When the creator of Tokyo Godfathers and Perfect Blue comes out with something new - his first TV series no less - the expectations are very high.
The first volume of Paranoia Agent exceeds those expectations, leaving you bitter that all you can do is replay the DVD, and wait until Jan. 11 to see what happens next.
Satoshi Kon is one of anime's best story-tellers, and his latest creation is bound to keep us enthralled across all 13 episodes; this first volume of Paranoia Agent is so good, it's a lock for many 2004 top ten anime lists.
In the streets of a small Tokyo suburb, people are being attacked. The assailant is described as a middle school-aged kid, wearing golden in-line skates, and wielding a bent, golden baseball bat.
Shonen Bat is his name. You can call him Lil' Slugger.
The attacks at first seem unrelated. The only certain thing the victims have in common is that they all were dealing with a personal crisis before they were beaten.
And when (if) the victims wake up in the hospital, a sense of peace has overcome them.
A boy with delusions of grandeur, a cop that's turned bad, a woman who can't control herself; each character, connected to one another in the most random of ways, has an episode devoted to their personal struggle and their eventual run-in with Lil' Slugger.
Almost without effort, Kon spins each episode as its own standalone story, never forgetting all the characters that have contributed to the tale, but keeping our focus squarely on the latest victim.
What emerges when you finish the first four episodes is a clear and horrible understanding of people that were only footnotes at the beginning. And by the way the first volume of Paranoia Agent ends, you know Kon has only started to hint at what this series is about.
Suspense may be Kon's strongest suit: He lures both the characters and the audience into uneasy contemplation, then ... BAM, hits them with a shadow coming out of the corner, or a frightening noise up ahead. Even if the noise is just an old woman digging through the trash, it's those small moments that force you to keep postponing that bathroom break you've been meaning to take.
The opening animation is a great example of just how creepy Paranoia Agent manages to be. A chaotic, catchy song synchs perfectly with glimpses of the characters we meet. They just appear and disappear quickly in several common settings we see in the series. And laugh. Laugh so hard it hurts to watch. It hurts because of that strange look in their eyes; it hurts because these characters should not be laughing. It's an anime opening that will stick with you for a long time.
These characters are some of the richest and most vibrant concoctions to come along in anime this year. It takes only a few minutes for you to begin loathing that young boy, or feeling for that poor teacher's assistant. Everyone gives the audience a reason to either love or hate them. Sometimes you end up feeling both emotions.
Statements on modern society are placed everywhere in Paranoia Agent, and even after a third viewing, we're sure we missed a few. Some are more obvious than others: The opening scenes of the first episode show nearly every Japanese man, woman and child with a cell phone or text message device, every person absorbed with the mechanical device in front of them. When news of a second Lil' Slugger victim is discussed, the pundits pin the blame on the violence kids see in movies and on TV.
Maybe the greatest thing about Paranoia Agent is that Lil' Slugger is a true unknown for all but two minutes of the first four episodes, and even those two minutes don't shed enough light for anyone to jump to conclusions. Is he a manifestation from an old man who barely survived a car accident? Is he an otherworldly specter, doling out pain to those who deserve it (or merely ask for it)? A contagious disease of some sort? Or is he really only a bored, angry young boy, attacking these people for his own reasons?
You'll have fun finding out.
This isn't a special anime, in terms of visuals. No doubt, studio Madhouse (Gungrave, Texhnolyze) once again laid out a fantastic looking world. But the story and the characters are what carries Paranoia Agent.
If you don't like anime, throw everything you think you know about the genre out the window, and start over with Paranoia Agent. This is a suspenseful, captivating series, a fantastic mix of detective and psychological storytelling, one that can be appreciated by even the worst of cynics.
If you are an anime fan, this series is right up there with Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex as a must-have for 2004-2005.
16:9 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Hope you got a big TV, because this is a great looking DVD. Some minor grain at one point that didn't look like it belonged, but there are several instances when it's used purposefully. The animation and colors rarely venture outside of the real world. The blacks are full and night is scary. The colors are rich and vibrant, and there's hardly anything over the top in terms of color usage....at least nothing that wasn't meant to be funky.
Japanese and English stereo options, with both sounding very good. Excellent music at just the right times and just the right volumes. While the opening music is nuts, the closing music is dreamlike, soft, something you'd expect a preschool teacher to play at nap time. This is a dialogue-driven series most of the time, but when a sound or bit of song is needed, there's little disappointment.
The special features are excellent. Even the menus are eerie and fun to look at. For special features, the options are hidden inside the crazy mathematical chalk equations written by an old man (they're easy to get to, no worries). There's an interview with Satoshi Kon (be sure to watch it AFTER you watch the episodes), and there's outstanding storyboards for the first episode, with an option to watch the storyboards side-by-side with the animation. There are also DVD credits and three Geneon previews.
The previews at the end of each episode are simply strange: An old man appears in exotic locals (a snowy mountaintop, the moon) and spouts odd phrases like "A fish on dry land has trouble when a cow steps on it." Um, yeah. This, and the obvious text error on the back of the DVD box, are the only things that I could find to complain about.
Like a petulant child, I demand volume two of Paranoia Agent NOW. With no qualms, this is Highly Recommended, especially for those who scorn anime. And by the time the fourth and final volume comes out in May 2005, this series may very well be recommended for the DVD Talk Collector Series.
Take note: this is not an anime for kids under 16, with nudity, sex, and violence prevalent, but not overbearing.