I enjoy Satashi Kon.
I enjoy animated series.
I enjoy weird works of fiction.
So, an extremely strange animated series by Satoshi Kon must be the best thing I've ever watched, right?
I would have thought so, but oddly enough... no. And I'm still not sure why.
On paper, Paranoia Agent seems tailor-made to appeal to Christopher King. It is deliberately fantastic and bizarre, nonlinear, nonsensical, a mesh of hallucination that finely layers over events in the real world. When I watched the first episode, I thought, "This could be amazing!"
By the second episode I thought, "This is pretty cool!"
Third episode: "Um, yeah... that's interesting..."
Fourth episode: "I think I'm seeing a pattern here."
Fifth episode: "Is anything ever going to happen?"
And on and on. It's been a while since I've had a drop-off in enjoyment this severe. The really puzzling thing is trying to figure out where it goes wrong. I think that, ultimately, there just isn't enough plot in here to fill six and a half hours. Which does sort of make sense, given the source. I mean, I love Perfect Blue, right? So what would happen if, instead of Perfect Blue being 80 minutes long, it was 390 minutes long? If we were lucky, Kon would have added some compelling sub- and side-plots, further explored certain stages of that movie's madness, and maybe brought other themes into play. If we were not lucky, he would have taken compelling parts of the movie and repeated them in different settings. ("Now we see Mima... in a rape scene. Now we see Mima... ordering an execution. Now we see Mima... in an abuse scene.") He would have filled up the time and created new images, without ever adding to the excellent stuff that was there.
Well, I kind of feel like that's what happened in Paranoia Agent. This could have been an amazing movie. Take the first episode, the ninth, twelfth, and thirteenth; cut out some characters, add some transition, and you have something that would rival Paprika. Instead, the repetition falls flat.
The thing is, I like strangeness, but I want my strangeness to be varied, y'know? If the same bizarre thing keeps happening, it's no longer bizarre. What I loved most about Kon's movies is that I never expected what would happen next. Here, it's all too common.
At least in the beginning. I almost wish I could write this series off as a failure, just because of how much it ended up annoying me, but in episode 8 there is an abrupt twist in the narrative. It is shocking, for the first time since the first episode, and it redeems the series. He ditches the characters we have been shackled to up until now and just... kind of riffs. Eventually, the most interesting characters drift back into the story, while the annoying minor ones stay lost.
From here on out, the second half of the series oscillates between fine and excellent. As with some of my favorite series, they start to play with the art as much as the story, and it is weird and refreshing to see ukiyoe come to life on screen. Kon has broken out of the formula, and can do whole episodes without once cutting to the main protagonists. Still, they aren't superfluous or anything... instead, each episode is a different perspective on the same phenomenon, showing how it is affecting all of Japanese society. There is a great cumulative effect as they join together into a weird chorus of madness.
My favorite character was Radar Man. What a great invention! I can imagine someone creating a whole show around this idea: a man who is both the insider and the outsider, constantly plugged into all human communication as an observer rather than a consumer, sifting through all knowledge in the hopes of gleaning a few pieces of truth.
The music was both super catchy AND super annoying. The opening theme song constantly runs through my head all day long. I would hate it, except for the amazing imagery. It seems like the standard Japanese anime "We will show you all the characters in this show" trope, but the contrast between their cheerfully laughing visages and the scenes of annihilation playing out behind them can send chills down my spine. The ending theme sort of keeps this up... it's a weird happy-creepy hybrid.
What do I think of Shonen Bat himself? I'm sort of torn, specifically what to make of the false lead when they bring in a suspect. There are some interesting metaphysical possibilities suggested in the first five or so episodes: Shonen Bat is in all of us; Shonen Bat is a primal force; Shonen Bat can move from person to person. All of those are kind of obviated once Tsukiko's secret is revealed.
I hesitate to suggest what this series is "about", but here's a stab. On a meta level, it's about the power of imagination. Not in a happy Disney "making a better world" sense. It's about how one person's imagination can direct the thought of an entire nation. In a media-centric consumerist society like ours and Japan's, there are a few messages that get broadcast out and work their way into peoples' lives; from their lives into their minds; from their minds into their morality and actions. Create a Mellow Maromi, and you can infantilize a country. Create a Dexter, and you will empower that dark voice inside us.
Ultimately, I think Shonen Bat represents that dark side of creation. We can all have dark fantasies, but Tsukiko's don't stay inside her head. They make it out into the culture, where they hurt people.
It's an interesting message, and off the top of my head I can't think of another work which offers a similar warning. Which kind of makes sense, since all works of media we consume are created by artists, and it's natural for artists to loudly claim the virtuous mantle of mind-shapers while quietly ignoring the responsibility they have in shaping our discourse. It's a rare message, and one that I think may become all the more urgent as we continue to define our lives by the media we consume.
So, where does this leave us? If you enjoyed "Serial Experiments Lain" you'll likely enjoy this, but I caution you: speaking personally, I find this to be a far lesser work to Lain. If you're up for having your mind challenged and bent, give this a try, and if you find yourself hating the show after a few episodes, try sticking around until episodes 8 or 9. Or even skip ahead to those. If you like them, then you'll probably enjoy the rest of the series; if not, cut your losses while you can.