Mind & Meme: Kon Satoshi’s “Paranoia Agent”
Published on September 27th, 2010 | by Jonathan Stromberg1
I remember the first time I saw “Perfect Blue” (1998): fifteen years old, laying on the carpet, three feet from a 32” Mitsubishi, rented VHS worn but tracking smoothly, enraptured by a most sublime home theater only familiarity can buy. I would later watch it with a date on my bedroom’s 15” TV/VCR, cradled by the romance of a green futon—again and again, enjoyed countless times on screens too grotesque to describe. I didn’t see “Magnetic Rose” (from Otomo Katsuhiro’s anthology, “Memories,” 1995), “Millennium Actress” (2001) or “Tokyo Godfathers” (2003) until I was in college, though I love each as tenderly and deeply regret waiting so long for each. “Paprika” (2006) was a special experience, having missed it at the New York Film Festival, I caught it in Spring 2007. It’s still the only of Kon Satoshi’s films I’ve seen theatrically. Clearly, Kon, who passed after suffering briefly but no doubt miserably from cancer on 24 August 2010, has left a profound impact despite his short career.
So, when Cinespect editor Carlos Segura and I discussed doing a critical retrospective of Kon’s oeuvre, I insisted on including his stint as series director, prolific storyboarder and auteur of the television masterwork “Paranoia Agent” (2004). Aired in America during the golden age of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block, with an intimately familiar voice cast, I vividly remember my near-weekly ritual of falling asleep during episodes, only to wake up three hours later in time to finish them on rerun. Since it’s TV debut, I’ve watched the thirteen episodes of “Paranoia Agent” a half dozen times. Though each of the episodes were directed by others (including five episodes credited to Endo Takuji, who passed away last summer), “Paranoia Agent” is in many ways Kon’s most interesting work.
While “Paranoia Agent” may not challenge “Paprika” as Kon’s magnum opus, it does confront his career’s central topics of meme and memory directly and compellingly in a way the former somewhat fails to match. Kon’s voice, if not always his style, infuses every episode. His critique of Tokyo—the first scene of the show—as a city of thirty million faceless individuals, staring deep into their phones, feeling pressure from all sides and crying out to the void, “it’s not my fault,” is a harrowing statement. It’s this state of defensive helplessness, awkwardly translated as paranoia, that Kon proposes as both the source of and the weakness by which Japan is transformed by “Paranoia Agent’”s dual meme archetypes, Maromi and Shonen Bat/Lil’ Slugger. These two, the comfort of childish irresponsibility and the release of indiscriminate persecution, are infectious ideas. They jump from person to person as they seek salvation in self-destruction, until the whole world succumbs to them.
Maromi—one part Hello Kitty, one part Tickle Me Elmo—is a kind of maternal meta-puppy. The fantasy of the character, in the context of the show’s diegesis, is as both surrogate pet and parent. If you’re living in Kon’s Tokyo, Maromi cares about you. Maromi wants you to be happy and safe. And Maromi needs you. She needs your attention. She needs your love (and you need hers), because you’re stressed out. The world is coming down on you, hard, and no one else is looking out for you. Maromi is commodified comfort of a kind that any citizen of the western world can immediately recognize. Maromi, as a character in the show, as well as icon within its reality, is animated by its creator in the way that a child animates her stuffed animals. They are imbued with persona to meet the child’s needs—an imaginary friend is truer than any real one, but is still an illusion. Its comfort is ephemeral. So, when one young woman, Tsukiko Sagi, spreads her creation to the millions of Japanese reaching with open arms toward any crutch they can find that will help them survive their hostile reality, Maromi becomes a house of cards to shelter their psyches.
Against this, but intimately tied to it, Shonen Bat appears. He is a terrifying distortion of the Western fear of nihilistic youth—a child who brutally attacks the innocent, and who can neither be caught nor held responsible for his actions. Truly, Shonen Bat is the embodiment of that modern nihilism. To him, the world is unreal, and the lives of his victims carry no value. But, as Kon shows us, Shonen Bat exists primarily in the collective mind of the society he terrorizes. And indeed he doesn’t destroy, but rather transforms the world. In all his films, Kon seems very concerned with distinctly modern social problems—problems for which traditional templates are obviously inadequate. Like Maromi, Shonen Bat fulfills a social role. He allows his victims to escape reality, not through escapist daydreams, but through a Louisville Slugger to the skull. Whether they die or lose their memory, or are simply hospitalized, their attack is proof that, in fact, someone was out to get them. The world was as cruel and indifferent to their hardships as they imagined it to be. Shonen Bat was the only one who loved them enough to save them—if only from themselves. The final line of the series, uttered by a shocked Detective Ikari upon seeing the ruins of Tokyo following Shonen Bat’s climactic attack upon all of Japan, speaks volumes about the implications of this kind of delusion: “It’s just like after the war.” This isn’t Ikari remembering that historical destruction, his character would be far too young. Instead, it’s an academic statement, which seems to say, “no, it really is our fault.”
Obviously, “Paranoia Agent” describes a world more fantastic than our own. But it does so without ever letting us feel as though we’re watching a separate reality. “Paranoia Agent” defies classification as a genre piece. In spite of itself, it demands we treat it as realist animation. Kon does this through his acknowledged mastery over the specific ontology on animation. Few in his field have the same level of control over the interaction between audience and art. However, the manipulation is at the heart of the medium. Animation differs in basic ways from photographic cinema, particularly regarding its presentation as a delimiting art rather than its reality as a creative one. A film frame gives the impression of a world outside itself, of which we can only see part. On most sets, this is an illusion, but only in a technical sense. There really is a world outside the frame, though it probably isn’t the one the filmmakers want you to believe in. In an animation, however, nothing else exists. Everything within the frame was created from air and ink by the mind and skill of whomever happened to draw it. In a project of any real scale, multiple artists draw each frame. They all contribute slices of separate imaginary worlds that composite into the one we ourselves imagine. This basic suspension of disbelief is how all films maintain diegetic continuity. The imaginations of the audience gladly fill in the blanks, but in the case of animation it is heightened. This is how, when Ikari steps into his own fantasy, the sign-town, where everything is flattened and semiotically pure, Kon doesn’t lose us. That world is just as complete as the last one, in part because it is just as incomplete.
Related to this special difference between photography and animation, is the way in which animation flattens its own ontology. In a photographic film, particularly one with special effects, our minds make a lot of assumptions about what kind of things exist within the frame. Some are people, some are explosions, some are cars, etc. Though any enlightened person can acknowledge that everything in our world is made of matter, we tend not to really see things that way. In an animation though, we don’t do the same kind of work. The world of an animation is clearly unified. It’s all make of ink. Every last detail. And so, everything is equally real within that world. Ikari’s sign-town, Kon’s Tokyo, Maromi’s cartoon within a cartoon. The characters dreams and daydreams are made out of the same stuff as their reality. Kon Satoshi understands this, and writes to it, in an intuitive way. He mixes very realistic settings with surreal flourishes with a skill that keeps us from disbelieving either. It’s this unified reality that made “Perfect Blue” and “Millennium Actress” so compelling, and, in the same way, it allows us to maintain a direct sympathy with the characters of “Paranoia Agent.” We don’t need to imagine what it’s like to live in their world, because Kon allows us forget that we don’t.
No responsible analysis of “Paranoia Agent” would exclude some discussion of the episodes themselves. It’s first worth mentioning that the show, both in Japan and America has always been aired after midnight, and in the minds of its creative team is strongly tied to semi-awake nature late night cartoon viewership. Kon admits to pushing the stimulation of the show’s phenomenal intro sequence, and also the sedative quality of the end credits, in order to wake the audience up for each episode and put them to sleep at the end. Also worth noting are the subtle but specific sound cues distinct to each episode, particularly the applause in “The Golden Shoes” and the whistle in “No Entry.” The show, for having so many directors and such a short production schedule, is notable for its consistency. No episodes are outright bad, though a couple—“Double Lips,” “The Holy Warrior,” and “No Entry”—suffer a bit upon multiple viewings. Others, however, are so brilliant that they stand out as works unto themselves. “A Man’s Path,” which I view as the best of the series, is certainly the show’s most haunting—perhaps along with “Fear of a Direct Hit,” its sister episode. “Happy Family Planning” and “Etc.” both diverge from the main plot of the show, but are also stand-outs. They are both hilarious and eerie, the former an interlude about three friends trying to kill themselves, and the latter a series of Shonen Bat themed tall tales, which cross genre lines and illuminate the social psychosis embedded in the characters.
“Paranoia Agent” is also deeply referential, in the way that “Paprika” also is. That is to say, it is referential mainly to Kon’s own work. The first episode, “Enter Lil’ Slugger,” lifts a scene from “Perfect Blue,” which connects the fragility of Tsukiko with that of Mima. Similarly, the climax of “Double Lips” is also strongly reminiscent of Mima and Rumi’s final struggle. The core narrative device in “The Holy Warrior” is essentially the same as “Millennium Actress”—the detectives Ikari and Maniwa experience the delusional fantasy of their Shonen Bat suspect while interviewing him. “A Man’s Path” doesn’t reference any other work specifically, but does draw a parallel between the hyper-masculinity of what we might call the “Fist of the North Star” genre of popular manga to the tragedy of that episode’s protagonist. “Fear of a Direct Hit” sees a return to Kon’s interest in homelessness, which he explored so brilliantly in “Tokyo Godfathers,” a film still in production when he began work on “Paranoia Agent.” In the exceptionally surreal episode “Mhz,” Kon auditions the circus dream that he would later recycle and expand for “Paprika.” Finally, much of the episode “Mellow Maromi” seems to be an homage to Oshii Mamoru’s brilliantly interminable classic “Talking Head”—Ando Masashi, the director who oversaw the scenes in question, had just come from working on “Innocence,” Oshii’s sequel to “Ghost in the Shell.” There are likely references to other works, which I failed to catch, for example in the episode “Etc.” Many filmmakers allude to their other works, for reasons ranging from cynicism to narcissism to simple ignorance that they’re doing it. One gets the sense from Kon Satoshi, in “Paranoia Agent” and in his larger body of work, that he truly does it out of joy. It’s almost as if he’s stealing these scenes from some other filmmaker, or that when he watches his own films he wonders at them completely unselfconsciously—as if they were made by someone else entirely. Perhaps it’s because his films truly are marvelous. They are uniquely unpretentious in spite of their surreality. Anyone who would recognize his quotations could never be offended by them, because at worst they are reminders of cherished memories.
A final note about the importance of Kon Satoshi as an individual within his industry is appropriate now that he has passed. Kon was an active labor organizer, and served on the steering committee of the Japan Animation Creators Association since its creation in 2007. Kon’s work to improve labor conditions for animators would be simply noble were it not for the extremity of the exploitation within the industry. In that light, it is heroic. At the same time, Kon was the heir to Madhouse after the semi-retirement of directors Rintaro and Kawajiri Yoshiaki. Owing particularly to Kawajiri’s films of the mid-90’s, Madhouse defined the international conception of anime. At the turn of the millennium, Madhouse was arguably the most culturally important, and most talented, animation studio in Japan. Kon worked during a time that many of the previous generation’s legendary animators began to step down. Not only did Rintaro and Kawajiri step back from directing, but Oshii Mamoru, Otomo Katsuhiro and Takahata Isao as well. And though Miyazaki Hayao has been prolific during this decade, he too has remained in a position of immanent retirement. Kon’s true contemporaries appear to be few. Oshii has essentially turned Production I.G. over to Kamiyama Kenji, whose work on the phenomenal “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” series has already marked him as a master in his field. At Ghibli, Miyazaki Goro’s faltering debut, while hardly inept, challenges the assumption that he will be the obvious heir to his father’s studio. Anno Hideaki, creator of the popular “Neon Genesis Evangelion” series, founded the studio Gainax, which has done excellent work, but has since left. Studio 4°C is also very promising, having produced the excellent “Mind Game” and “Tekkon Kinkreet.” Still, within the realm of independent Japanese animation studios, Kon’s death represents a time of significant turmoil. Who will replace Kon at Madhouse—whether it will be a younger director, perhaps Ando Masashi, whose credits are truly impressive, or one of the old masters returning to the creative helm—is unclear. The reality is that Kon held a position of unique importance at the peak of his industry, as if Coppola had been creative director at Paramount in 1974, or if Ron Moore were VP of Development at NBC-Universal (albeit at a smaller scale). It’s unlikely that an auteur of Kon’s caliber will replace him as animation in Japan becomes increasingly industrial. Decades of wonderful films to come have been lost to us at Kon’s passing. Let us all hope that Kon serves as the model, rather than the exception for a new generation of filmmakers—of all styles and genres.