Behind Anime Lines: Paranoia Agent, Part 1

Eric Thurm and Chingy Nea watch Satoshi Kon's Paranoia Agent, an anime series about a serial attacker named Lil' Slugger

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.

The Pre-Watch

Chingy: Okay so, what was your introduction to Satoshi Kon? What’s your exposure level?

Eric: The first time l encountered Satoshi Kon was through Paprika. I don’t remember why I decided to watch it, but I think it was probably around the time I sort of self-consciously decided to get more Into Anime, like six years ago. I remember really loving it in a sort of mind-blown, stoner uncle way. 

I’ve also seen Perfect Blue (10/10, no notes, devastating) and Millennium Actress, which is probably my favorite work of his. I sort of always knew Paranoia Agent existed but was like, “Oh, I should save this for a special occasion'” and then the special occasion never came… until now! I am very excited to engage with it. Was the show your first Kon?

Chingy: It was, yeah! I was always really into anime and video games and around 2005, I was lucky enough for one of my parents to have the cable package that included G4 Tech TV and they had an anime block that I cannot remember the name of. The only two series I really remember watching on there were Read or Die and Paranoia Agent, and both have stuck with me in a big way.

Paranoia Agent people and masks

When I first watched Paranoia Agent, I didn’t even know who Satoshi Kon was, and then about a year or two later Paprika came out and I realized he was a big deal visionary. The main works of his I’ve seen are those two, as well as Tokyo Godfathers (which was actually the last movie I saw in theaters before the world locked down)!

Eric: It seems like the only Kon we have both seen is Paprika, which is super interesting! I have to say, I loved that movie when I first saw it, and I still think it’s great, but every time I watch it, it leaves me feeling a bit colder—something about the formal experimentation just creates a bit of remove from the characters. It’s especially weird to think about that in contrast with Perfect Blue, which is super raw, intimate, and claustrophobic, but was originally supposed to be live action and doesn’t have nearly as much crazy animation.

I’m curious to see where Paranoia Agent falls along that very real, normal spectrum I just made up.

Chingy: Yeah, I like that we have collectively if not individually partaken of his entire screen oeuvre. It’s funny because I went into Tokyo Godfathers expecting it to be his most… grounded work and in hindsight I recognize that was a very silly expectation. Like it was silly to believe he’d stray from his surreal career-long study of collective subconscious in a rapidly changing society just because it isn’t a candy-coated clusterfuck like Paprika. I feel like that’s one of his main bits and it’s definitely more present than ever in Paranoia Agent for me.

I’m so excited to see what you think of this series!

Episode One

Eric: OK right off the bat, loving that the OP has the unsettling choral track and a bunch of weird faces in case you were not sure if this was a Satoshi Kon joint. Looking forward to hanging out with all of these guys.

Chingy: Susumu Hirasawa’s weird modulated yodelling and percussion is just such a good accompaniment for the stress-y imagery

Eric: Ugh, people just be on their phones!

Chingy: “We live in a society!” – Satoshi Kon

Eric: Really thought the cute little guy was gonna start talking!

Chingy: I like how the opening five minutes is already a huge statement on how capitalism, even the cutesy companies that make mascots, negatively affects workers.

Eric: And then a mascot beats up Tsukiko! “Damn, I got hit by a cute little guy when I was supposed to be coming up with a different cute little guy.”

Chingy: NO COMMENT.

Eric: I do really like that you don’t see the assault—I don’t really know what the genre of this show is supposed to be, but it feels like refusing to make any of it literal/ forcing it to be this hole in the show.

Chingy: From what I have heard about Millenium Actress and Perfect Blue, it really does seem Satoshi Kon loves a mystery. Even Paprika and Tokyo Godfathers have them!

Eric: l am pretty interested to see how Maromi’s popularity plays into the show. Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress are, to varying degrees, both about 20th/21st century fandom and the ways in which it can be both beautiful (in Millennium Actress) and terrifying (in Perfect Blue).

Chingy: I feel like Paranoia Agent might be a rosetta stone for connecting themes in his work. I believe it started as a film idea that he expanded into a series so it could be like a bunch of short films exploring similar themes.

Eric: It might be! I’m excited to see. It definitely feels interesting that Tsukiko has a Maromi keychain and carries around the plushie/real Maromi/whatever. The other creative characters in Kon are often distanced from their work, or just don’t think about it that much on its own.

Episode Two

Eric: This fucking kid. l’m getting Frankie Muniz vibes.

paranoia agent Ichi

Chingy: He is that Nada Surf song. This is an episode about clout. “Who dunked on me and went viral for it?”

Eric: I like that pretty much every Satoshi Kon character design looks a little threatening. Even the heroic characters in his work are kinda pervs.

Chingy: Yeah, everyone looks like they have ulterior/impure motives. I think he really wants us to commit to each of these little character studies. He’s very much into forcing you into a perspective and making you both uncomfortable with others and yourself.

Eric: Yeah, this episode is really clearly from Ichi’s perspective in a way I appreciate. One of my favorite things about anime in general is I think that it’s much closer to like, surrealist fiction than most other visual media, especially since live action stuff has to be at least somewhat literal for the most part, while anime is often just pure metaphor and slippery in a way I really love and value.

What’s “really” going on here? Who cares!

On the other hand, the transfer student kid reminds me a bit of the manager character from Perfect Blue, at least in his design.

Chingy: Oh kinda like a Tezuka Star System, featuring similar archetypes or characters with incredibly similar designs and roles between unrelated work. It’s like the character designs are actors, which I find really fascinating and charming for animation—and I think Satoshi Kon definitely does it.

Eric: Yeah, he definitely loves certain Types Of Guys, though the manager character in Perfect Blue is a middle-aged woman.

paranoia agent dog and circle

Chingy: This episode really integrates so many different kinds of stress and humiliation or even perceived humiliation. Like when Usshi tries to stand up for Yuichi, he is absolutely mortified.

Eric: Yeah, that makes it even worse. And you could totally imagine in a different show that being the sort of slow beginning of a weird friendship. I don’t know if that’s what’s happening now, but I kinda doubt it. Ichi’s fantasies and insecurities just keep escalating

Chingy: Which is the same thing as was happening with gossip in the first one. it just keeps escalating and getting further out of hand. This show embodies a world of people desperately stressed out and seeking control of their circumstances. Did you see that coming after the first episode?

Eric: No! Does this kid come back, or is this just like, his episode?

Chingy: Everyone comes back and everyone is connected. Most characters have an episode about them and then become more peripheral, with Lil Slugger as the connective tissue. But also, the detectives are always around because someone’s gotta solve the mystery. It’s mass hysteria in a way.

Eric: A shared hallucination…

Chingy: There is a culture of fear and a climate of mistrust.

Eric: Gibson-ass…. Not to be Topical but you can sort of imagine a version of this kind of gossip or rumor escalating in a way that basically turns into QAnon. 

Chingy: And that is Paranoia Agent.

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