In Paranoia Agent, Satoshi Kon presents us with a psychological thriller that is an experience that is arguably as trippy as being on psychedelic drugs.
The series takes place in Musashino City in the greater Tokyo area, and follows a hapless pair of detectives and a group of characters who are struggling with different mental and social crises, each of whom ends up becoming the target of a phantom assailant known as Lil’ Slugger (or Shonen Bat, in the Japanese language version). Appearing as a young boy in a distinct outfit of a red baseball cap and golden roller-skates, he uses a slightly bent gold baseball bat to beat people up before making his escape. While the detectives, Keiichi Ikari and Mitsuhiro Maniwa, struggle to believe the account of the first victim, Tsukiko Sagi (designer of the popular dog-like character Maromi) the victims of this Lil’ Slugger soon start to pile up, and the two quickly become overwhelmed as his crimes become ever more violent and a state of paranoia and hysteria begins to grip the streets. Can the pair solve the case, or will they too fall victim to Lil’ Slugger?
In all of Satoshi Kon’s works, the director touches on some particularly sensitive topics in his examination of the human condition and Paranoia Agent is no different. While his films may focus on one particular thing, Paranoia Agent allows us to observe and examine a lot more through the eyes of its well-presented cast of characters, including and not limited to: the effects of overwork and depression, bullying, mental health disorders, greed and corruption, suicide, and child sexual abuse. As such, this may be a difficult series to explore if you are particularly sensitive to any of these things, yet for the most part it presents them with good understanding and humility, making it very easy to sympathise with the plight of each character.
Starting the series by looking at Tsukiko is a great move, as being under pressure at work is something that will be very relatable for a lot of people, particularly in Japan with its very unrelenting work culture. While she clearly loves her creation, carrying a plush toy of Maromi everywhere she goes, she generally comes across as a shy and timid person, so it’s no wonder that she’d succumb to the fame associated with how popular Maromi has become. The online hate comments and hounding journalists that she has to face after the attack are also even more relevant today than they were in the early 2000s when this was made, and continues to show Kon had a great understanding of how people behave when given an anonymous forum, something he had already touched upon in Perfect Blue.
Tsukiko is perhaps the most “normal” of the cast, all things considered, as the rest of the characters are even more fascinating and not all of them are good people. For example, the second episode focuses on the narcissistic young boy Yuichi, whose superiority complex gets the better of him as he starts to bully a transfer student, Shogo Ushiyama, whom he sees as trying to take his place; yet he soon finds himself on the other end, due to looking very similar to Lil’ Slugger. Meanwhile, we see the police chief, Masumi Hirukawa, succumb to corruption and descend into the world of crime he is supposed to protect people from, as he creepily pervs on his teenage daughter and resorts to burglary to pay off huge debts to the yakuza.
Perhaps the most fascinating of the lot, however, is Harumi, who struggles with dissociative identity disorder, becoming the sex worker Maria every night. The show examines the interactions between the two sides of this one person which become increasingly more frantic, particularly after Harumi becomes engaged to a work colleague.
While it’s clear that each episode works as a fantastic character study, what’s most impressive is the way all of these different characters and story points meet up and interconnect with each other. You can tell the series has been meticulously planned out, and that every action or character moment has a specific meaning or place of importance that will impact the story later on.
The exception to this, however, is the controversial eighth episode, which was previously the subject of a small cut by the BBFC due to concerns over showing a child attempting to take their own life. While it was clearly intended as some light comic relief, going by the overall tone of the episode, it just felt rather unnecessary, as it doesn’t really add anything to the overarching storyline, and is strangely tone-deaf compared to the rest of the series as to why someone would end up in that particular position.
It’s just a small blip though in the big picture, as the series is a rollercoaster ride that is the very definition of thrilling, being full of twists and turns that will have you double and even triple guessing Lil’ Slugger’s true identity. It really forces you into your own head as you try to understand and work out what is going on and as such, rewards multiple viewings as you go back and see little hints and telegraphed notes as to how everything lines up.
A specific turning point in the story also turns things upside-down as it all gets very wild and wacky towards the end in Kon’s typical style, being perfectly timed and executed as we’re sucked down into a hole of delirium with the cast. If you’re a fan of Kon’s work, you’re probably already expecting it to go in this direction, so it’s very pleasing when it does. Fans may also notice some callbacks to some of Kon’s previous work, particularly Tokyo Godfathers.
Animated by Madhouse in 2004, the series carries the same stylistic look as Kon’s other work, visually pulling its weight in the character designs and quite a lot of the background art, particularly coming alive in the latter parts of the series when things really start to get wild. It does however show its age in places, and you can also clearly tell this is an upscale, with the images often looking blurred and lacking the sharpness of a modern-day production.
The series’ soundtrack, composed by long-time Kon collaborator Susumu Hirasawa, is perfectly styled to match the series, with a mixture of tense and haunting electronic ambient themes. We’ve also got a great opening song here with “Dream Island Obsessional Park”, which sets out the overall tone of the series with some very pinpointed lyrics that contrast great disasters with a happy-go-lucky attitude, while also working particularly well with the animation as the main characters maniacally laugh their heads off.
The voice acting is good whether you opt for the Japanese or English audio, and features a sizable cast to match the show’s large number of characters. With this being an older title, many of the Japanese cast are or have been mainstays in the industry, like Mamiko Noto who voices Tsukiko but has gone on to voice characters such as Elsa in Re:Zero and Inkarmat in Golden Kamuy, or Shozo Iizuka and Toshihiko Seki who voice the two detectives Keiichi and Mitsuhiro respectively, and who both have a myriad of credits spanning multiple popular series between them, like various Gundam entries, A Certain Magical Index, Higurashi, Dragon Ball and K. Meanwhile the English dub features talent such as Michelle Ruff voicing Tsukiko (Sinon in Sword Art Online, Fujiko Mine in the Lupin III franchise), Michael McConnohie voicing Keiichi Ikari (Emperor Charles Zi Britannia in Code Geass) and Patrick Seitz (Endeavor in My Hero Academia) credited to additional voices and Zebra of the suicide pact folks.
The series is brought to us on Blu-ray for the first time by MVM, who previously put out the original cut DVD release. On the discs you’ll find all thirteen episodes of the series, with bonus material including an interview with Kon and Hirasawa, audio commentaries for Episodes 11, 12 and 13, a storyboard gallery for Episode 1, and trailers for the series. The collector’s edition also offers a nice collector’s box and some art cards to go with the standard Amaray.
Overall, despite some small issues with its age and how it handles the suicide pact episode, Paranoia Agent is a fascinating rollercoaster of a psychological thriller that expertly ties its character-driven story together into the realms of insanity and the paranormal to the point that you begin to question your own sanity as a viewer. While the sensitive topics explored in this series might mean it’s not one for everyone, its examination of them is largely thought-provoking and humanising and I think on all counts makes this a sure-fire series to recommend, if you’re up for it.