It is shocking how many Madhouse anime released in the early 2000s. It is safe to say that Madhouse was the powerhouse of studios at this point in time. Acclaimed director Satoshi Kon broke from his usual film media to take part in a short 13 episode psychological thriller called Paranoia Agent. This anime tends to focus on the psyche of Japan in the 21 st century. Paranoia Agent does have a little bit of everything in the tone of social commentaries, which is where the story ends up leading into. It is about how one person’s psychotic break slowly engulfs the world whether it be by the mass media or how another person can use that psychosis in their own lives.
The plot of Paranoia Agent switched between various characters in the show being attacked by an unknown assailant on roller blades with a bent baseball bat. For the shows sake, it always falls back on the two detectives assigned to investigate these attacks, and the first character attacked going by the name Sagi Tsukiko. The assailant based on witness accounts comes to be referred to as “Shounen Bat.” Sagi is a famous character designer under a lot of pressure from her company to create another hit character. One day, on her way home from work she starts to crack under the consuming pressure of her given situation when all of a sudden gets knocked out from Shounen Bat. From that moment on and the next few episodes, multiple different characters experience similar mental breakages in their social situation leading up to their own encounter with Shounen Bat. With each assault more and more strange occurrences happen.
Why does Shounen Bat attack these people? How does he know when these people are cracking under the pressure at that moment? What is known is that when a character is about have their mentality broken, Shounen Bat makes his appearance. No, he does not kill a character. He cracks them upside the skull where the victim ends up in the hospital. The victim all of a sudden feels better, stress free, and convinced that Shounen Bat just made their troubles go away in some form or another.
Immediately this anime resembles comparisons to Perfect Blue. It focuses on the mental state of characters, the setting is realistic, and even appeals to an audience with taste for the psychological genre. However, as soon a real pace gets set, the anime diverts into a nightmare-esc setting and atmosphere. This creates intrigue to the story and anticipation for the next episode.
Unfortunately, what makes Paranoia Agent fall at an incredible speed is the overall presentation to said story. The plot is told from each episode’s main character and their perspective. The audience gets to understand and see the progression of a mental break and the impact it has on the story. However, some of these episodes do not directly affect the plot and the audience does not get any conclusion with some of these characters either. Events are left up to imagination and characters are generally left off in obscure situations. Put it all together and it creates too many questions with an equally confusing story to follow.
What is done well was not Kon’s intent on telling a coherent story like Perfect Blue has, but to provide a conversation on social commentary through an incredibly unique perspective. Each episode seems to have various topic(s) to focus on such as self-victimization, consumerism, and isolation. Also, symbols representing these themes crop up to make each episode unique and interesting no matter if that symbol does not seem to make sense at the time. Examples of this would be the use of how different characters perceive Shounen Bat, the moon, and crows.
The diverse cast of characters is another strength despite the tough plot. Characters ranging from a small elementary boy losing his popularity, to a young woman suffering from multiple personality disorder further iterates the emphasis on psychotic breaks. This toes the line with how the media is constantly depicted throughout Paranoia Agent. This was made in a time before social media, but the result and creativity to how the media can influence daily life remains very much the same if made in modern times.
Animation and character designs are fairly simplistic, and a bit below average for the time. However, in terms of a Madhouse production this is done well compared to other works during this time period. The fact they were able to depict what was going through a characters mind in physical form speaks volumes to their creativity. It falls into the line of Boogiepop Phantom without the atmosphere. The English dub is done pretty well and would have been very good if not for some voice actors dropping out in the middle of the show to be replaced by another actor. This is hardly noticeable though in the long run.
This is not Satoshi Kon’s best work by far, but still manages to create something so synonymous with why anime fans enjoy his stuff. Despite having many faults and an ending being in the realm of WTF Evangelion, it remains a good choice to watch for the psychological genre. It really is a shame there just was too many questions left unanswered.
TL;DR: This is an anime that will not spoon feed the viewer answers, but is much easier to understand then say a Serial Experiments Lain. This was a brilliant story depicting mass media and social commentaries. However, the hard to follow plot from episode to episode remains an issue as some events could have nothing to do with overarching events or the end game.
Recommended Audience: This is for fans of Satoshi Kon’s work and looking for a thinkers anime. It is not for a casual anime fan, but more for the viewer that wants something more than just a simple story. There really is not another anime comparable to this one, and that makes it interesting all in itself.
Paranoia Agent makes for a delusional 3/5