I watched the popular shows from years ago.

*Media Crossover Dept: This is two months old, but I didn’t read it until now - a rather downbeat little story from MTV’s GameFile about Grant Morrison’s experiences in the world of video game scripting and design. Also good for context as per the Area 51 movie he’s scripting. I haven’t played any of the games where Morrison’s writing was used (to whatever extent), so I can’t comment on their quality. Really, I haven’t played any video games in a long time, and I don’t even own any of the next generation systems.

*I’m also really behind on watching things non-interactively.

Paranoia Agent

Maybe it’s good that movies like Satoshi Kon’s new Paprika are unlikely to open at a theater near me anytime soon, since I only recently managed to finish his Paranoia Agent television series from 2004, one of the more strenuously acclaimed of recent anime programs. And while it was easy to see why the show is so renowned, it also provided another example of why I tend to get a little excited over new Satoshi Kon projects, but never so much as to seek them out immediately.

Apparently influenced heavily by Takashi Murakami’s ‘SuperFlat’ art movement, and acting as a broad critique of Japan’s postwar smash-up of capitalized popular culture and its insidious reflection of/effect on the national psyche, Paranoia Agent is undoubtedly ambitious and visually slick, at least in terms of television anime, which I realize isn’t setting the bar very high. I do think it looks good, though. Excellent music, as is true with all of Kon’s work I’ve seen (which is everything but the aforementioned Paprika and Tokyo Godfathers). Occasionally it brushes against something resembling genius, especially in the wonderful opening and closing credits sequences, which deftly summarize the series’ themes through pure image.

But it’s also a haphazardly structured, thematically muddy affair, prone to expressing itself in feverish pulp magazine terms while simultaneously castigating the juvenile succor of contemporary popular culture, all while occasionally stumbling into bogs of moral rigidity, a typical environmental hazard of social criticism fiction.

Now, I’ll admit that maybe I’m guilty of wanting the show to succeed on terms that the creative team didn’t consider particularly vital - from listening to all the supplemental features on the dvds, I get the feeling that Kon probably doesn’t mind if the overarching ‘message’ of the show isn’t entirely consistent, or that the narrative remains particularly clean, so long as the work provides certain impressions for the viewer to soak up. Then again, he also expresses some frustration on the audio commentary about viewers being unwilling to accept parts of the work on metaphorical rather than logical terms. But to this viewer, metaphors become problematic when they’re not properly contextualized in as extensive a work as a television series, and Paranoia Agent mixes things up to an irritating degree.

The overarching story concerns a seemingly supernatural force that eventually becomes known as Shōnen Bat ('Lil’ Slugger' in the English dub), a strange child on inline skates that zips up behind people who’ve been pushed to the edge by life, and whaps them with a baseball bat. And just like Krazy Kat being smashed in the head with Ignatz's bricks, it soon becomes evident that the victims (at least the ones that aren’t killed) are rather happy to encounter Shōnen Bat, as their very status as victims allows them a free ‘out’ from facing the responsibilities that the world has weighed them down with. Nobody picks on a victim, after all!

Shōnen Bat also seems to have some connection with his first victim, a meek artist named Tsukiko who’s unwittingly become a superstar after creating Japan’s latest cutesy pop culture fad, a cartoon dog called Maromi. One of the show’s subtlest and most effective bits of critique is that Tsukiko embodies many of the surface qualities of an otaku-friendly moé bait female, all of which are shown to be completely detrimental to a person’s functioning in adult society. Then again, Tsukiko also hears Maromi talking to her, so clearly she's not firing on all cylinders any way you look.

But there’s more to it than that. Both Maromi and Shōnen Bat grow to become interdependent symbols of a national sickness - the coddling materialism that dulls the people’s minds, and the desperation to escape responsibility for the mess that’s eventually made of things. The show bounces from character to character with each new episode, sometimes stopping along the way to poke at other forms of spiritual retardant - goofy ‘inspiring’ adventure manga, the empty accomplishment of video games, restless sex, etc. It’s not consistent with its build - the first half or so of the series follows individual characters on their encounters with Shōnen Bat (or some reasonable simulation) while prodding the ‘main’ plot forward incrementally, only to drop the continuing plot entirely for a group of three or so bleakly comedic episodes devoted to isolated side-stories, and then toss everything into the blender along with big scoops of backstory exposition for the grand finale.

It’s probably the early episodes that contribute the most to Paranoia Agent’s themes, since they’re the ones that illustrate the interplay between people getting bedazzled by something or another and winding up desperate, but they also vary the most in quality. And I was pretty ok with, say, the tale of a young boy addicted to being most popular kid at school, only to be unable to cope when he’s wrongfully suspected of being Shōnen Bat. It’s filled with broad angst and over-the-top characterizations, but it does get the message across with amusing flair.

Far more troubling is the tale of a police officer connected to organized crime, who sees his life crumble when an evil new boss goads him into committing wicked deeds for escalating amounts of cash. Why? Well, basically because that’s what one-dimensionally evil characters do in passion plays such as this, so as to provide sensationally ironic comeuppance for the protagonist’s life of graft. But wait - isn’t that kind of a simplistic ‘moral lesson’ construct? Sure, and I don’t really have a problem with that.

I do, however, have a problem with such a construct serving as skeleton for a critique of a person’s inability to face up to the hand life deals him, complete with smirking jabs at the cheesy manga the main character reads. Yet the episode itself proves no less juvenile, just ‘darker’ and ‘grittier,’ with sweat and rape and desperation, as if such qualities automatically denote maturity. It wasn’t much of a surprise to discover that primary scriptwriter Seishi Minakami previously worked on the anime incarnation of Boogiepop Phantom, which similarly convinced itself of its own import through ‘dark’ posturing (although Paranoia Agent is a generally superior series on every level, mind you).

It gets even worse when the show focuses on a straight-laced female tutor who suffers from multiple personalities - her other self is, naturally, an insatiable prostitute. Will her wedded bliss with her nice professor husband be ruined? Setting aside the episode’s tiresome evocation of the old virgin/whore dichotomy, not to mention its uninspired recycling of suspense tropes from Kon’s Perfect Blue (which itself mainly worked for me because it was firmly coached in giallo genre terms that provided some inter-cultural sparks), it’s remarkably unconvincing as a piece of commentary, mainly because it presents a character that’s literally mentally ill by the terms of the plot, one that’s even seeking treatment, only to have her face the same metaphorical fate as the rest of the cast, some of whom are outright criminals, or at least malicious at heart.

It’s implied that a lack of honesty with her husband is to blame (why, even the wedding ceremony is a fake wedding staged for pretty photographs - THE SICKNESS RUNS DEEP, FOLKS), but why does the show seem to present that as equivalent to the situation of a dirty cop robbing people and raping women? Hell, why does a little girl fleeing a peeping pervert father get smacked with the same bat as the kid who can’t fucking stand his classmates jeering at him? That’s what I mean by stumbling into bogs of moral rigidity - emphasis on the stumbling, since I really don’t think this harsh glare of judgment is so much intentional as a result of not filtering the ideas into something more consistent, despite the show’s wanting to function as a sweeping commentary on Japanese society. The modular thus saps the cumulative.

Yet if there’s one thing that definitely needs to be said about Paranoia Agent, it’s that it gets better as it goes along, especially after it begins to discard its self-seriousness and focus on little, lighter stories, with Shōnen Bat temporarily becoming a Freddy Krueger-type comedic slasher villain, complete with inferred ‘rules’ for driving him away. The show never becomes particularly smooth -- in one episode, it seems to poke fun at gossiping women inserting Shōnen Bat into increasingly ridiculous scenarios, yet depicts him in the very next episode as roughly the same absurd, invincible force of nature -- but it’s far more entertaining.

And while some of the earlier episodes become even more frustrating in hindsight at the show roars toward its all-encompassing, apocalyptic finale, some of the continuing characterizations manage to develop in endearingly bizarre ways. By far the daffiest of the character arcs sees an empathetic detective, capable of entering the mental states of the people he interrogates (a la Kon’s Millennium Actress), transform into a literal superhero, armed with cape & gadgets, jumping around on rooftops at night… the works. But even this is shown to be a delusional escape from reality, as is the nostalgia of another detective for a better, safer, perhaps wholly fictional Japan of years gone by. Kon and company may not be consistant, but they are thoughtful, casting the show's final conflict as a neurotic artist's struggle with projecting her personal demons onto a society that needs hardy reinforcement, not a cutesy sleep tonic and excuses for its failings.

Paranoia Agent ends with a bleak future in store for Japan - even another widespread fit of destruction only results in the same mistakes being made, and the sorry story starting again. Is there any way to break the cycle? If the show means to lead by example, I think it's too mixed up to provide much guiding detail. Instead, it booms only a spiritual wake-up to viewers, along with the physical blast of its catchy opening theme song. And I do believe it’s perfectly fine for art to not provide answers, so long as it states the questions. But there could have been a clearer statement than this.