The best works of horror don’t simply scare us, but give our fears form and make us look objectively at them. Alien worked not just because the monster was really scary, not only because the protagonists were trapped on a spaceship with it with nowhere to go, but because the heroes couldn’t even count on their fellow humans to help them. Likewise, Paranoia Agent is terrifying in the best way: it’s scary not just because of what happens, but because the bigger implications of what’s going on are even more unnerving.
Agent is not even, strictly speaking, a horror story: it starts off like one of those thrillers about an urban legend, but by the end it’s assimilated so many other things into its basic conceit that it defies you to put an easy label on all of it. It’s closest in spirit to some of Stephen King’s best works, where the power of imagination is the only defense against the darkness, but it owes nothing to any specific work of his. It's unmistakably original.
The story starts on an innocent enough note: 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. Her co-workers despise her, and her boss has been leaning on her doubly hard to come up with a worthy successor to Maromi. Unfortunately, her 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. The detectives who visit her in the hospital don’t much like her, either. For one, she behaves almost exactly the same way in the hospital as she did out of it—meek, silent, almost autistically so. After much cadging, they finally get her to supply them with a description of her attacker: a pre-teen hoodlum wielding a baseball bat “bent like a dog’s leg,” and zipping around on rollerblades. The press waste no time in giving him a sobriquet: “Shonen Bat” (or “Li’l Slugger” as he’s known in the English version). And it isn’t long before suspicion grows as to whether or not she engineered this attack on herself, somehow. 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.
Shonen Bat isn’t content to leave it at one victim. In the next several episodes, he attacks several other people, each peripherally related to the next, and the show takes the time to see things from their point of view to understand why they are victims. 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 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.
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 who matches the description of the attacker, but he’s apparently deranged—maybe nothing more than a copycat. When he ends up becoming a victim himself and the detectives are dismissed from the force, large and ominous possibilities begin to emerge. The most troubling of them is that Shonen Bat may not even exist at all, but is simply a social conceit given form by those who believe strongly enough in him (shades of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex).
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 show uses an interesting technique to interrelate and weave through the lives of all those touched by Shonen Bat and his victims. Everyone’s connected, however distantly: 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. Instead of coming off as a mere storytelling gimmick, it’s an aspect of the show’s themes: We are all indeed interconnected with each other, and how we use those links can either heal or kill. They can be lines of communication, or vectors for disease. The show also gets a good deal of mileage out of revealing connections between characters as a surprise—and there are more than a few I would not dream of talking about here.
Paranoia Agent manages to comment on so much of its own material that a discussion threatens to turn into a dissertation. The urban-legend aspect of the story’s plain enough, but it’s also mirrored in the handling of Maromi, the cartoon dog—in how 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. Tsukiko 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 needs.
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. Since a good deal of what happens in the show takes place inside people’s heads, this is probably inevitable. 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 Ryôhei Saigan’s manga Kamakura Story), while his partner plunges into deranged heroism and finds what facts he can about Shonen Bat’s true history before going completely mad.
Paranoia Agent was created by Satoshi Kon, he of Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers and Millennium Actress. He began his career in manga, then graduated into animation as a character designer, background artist and scenarist (he wrote the screenplay for Katsuhiro [Akira] Ôtomo’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 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).
I mentioned earlier that Agent doesn’t just pick one attitude and stick with it. There are episodes that are the same heart-in-mouth psychological horror that Kon cultivated in Perfect Blue, but at times the show also works as a searing black comedy. One of the best involves three would-be suicides experimenting with different ways of dying, and who eventually hit on the idea of having Shonen Bat put them out of their misery…but the Bat is not up to the job, and the punchline is a scream. 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.
It’s hard to discuss what Paranoia Agent is really about without ruining a good deal of it. Two main themes come to mind, though: that ideas are not abstracts, but have the power to crush lives and destroy worlds; and that avoiding responsibility for one’s actions is what incrementally creates hell on earth. Seeing Shonen Bat creeping up on a victim is nothing compared to realizing that his victim’s careless words have caused someone else’s life to implode. For me the most chilling visual thing in the whole show is the opening credits, which depicts the entire cast laughing hysterically—as if this life was just a nightmare that deserved only to be jeered out of existence.