The ground-breaking animé series Paranoia Agent first aired on Japanese TV in the spring of 2004 and has recently been re-released in a beautifully packaged thin box-set. Written and directed by Satoshi Kon, the man behind Perfect Blue and Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent focuses on a seemingly random set of attacks by a mysterious skater armed with a golden baseball bat. Inspired by a real-life case, Kon uses this story to explore themes of fear, alienation and paranoia in modern society. As Paranoia Agent succeeds particularly well in its multi-layered storyline provided by a variety of (unreliable) narrators, instead of a traditional review what follows is a dialogue about the series between Virginie Sélavy and Alex Fitch.
Virginie Sélavy: I read that Satoshi Kon did Paranoia Agent as a way of experimenting with ideas he couldn’t fit anywhere else and it does go in all sorts of directions and some of the strands don’t seem to lead anywhere.
Alex Fitch: That’s the thing; there are so many non sequiturs and red herrings throughout… They pretty much explain it all in the first episode and then there are twelve episodes of obfuscation to make you think it’s about something else entirely.
VS: Which is why the end is a bit of a let-down, because in those kinds of set-ups, it’s what people are led to imagine that’s interesting and the final explanation always feels a bit flat and disappointing.
AF: And the format changes in each episode; it might be concentrating on one character, it might be part one of a three-part story, it might in fact be four different stories, like with the four women in the apartment block in ‘Etc’. They’re like a Greek chorus. I wanted more of them throughout.
VS: At that point it gets very interesting because the episodes are so formalistic. In ‘Etc.’ the stories they make up about Shonen Bat are all ridiculous, but the other three women keep telling the new young wife that her stories are just ludicrous and that she should know better as she’s married to the scriptwriter.
AF: I don’t know if it’s intentional – it’s like when we both interviewed Park Chan-wook, both of us asked if he played computer games and he said he never did – it’s weird how filmmakers seem to be tapping into the zeitgeist without even knowing it (although that’s one of the themes of the series). Because ‘Etc.’ is very much like an issue of this 1940s comic book The Spirit, which is about to be turned into a movie by Frank Miller. It revolves around this film noir world where the text of the comic book literally imprints itself onto the world. In this episode of Paranoia Agent the tower blocks form the word ‘Etc.’ when you see them from above.
VS: I think that’s what Satoshi Kon is really good at, exploring how the boundaries between fiction and reality are blurred. ‘The Holy Warrior’ is another fantastic episode on that theme, when the detectives are taken into the game world that the copycat attacker inhabits, and characters from the real world are transposed into the game world, with different roles and values.
AF: It reminds me of another comic called The Invisibles, which came out about 10 or 15 years ago and the Wachowskis apparently ripped off for The Matrix. It’s about hacking reality, about how you can literally empower yourself by getting other people to believe in you, but it’s set in the real world, not in a video game. In Paranoia Agent, it feels like the memes of modern-day culture have started to affect people on some kind of physical level rather than just an intellectual one.
…And when characters descend into their own fantasy worlds, the art style changes completely like in the second episode (‘The golden shoes’), about a kid who wants to win at school; it’s a very child-like, brightly coloured world. And in the final episode, when Tsukiko accompanies Detective Ikari into his fantasy world, it’s like a watercolour painting. All the characters are literally two-dimensional – when they turn around they’ve just got an edge rather than a side… That ‘super-flat’ art style has become popular in animation – I suppose in the West there’s South Park – and in Mamoru Oshii’s last film…
VS: Yes, The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters – that was the first Japanese animé I saw that used that style, and to start off, it’s off-putting.
AF: You get the feeling that one of the things that Oshii is getting at, is that when you use old footage / newsreel footage of people to construct an argument, you can’t go anywhere beyond the footage you have. You can’t look behind these characters to see their three-dimensionality – you can only see a flat surface – and I think that’s one of the nice attributes of this style: what you see is what you get. You can’t turn the characters around because there’s nothing there to see. Which I think is an ideal way of rendering a character like Ikari and his fantasies, because the people in his dream aren’t real, they’re just flat caricatures of life.
VS: Also, what’s interesting is that it’s possibly a reaction to all the CGI stuff, which tries to make things look as real, as three-dimensional, as possible… And what do Oshii and Kon do? They go back to 2D, almost like primitive animation from years ago…
AF: …but it’s also something that represents the avant-garde somehow…
VS: Absolutely. And it changes the way you watch the film, it introduces a distance and there’s no longer any suspension of disbelief. You’re in this almost abstract world of ideas; it’s a lot less about recreating an impression of reality and a lot more about ideas.
AF: It didn’t really grab me. It wasn’t the style… I just don’t think Oshii gave it his all. I think that like Paranoia Agent, it was a case of a director throwing all his unused ideas together, but unlike Paranoia Agent, it didn’t really work for me.
Alex Fitch and Virginie Sélavy
Win a copy of the Paranoia Agent DVD box-set (courtesy of MVM) at our next Sunday Shock Therapy on Sunday 8 June, 2-6pm at the Vibe Live.