Before we get started, I should make it clear that I don't really know a single bloody thing about Paranoia Agent, a 13-episode animated series created by the late, sorely missed Kon Satoshi in 2004. And I'm going to attempt to keep it that way, letting each new episode make its own impact without foreknowledge of any sort.
Kon's fourth project as a director, following three feature films (Perfect Blue in 1998, Millennium Actress in 2001, and Tokyo Godfathers in 2003), came about when he found himself with a whole lot of great ideas that he couldn't fit into a cohesive movie. The natural next step was television (for they do things differently in Japan than in other countries, where televised animation - and animation generally - is not typically regarded as the ideal medium for serious artists), though Kon's series was dark enough that it was not shown on any of the country's family-friendly networks when it premiered.
The first episode introduces us to a sprawling mess of characters, eleven according to the gloriously kinetic opening credits sequence, which showcases them each in turn against a backdrop of speeding traffic. Not all of these figures are given equal weight; some barely rate a cameo. Which in turn promises a whole lot of narrative sprawl before all is said and done, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
After the credits, the first scene proper drops us right into the hell of modernity, where several voices are all talking on cellular phones, as people tear ass through the busy city streets without paying even the slightest attention to one another. Right at the starting gate, we find ourselves plunged into a world of high-tech toys and mindless cacophony; the implication seems to be that at the dawn of the 21st Century, we've got more ways than ever to communicate with each other, but arguably less to say.
From there, we start to meet the plot: Sagi Tsukiko (voiced by Noto Mamiko) is sitting in a cubicle, trying to design a new cute character, under the piercing gaze of her last triumph, a floppy pink dog named Maromi.
Maromi is apparently the company's biggest seller, one of Japan's most beloved kawaii, or "cute", characters - your Hello Kittys and the like. Tsukiko is under a lot of pressure to create the next Maromi, but that concern takes a backseat when she encounters a trollish old woman rutting around in the trash one night; running away, she trips and falls, and before she manages to pick herself up, she gets beaten up by someone with a bent baseball bat.
In come detectives Ikari (Iizuka Shozo) and Maniwa (Seki Toshihiko), who manage to get enough out of Tsukiko to determine that her assailant was apparently a boy of around 10 years old. This story becomes a huge media event, enough so that a seedy reporter, Kawazu Akio (Utsumi Kenji), starts to dig in, hoping to sell the story for money enough to stave off an extremely angry creditor, whose father is in something like a coma thanks to Kawazu's recklessness.
Even without knowing where Paranoia Agent is going, "Enter Lil' Slugger" (Lil' Slugger being the Anglicised name of Shōnen Bat, or "Bat Boy", the weird figure who attacks Tsukiko, and then another victim at the very end) has enough density for a whole feature. It's heavy on the doom-and-gloom foreshadowing, particularly in a moment where an ancient old man (Sakachi Ryuji) scrawls a massive equation on the ground: it cannot mean anything good, especially since a wall right in front of him prophesises the arrival of Lil' Slugger.
More immediately, "Enter Lil' Slugger" presents an overall vision of a world on the brink of collapse. From the second we're thrust into that hellish soundscape of meaningless chatter, Kon obviously has it in for the trappings of the modern world, particularly in the twinned stories of Tsukiko and Kawazu, both at the end of their rope for reasons entirely connected to modern pop culture that is presented, with little ambiguity, as shallow and meaningless: she with her endless, unusable sketches for kawaii toys, he with his parasitic reliance on gossip "news".
This is all presented visually using a style that, for want of a better phrase, I'm tempted to call "realistic caricature": almost all of the characters other than Tsukiko have impossible designs, fleshy and often hideous, but bound by the physical limitations of the real world, and acting against a detailed, perfectly workaday series of locations. I wonder - and assume that the rest of the series will answer me - if the cartoon grotesqueness of the characters is meant to reflect the essential grotesqueness of the universe they inhabit: our universe, pushed by just a degree or two.
Even the most "real" character, Tsukiko, has her cartoon-world avatar in the form of a Maromi doll that she carries with her at all times; it is plainly her comfort in time of stress, at one point moving around and talking (though whether this is Tsukiko's hallucination or not is left wholly uncertain), just so that he can promise that everything is all right. The constant emphasis on Maromi (who gets a position of great prominence in the end credits, as the totem around which all of the characters slumber in peace), as well as the constant, shadowy presence of Lil' Slugger, provides a two-pronged attack on complacent culture: the dog toy represents all that is safe and nice and lovable, contrasted with a dark figure of capricious violence. Together, they suggest that too much consumerism dulls the mind with the promise of endless ease; but reality, whether it's as a miserable homeless woman or a phantom mugger, will always put paid to the comforting lie of floppy pink dogs.
At any rate, whatever the world of Paranoia Agent truly stands for, it's a wonderful deep world, captured in elegant lines by Kon and his artists, impossible to turn away from even as it is deeply unsettling and in places off-putting. A brilliant place to set a psychodrama, in other words, even if the scope of that psychodrama can hardly be guessed from the snatches of this first episode.