Behind Anime Lines: Paranoia Agent Part Five

Watching the two final episodes of Satoshi Kon's Paranoia Agent with Eric and Chingy

Behind Anime Lines is a feature where Eric and Chingy watch an anime together and discuss it—its cultural context, its aesthetic qualities, and how it makes us feel. In this first series, we’re watching Satoshi Kon’s TV series Paranoia Agent, one of Chingy’s favorite series and one Eric hasn’t seen before.

Episode 12

Chingy: The last episode we watched felt like an intro to the end, whereas these two episodes could be a single one hour-long episode.

Eric: I think the last episode would have been the end of the Hollywood version of the show: “Shonen Bat is defeated by the power of love.”

Chingy: Though this is very much not a Hollywood ending, I do think Kon actually does believe in the power of love. Very strongly!

Eric: I think he does too, but it’s not enough.

Chingy: This is Maniwa’s big episode—we have entered a full-on fantasy, but I guess we were never anywhere else.

Eric: Yeah, he has full-on become Batman to fight Shonen Bat. I love that there is this moment of Kon being like, “Look, I could do a big anime fight if I wanted to,” but it feels intentionally unsatisfying. The idea that this could somehow be resolved by some dudes hitting each other in a climactic fight is, consciously, very out of place with the rest of the show.

Chingy: “I am the (Shonen) Bat.”

Eric: As I am often saying, they should simply rename Robin “Shonen Bat.”

Chingy: This otaku character is such an interesting, random inclusion. I never know what to make of this but accept the surrealism.

Eric: It’s interesting that Maniwa is just straight up having an otaku experience, surrounded by all of these archetypal, literally tiny helpful women. The show is doing a little bit of a Welcome To Marwen kinda deal.

Chingy: It’s all coming together and everybody feels cornered. Shonen Bat is growing and changing, just like Maromi. You know, I want a Maromi tattoo. “Take a rest.”

Eric: Do it!

Chingy: Tsukiko is just shutting everything out because she can not fucking cope anymore. Again, I think this series is a great indictment of capitalism and how workers are mistreated.

Eric: The way Maromi goes full-on villainous just by changing the shape of his eyes is great.

Chingy: And just like that, everyone’s stress comes back. One to go!

Eric: I enjoyed that episode a lot, but it definitely feels like it’s setting up the finale and moving things into place. It’s good at doing that, but also follows pretty neatly from what you might expect the show to do, which is unusual!

Chingy: It definitely doesn’t stand on its own, but it can’t really when we’ve jumped around so much.

Episode Thirteen

Chingy: Now you really have me thinking about the power of love in Kon’s work. I’ll touch on this more at the end, but I think Kon is a true humanist who believes in reveling in the pain and absurdity of life.

Eric: It feels to me like he has a (largely correct) take about how it’s important to love something or someone and commit to that love, but that simply experiencing that feeling isn’t going to save you.

Chingy: “When will my husband return from that weird pre-WWII fantasy of Japan?” I think I touched on it last time, but I love how Ikari condemns getting lost in fantasy and using it as a crutch, but he has a fantasy world too. It’s just nostalgia.

Eric: Yeah, absolutely. Maromi is also a creature of nostalgia based on something that is gone and irretrievable!

Chingy: And that definitely plays into this episode a bit. They’re chasing safety, but safety isn’t real.

Eric: I like that Ikari’s fantasy is about the police censoring “bad” material. “Hooray, this cop swept all of our problems under the rug!” Does it matter what is happening and where we are? Absolutely not!

Chingy: The fantasy of police serving a valuable purpose in society is a lot like this world: empty and two-dimensional.

Eric: Satoshi Kon said ACAB!

Chingy: And now she’s literally regressing. The world is falling to shit and Tsukiko Sagi said “I’m baby.”

Eric: And in this form, she’s fulfilling his repressed desire to have a child! Unfortunately, it’s relatable: Tsukiko’s ceaseless need to generate cute content in a cruel capitalist system pushes her to become an emotionally stunted child who threatens the entire world.

Chingy: And here’s Misae…I present to you, the power of love. The power of it is the pain, imperfections, and reality of it. It rules.

Eric: Aww, Ikari using a bat for good (to demolish the fantasy) is a neat touch.

Chingy: “The reality is that I have no place where I’m supposed to be,” is an admittedly badass line. “Reality sucks, but I’ll deal with it.” Also, what a great callback with the Korean BBQ! (They argued in the first episode over who would pay if her story was fake or real.)

Eric: It’s incredible that the lesson of the show is ultimately, “don’t lie to your parents because it makes everything worse.”

Chingy: I like that Maromi and Shonen Bat are actually two separate entities grown out of the same trauma: Tsukiko letting her pet dog Maromi off his leash.

Eric: I dunno if there is a distinct meaning to the word they are translating as ‘victim” but I think it’s really interesting that Maromi and Shonen Bat are ostensibly the result of her “pretending” to be a victim. Like, just because no one actively chose to do something evil to you does not mean you can’t be a proverbial victim of circumstance!

Chingy: Totally. I mean, the situation is even more complicated than Maniwa presents it to be.

Eric: Wait, is the implication here supposed to be that the original Maromi died because Tsukiko got her period, or am I just being a sicko?

Chingy: Nope, she wasn’t just distracted! She had what we can assume to be her first period cramp.

Eric: I don’t know if I like that choice! What do you make of it?

Chingy: I don’t know! The idea is that that’s when she started to be overwhelmed by pressure but like they said, her father had always been strict and she had no mom.

Eric: Oh man, yeah.

Chingy: When Ikari compares the post-Shonen Bat world to what it was like “after the war,” it’s a rare reference in Japanese media to the atomic bomb. Generally not a subject that is touched on.

Eric: I can’t tell if you’re joking. The atomic bomb has a huge presence in Japanese culture in general and anime specifically!

Chingy: I’m not joking. It may be a theme, but it’s just not usually addressed outright.

Eric: Yeah, that’s fair. Honestly, I think I got a little turned around in the last minute or two. What happened?

Chingy: Okay, so there’s a two-year time skip. Ikari is still working as a security guard, Tsukiko cut her hair and (presumably) works in an office. She sees the frog-faced journalist, and Maniwa is now mirroring the old man from the series’ start, doing a weird sidewalk equation. People are still, like, stressed by the pressures of 21st century life. But… that’s Paranoia Agent!

Eric: Yeah, I enjoyed the last episode but I think my immediate reaction is I actually did not want an ending that felt that tidy! It’s pretty clear about the themes and even more explicit about the cyclical nature of this kind of story. And doing that while also throwing in the thing about Tsukiko’s period felt like a bit too much for me to digest, at least right now.

Chingy: I feel that.

Eric: I think more specifically I just didn’t vibe with Tsukiko hard enough as a character to feel invested in her owning up to that initial trauma. But I loved Ikari destroying his fantasy world, which felt like an emotionally similar beat but for someone we’d spent a lot more time with.

Chingy: So my big critique of this show is maybe that I think its ending falls just a little flat. Like, it’s chill! But it’s whatever.

Eric: Yeah, we’re on the same page. It’s good! Definitely a solid ending, not extraordinary.

Chingy: I’ve rewatched it a lot lately and the last few episodes are among my least favorite, even though they have some cool moments. (Especially the creation and destruction of Ikari’s fantasy world.) In the end, this is Tsukiko’s problem and only she can fix it. She is, in essence, the lynchpin of this universe.

Eric: It’s Tsukiko’s problem, but it’s also everyone else’s problem! One of my favorite things about the show, and especially the sort of short story episodes that I think both of us vibed with pretty hard, is the way it establishes this strong sense of individuality for the characters, while also clarifying that they are indeed in a society and are all interconnected. I like the idea of Maromi and Shonen Bat growing out of this initial trauma into something that has infected and consumed so much of the city, but it seems like Tsukiko accepting her guilt would just weaken that idea a bit, not destroy it.

Chingy: I guess the difference is Tsukiko has some semblance of influence on this society more so than others, but she doesn’t—she just puts things out into the world and can’t control what they become.

Eric: That’s true. I wonder if it’s also in some way about the responsibility artists have for their work.

Chingy: I think that’s definitely part of it. I think the point of the final episode, what it really tries to drive home is, “No one can save you and that’s okay.”

Eric: Is it okay? I guess so!

Chingy: It might not be okay, but also it has to be. This is something I struggle with, especially if you put it into conversation with episode 11 and the big speech that Misae (Ikari’s wife) delivers to Shonen Bat. Like, her whole thing is, “You and that dumb dog are just crutches people use to escape their problems.” And while not every speech a character gives is supposed to be the author’s voice, I feel like Misae is supposed to be viewed as the strongest and most upstanding character — the only one who doesn’t give into despair or escapism.

Eric: Absolutely. She definitely stands apart from the rest of the cast in a lot of ways. Even though she ends up helping save the day by participating in the collective fantasy and visiting Ikari in his little padded cell world. I can see all of the ways the themes of Paranoia Agent should theoretically converge here, but I don’t think the show quite says what it’s trying to say.

Chingy: I don’t know, sometimes the ending feels like the series is saying, “Don’t ever escape to fantasy.” But also, you gotta sometimes, and Kon said as much in interviews about the show. I think Kon landed on his feet with this ending, but he definitely stumbled.

Eric: I wonder if that’s because it’s TV! This really feels like a shorter version of the ending to a movie. We needed maybe another five, ten minutes to fully digest.

Chingy: I think it is! Kon front loaded a lot of great stuff, put some anthology stories in, and then didn’t know how to cap it off.

Eric: Like with Maniwa, I can sort of connect the dots to see what Kon is getting at: immersing himself so fully in the fantasy allowed him to figure out what was going on, but it also kinda broke him. But I think that is really only at the edge of the text.

Chingy: Yeah, I don’t think those final scenes add a lot. I’m a big fan of ambiguous endings, but this ending felt less ambiguous and more confused. Like, okay, you can’t just end it on, “This is just like after the war.” It’s important to show how life carries on, but I don’t know what else the ending added.

Eric: Right, I think there are a lot of cool questions that come out of the end of shonen bat. Did something literally happen to the city? With Tsukiko cutting off the trauma at the root, has that given other people another chance at their problems (in a sort of time rewinding way)? The end feels like it throws up its hands.

Chingy: Yeah, but I still weirdly think this is one of the best iterations of a filmmaker trying television. He’s just susceptible to the pitfalls of that jump.

Eric: Oh, absolutely. It’s not bad! And that feels important to stress. I think we are being critical of the end because endings are hard to write, and because the show is so good otherwise that it puts even the minor faults in starker contrast.

Chingy: I think aside from the ending, the series is pretty flawless. And it’s still among my favorite of his works. It’s singular.

Final Thoughts

Eric: To zoom out a bit and talk about the series as a whole, it really does feel, for (mostly) good and (a little) ill, like a thesis statement for what Kon is interested in and what his perspective is.

Chingy: In the time since we started this series, I’ve finished out his entire filmography and I really agree. There’s that blur of fantasy and reality, a fascination with pop culture, technology, and 21st century life, and just a clash of weird optimism and upsetting surrealism.

Eric: And I think a sense of ambivalence / quasi-resignation about all of that. It would be really easy to approach those topics in a manichaean, “This is bad/this is good/this is how we should live” manner, but this show is especially like, “Well, this is the way the world is, and there are certain things you can do to respond… maybe.”

Chingy: It feels like him at his most uncertain, but also that is just the vibe of the piece: paranoia and unease.

Eric: What is paranoia if not being suspicious of everything?

Chingy: In the same interview I quoted last time, I remember him saying he chose “paranoia” or “delusion” as part of the title because it packs so much more punch than just “fantasy” and speaks to more of a constant state of fear and fantasy. Going off that, I think the title is about this spread of delusion with each character serving as an agent of paranoia (which feels so silly to say).

Eric: I mean, on the one hand, the most straightforward reading is of Shonen Bat as an agent creating paranoia and delusion. But — and it does feel silly to say — the real paranoia agent was maybe the friends we made along the way. Tsukiko is the one who happens to originate the plague in this instance, but at the very least the ending suggests that everyone is capable of doing that on some level. All of these characters have their own weird hangups and delusions and fantasies and they metastasize and spread in different ways.

Chingy: I mean, an agent is someone who has agency. Someone who has a role. And everyone here feels overwhelmed by their role.

Eric: Who has agency in this story? I guess on some level both everyone and no one, which again, feels embarrassing to say but is also true!

Chingy: I personally believe everyone has it and hates having it. They are all tortured by their agency.

Eric: “Don’t ever put me in a situation” —every character in Paranoia Agent, finding themselves in a situation at least partially of their own making.

Chingy: Ok, but really.

Eric: That’s a really good point though, too — Tsukiko had agency this whole time and either refuses to believe it or ignores it, so it just festers.

Chingy: Everyone in this series is desperately craving a permanent sense of salvation or release and I think the point is that fantasy can only be temporary, relief can only be momentary, and salvation is a fiction. Like I said, I think Kon was definitely a humanist. All his work feels so weirdly optimistic about people while fully embracing things like fear and despair as parts of our condition.

Eric: Yeah, that’s a really good way of putting it. Everyone has this potential and real beauty, even (especially) the absolute fucking freaks.

Chingy: Yeah, I think he really believed in us. Are there any last things you wanna touch on?

Eric: Besides that we live in a society? I feel like we have talked a lot about the ideas and characters and plot elements of the show, and it almost feels like it goes without saying that the animation is beautiful. But it is! The craftsmanship is just so on point. It’s inspiring.

Chingy: We do factually live in a society, and Satoshi Kon said it first. It’s not just strong in its story, it’s also just really fun to watch!

Eric: Also I hope you get your Maromi tattoo. It’s what he would have wanted.

Chingy: Mine will say, “Take a rest, bitch.”

Eric: And now we will.

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