supernatural nature is finally revealed to the powerless policemen as they watch him fade away before them after committing his murder, the first in the serie. His next appearances become always more bizarre and paranormal.
  • in Kon’s movies, madness often manifests itself through personality disorder, which the director visually illustrates by having as many character on screen as there are personas. Such visual trick was already used in the climax of “Perfect Blue”. Here however, with its main character living a double life as a sweet and timid teacher assistant by day and torrid prostitute by night, episode #3 (“Double lips”) heralds Kon’s 2006 movie “Paprika”. Not only do these two personnalities have very opposite looks, they also communicate with one another through the answering machine, which slowly forces the viewer to wonder which personnality actually is the original one.
  • more extreme variation of that previous theme, the otaku phenomenon was already a major element in 1998 “Perfect Blue”. In “Paranoia Agent”, not only does Lil’ Slugger’s young copycat believes himself to be in a video game (hilarious episode #5 (“The holy warrior”), police detective Maniwa, depicted in that same episode to be a connoisseur of role-playing games, starts to show obsessive behaviour after he loses his job (ep.#7, “MHz”) until he finally acts as a masked vigilante (ep.#12, “Radar man”). Funny in his appearance (his self-made costume), posture (he talks like a knight) or even in his hallucinations (he believes his umbrella to be a sword), his attitude is the result of a sudden and quite pathetic break from reality. Nevertheless, he is the one who carries on the investigation and discovers Lil’ Slugger’s true nature. Also, quite inexplicably, his own hallucinations aids him, particularly some sexy collectible mini statues, modern-time fairies who provide him with clues and assistance.
One may remember how “Millenium Actress” ‘s story was jumping from one setting to another along the main character’s flow of memories. In the two final episodes of “Paranoia Agent”, old ex-detective Ikari takes refuge in his own nostalgia : he then wanders in simplified, depth-less drawings which evokes shadow theater and which mimics the character’s own representation of simpler, more innocent times where he curiously is safe from any attack from Lil’ Slugger, symbol-symptom of a modern world he doesn’t undertand anymore.
 
When he finally decides to face reality, Ikari shatters in imaginary world himself, which collapses like glass only to be replaced by the serie’s “normal” drawings. Even better, Kon completely blurs the frontier between reality and fiction when Ikari disappears into his imaginary, thus going “off-radar” and preventing his vigilante ex-colleague to locate him.
 
Multiplying visual details in order to adopt his character’s point of view has always been one of Satoshi Kon’s trademarks. For instance, although Radar man is sometimes shown to us as he really is, with his rough costume and silly accessories, his reflection in store windows remains the one of the knight he believes himself to be. Animation is for Satoshi Kon a playful way to juxtapose visual visual styles.
 
Throughout the serie, a character’s point ov view can be described using rougher, more nervous drawings (like for the wrongfully accused school kid from episode #2, “The golden shoes”). In episode #9 (“ETC”), some of the various rumours the ladies put about use other Japanese animated series’ styles, such as one with big eyed-characters from romantic series.
 
Having already used film-within-a-film narrations before, most notably in “Millenium Actress” in 2001, Kon pays a surprising tribute to the animated movies industry in episode #10 (“Sweet Maromi”). Maromi herself introduces the team which is creating the animated TV serie for children she stars in, explaining everyone’s role in the stressful process of completing the pilot episode – so stressful that the technicians become victims of Lil’ Slugger one after another! For them, making a film really clearly is a matter of life and death!
 

Crew
Directed by : Satoshi Kon
Written by : Seishi Minakami
Animation : studio Madhouse
Character design : Masaji Ando
Music : Susumu Hirasawa
2004 – 13×25 min
 
Cast
Lil’ Slugger : Daisuke Sakaguchi
Tsukiko Sagi : Mamiko Noto
Maromi : Haruko Momoi
Ikari : Shozo Iizuka
Maniwa : Toshihiko Seki
Harumi Chono : Kotono Mitsuishi

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