A world a person perceives is filtered by their own fantasy and paranoia” – Satoshi Kon

 

From the mind of one of the most lauded creators of Japanese animation, Paranoia Agent is the story of a city terrorized by a string of violent attacks by a juvenile assailant, Shounen Batto (Lil Slugger) who strikes people with his baseball bat. In this anime, we see the impact that this phantom figure has on his victims, the detectives pursuing him, and the society as a whole.

This psychological thriller deals with many distressing themes and is not for the faint-hearted. From eccentric storytelling to Satoshi Kon’s unique animation style, it is definitely a niche. If you do watch it, however, you’ll find yourself enthralled by the deep metaphorical meanings this satire portrays to paint a beautifully complex picture of the society.

Kon said that he had a mountain of unused ideas which could not be developed into a film. He strung these ideas together and used Paranoia Agent as a platform to try them out, not wanting to let them go to waste. This perhaps is why the anime dabbles with seemingly unrelated narrative arcs and an assortment of characters.

Unlike most detective shows, which follow the same basic format in every episode, Satoshi Kon uses various narrative arcs to portray different elements. Most episodes seem like a filler as the story doesn’t come together till the last two or three episodes. Even then, you don’t get a clear explanation for anything. You are simply handed all the pieces to the puzzle. Beyond that, you have to think, observe and think again as you put them all together. It is the perfect example of the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ technique.

As each episode focuses on a different character, there is no clear protagonist. If you watch the anime, do pay close attention to all the characters because each one of them adds to the story. The characters range from school children to police officers to call girls. The idea was to make them as diverse as possible, enabling the audience to relate to at least one character.

If you plan on watching this anime, now would be a good time to stop reading to avoid spoilers. If you have seen it, or if you don’t care about spoilers, read on.

The protagonist of the first episode is Tsukiko Sagi, a character designer well known for creating the mascot, Maromi, a small pink puppy who develops an obsessive fan following. Sagi is under immense pressure to create another character after the success of Maromi. One night, she is walking home from work, stressed and exhausted, when she is suddenly assaulted by a young boy wielding a baseball bat. The only thing known of his appearance is that he wears a baseball cap and a pair of gold inlined skates. Many accuse Sagi of fabricating the ‘assault’ and for a while, her anthropomorphic plushie Maromi is the only one to believe her. However, similar attacks begin to occur all over the city and soon enough, paranoia sets in.

The victims, as diverse they may be, share the same character arc. They all feel stressed and cornered to the point where they wish to fall victim to Shounen Batto. Not long after, they are attacked which leaves them feeling liberated and relieved. One another similarity is how every character has a reality and fantasy running parallel. From simple daydreams to hallucinations, they all interpret their realities in a way that allows them to escape their burdens.

This brings us to the topic of escapism. The portrayal of escapism is a major part of this anime. While the protagonists of each episode are shown to have a personal fantasy, the entire city uses Maromi as an escape. As rumours of Shounen Batto spread terror across the city, the people turn towards Maromi and the show featuring her character.

It is quite interesting to see how Maromi grows both in size and influence along with Shounen Batto. Maromi starts as a simple mascot. We see some plushies, posters, keychains, but nothing too alarming. But slowly, we see how the mascot spreads through the media, its popularity growing day-by-day. The forms in which she appears become larger too. We now see Maromi CDs, pillows, oversized bags. Towards the last episodes, we see gigantic Maromi floats looming ominously over the city. Along the same timeline, we see Shounen Batto starting as a young schoolboy but ultimately being presented as an enormous, grotesque creature.

The climax of the show is when we realize that Shounen Batto does not even exist. He was simply a manifestation of Tsukiko Sagi’s childhood trauma. She was never actually attacked. Her injuries were self-inflicted. The stress of her job led her to imagine the entire assault. Shounen Batto was a figment she created to escape her professional obligations. These figments were, however, picked up by the media and circulated among the people, not unlike Maromi. As mentioned before, after being attacked by Shounen Batto, the victims’ lives would change for the better. Everyone could use him as an excuse to escape the burdens of their daily lives at the cost of a single self-inflicted injury. In the end, it was all just mass hysteria.

 

This entire plot may sound ridiculous and unreal, but it is important to note that there have been similar incidents in real life. Kuchisake-onna is a malicious figure from Japanese folklore. Her mouth is slit from ear to ear and she carries with herself sharp weapons such as a knife, a machete, or a large pair of scissors. In the late ‘70s, however, rumours spread of sightings of Kuchisake-onna. It was believed that she attacked young schoolchildren with a pair of scissors. Even though no such assaults were reported, real-life precautions were taken to protect the children. Police patrols were increased and the children were escorted home from school. An entire community of people grew so obsessed with a fictional creature, that actual, real-life action had to be taken.

Cases of mass hysteria date as far back as the 1600s when the Salem Witch Trials took place. It is truly a surreal phenomenon where entire communities of people fall victim to illusions of threats, both real and imaginary. Paranoia Agent was released at a time when many social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were developing. These platforms transformed the way society consumed information, leading to a lifestyle that could easily facilitate such phenomena.

Paranoia Agent is a poignant and surreal representation of our society where the burdens of our mundane lives prompt us to escape into our fantasies and delusions which are aggrandized with the help of social media. A brilliant anime by a legend of the industry that accurately predicts a future that came to be.

 

– Vrinda Rastogi, Amity International School, Noida

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