February 16, 2009

Paranoia Agent

Reviewer: Alan Hogue
Rating (out of 5): ****½

It's not so easy to find sophisticated anime made for adults. Not that such anime doesn't get made, it's just that it usually isn't licensed in the U.S. Luckily, Paranoia Agent - a TV series created by one of anime's few internationally known auteurs Satoshi Kon - is available here, and it is absolutely not to be missed by anyone who appreciates story-telling with a philosophical bent.

I say “story-telling” because, unlike many anime which tackle heavy philosophical themes (they are out there, though many are not well known), Paranoia Agent is never remotely boring. There is never a moment, so familiar from other thematically ambitious anime, where we are treated to a character holding forth clumsily about some weighty subject. (I wonder if the people who write such anime are big fans of Michelangelo Antonioni.) Paranoia Agent is truly impressive not so much because it's about the nature of reality and the human propensity for believing in illusions -- how's that for weighty? -- but because it manages to embody its subject rather than to be about its subject.

Paranoia Agent begins as a police procedural. A mysterious teenager with in-line skates and a bent golden bat attacks a young woman in a parking lot. Two police detectives are assigned to the case, but before they are finished interviewing the victim, “Shonen Bat” strikes again, pummeling a man who seems to have no relationship to the first victim. In time, it appears that Shonen Bat specifically attacks people in moments of crisis, appearing out of nowhere and disappearing just as mysteriously, always leaving his victims unconscious (if not dead).

That's as much as I can tell you about the story, except to say that this narrative is intentionally broken down about two-thirds through the series. In this first part, Kon's unique ability to make something that looks and feels somehow like a feature (live action) film shines. It comes through not just in the beautiful artwork or the painstakingly detailed character designs, but also in believable, living, three dimensional characters.

But as the “Shonen Bat” attacks continue, the people of Tokyo are overcome with rumor, fear and dread. There is something about the seemingly supernatural Shonen Bat that disturbs people and brings their most paranoid fantasies to the surface. As this continues, Paranoia Agent morphs into bizarre and rather disturbing story (I hate to sound clichéd, but it is somewhat reminiscent of David Lynch).

Paranoia Agent is a profoundly Buddhist show. People live to a large extent in a world of their own making, composed of an accretion of illusions which we cling to and defend with sometimes murderous force. It is rare to find anything, in any medium, that so brilliantly and beautifully explores such a theme.

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Posted by cphillips at February 16, 2009 9:41 AM
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