This is a review written for Reverse Thieves’s Secret Santa event. I must wonder if Lostty wanted me to loathe myself or something during this season of high consumerism, recommending both Paranoia Agent and NHK ni Youkoso!. It was great, thanks.
By the beloved Satoshi Kon whose passing is still a recent memory, Paranoia Agent is a show I’ve had on my mental “to watch” list for a great number of years now, mostly in its reputation as one of those “DEEP” shows that were localized and dubbed for the US in the early 2000’s. It, and other examples of this like Serial Experiments Lain and Boogiepop Phantom, generally enjoy a very healthy reputation for being very purposefully off-kilter–experimental, even–at the risk alienating a more general audience. To prioritize your vision over marketability, is perhaps how one would describe it.
This is as opposed to other shows that can be said to have a vision, which are not quite so experimental and instead seek its thesis in lieu of much more conventional forms of entertainment, recent examples being anime such as Mawaru Penguindrum with its heavy plot suspense and cliffhangers or Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica‘s use of rock solid profit staples such as cute girls, popular voice actors, etc. Rather, shows such as Paranoia Agent and et al often seek to approach its issues in such an obtuse fashion to make a challenge and draw attention to itself, risking broad appeal. It’s an opportunity for putting a lot of unusual ideas to work but really does risk excess that’s ultimately not a good thing.
There is a lot to say about Paranoia Agent and it probably is something that is going to take more than one watch to fully digest (Lain, for example, generally requires at least 2 good watches for it to really settle in, by my estimate) but a few things pop immediately into mind, specifically my feelings finishing the first watch.
Paranoia Agent is a really good show. It’s excellent. I don’t think there was a single episode that wasn’t an extremely tight product from beginning to end. I don’t think there’s anyway to take that from it and that is a great accomplishment. The seams come apart, however, when it comes to the series as a whole.
As I’ve already cautioned, I’ve only watched through once, so I may be missing something, but while all the episodes of Paranoia Agent were well put together, they do not come together in an entirely satisfying way. Following the episode of the failure of the detectives’ investigation and the liquidation of their careers, the series lapses into episodics that are extremely experimental, taking a step away from the semblance of structure that the show had as at least a mystery centered around a couple of investigators and the victims. With these things gone, the series was able to let loose with fairly off the wall writing and direction, in general producing what are probably my favorite episodes (the two featuring the group of three seeking suicide together and the gossiping housewives are my favorites). However, Paranoia Agent ultimately fails to weave these parts into a complete whole. As the entire work was not sacrificed towards the purpose of unorthodox storytelling and had some more conventional aspects in an incomplete fashion (whereas you could say Lain abandons such a choice almost completely), one is left wanting for harmony.
It is the problem of the middle.
As a person who has attempted fiction writing, the problem of the middle is something that I am reminded of. You have a premise, know how you will get the ball rolling and have a fantastic finale for the closure with what seems to be poignant thematic thrust; what you lack is content to put in the intervening time that fills the transition logically and harmoniously. What Paranoia Agent lacks here, however, is not content so much as cohesion. Do these stories fit into the world of Paranoia Agent? Sure. However, I can’t be so confident about whether they actually belong in the story. Whereas the individual episodes are tight, the series overall lacks a similar sense of purpose and economy, where the episodics fail to help the show in whole either with its thoughts on the role of consumerism as sedative or just the general thrust of the mystery as suspense. They’re great on their own as pieces of fun and clever animation or unorthodox plot structure, but are often rather functionless. At least for me marathoning the series, I was drowned in this powerful feeling of ambivalence. I really like these episodes, but they don’t seem to actually have a purpose on a macro level. And that’s just plain clumsy.
Do Satoshi Kon’s other works feature this quality? I am not sure. My memories of Paprika are rather foggy, but if my gut is right, I almost remember it as a Paranoia Agent without the middle episodics. It becomes a more complete beast, yet it didn’t blow me away in the same way Paranoia Agent does, at some level. Probably because I love pointlessly obtuse things that obviously isn’t going to be entertaining to anyone. For the strength of those episodics alone, I think the imperfect final product that is Paranoia Agent ultimately justifies its existence. God knows how marketable it would be were it a complete set of vignettes that are connected in only the loosest terms. But I’d have loved that.