31 August 2010

PARANOIA AGENT, EPISODE 2: "THE GOLDEN SHOES"

The second episode of Paranoia Agent shifts gears entirely, both in terms of the story's focus and the structure (it's easy to suspect that this is going to be the case fairly consistently). In the aftermath of the mysterious Lil' Slugger's second attack, on venal, froglike paparazzo Kawazu, Tokyo is buzzing with questions about the spate of beatings, but none of that particularly matters to Taira Yuichi (Yamaguchi Mayumi), the most popular boy in his sixth-grade class. Nicknamed "Ichi" (something like "No. 1") because he's so damn good at everything, the boy becomes the target of great suspicion when more and more details come out about Lil' Slugger, and all of it matches up to Ichi - particularly the unlikely fact that they both have golden roller blades. Suddenly the subject of ridicule for the first time ever, his fragile ego can't take it, and he makes the quiet, pudgy new student Ushiyama Shogo (Tsumura Makoto) his scapegoat, assuming that it's all an elaborate plot to win Ushiyama the class council spot that Ichi thought himself destined for.

Where "Enter Lil' Slugger" was a fairly straight-up whodunnit, "The Golden Shoes" plunges us into the mind of a fragmenting personality, the first time that the "paranoia" part of Paranoia Agent makes itself known. Almost the whole story is told in Ichi's voiceover, moving from the bold confidence of the early scenes, when he's at the top of his game, to sheer desperation at the end, when he's lost seemingly everything. Ostensibly a story of how Lil' Slugger is affecting people all over Tokyo, "The Golden Shoes" is much more a merciless plumbing of egocentrism. At first, Ichi seems like a nice enough guy, but even before he starts to lose his grip on reality, we've seen through him: he's arrogant and smug and entitled, given to self-aggrandizing fantasies that present him in all manner of flattering surroundings (the deliberately limited and repetitive animation does a good job of emphasising the particular hollowness of Ichi's imagination).

Like all people whose self-rewarding fantasy lives are much happier than reality, Ichi simply can't deal with the loss of prestige that comes from being accused of a crime that he didn't commit, and "The Golden Shoes" is mostly a document of how that drives him mad. Literally mad - like I said, he's driven quite to paranoia, and if his fantasies are typically soft-focus representations of the real world, then his delusions of persecution are rather more discomfiting and stylised. All grotesque lines and shifting perspectives, the suggestion is almost that he's going paranoid - and if he's not actually Lil' Slugger, he certainly has enough of a dark side that he could be. Late in the story, he almost seems to summon Lil' Slugger, in fact, twice: once as the vehicle of his rage, and once... it's hard to say exactly what happens in those final minutes, frankly, though I imagine it will be at least a touch clearer later on. All I know is that whatever happens to Ichi in the concluding moments of "The Golden Shoes", the sight of a boy's mind snapping like that is more terrifying than any bat-wielding vigilante could be.

Once again, Kon Satoshi is making an apparent critique of modern living: replacing the first episode's attack on pop culture ephemera with a much more serious criticism of the swaggering entitlement issues that plague a number of post-industrial nations. Ichi's arrogance is deep and ingrained: we all know someone just like him, someone who spent his entirely life being catered to and has no concept of other people except in how they do or do not further his own ambition. Kon is a wise enough filmmaker to give the character enough of a human element that we both understand and pity him; but at the same time, it's next to impossible to actually like him. Either way, the idea of someone being so self-absorbed that the implosion of their ego would push them into a schizophrenic fit, now that's pretty grim and probably unrealistic, but it's already clear that Paranoia Agent is a fable of the 21st Century, not a documentary.

Of course, it's also a mystery story, and if "The Golden Shoes" doesn't give us any more real hints about who or what is Lil' Slugger, it offers tantalising hints of what's going on in the world that's being revealed so slowly. First, it was only now clear to me that the old man's curious vision at the end of "Enter Lil' Slugger" was actually a weird, poetic way of giving us the preview for the next episode, but the choice of couching it in the form of a character within the show has to be telling: we can already see that he's some kind of seer, given that he's added to his massive equation to incorporate a reference to Ichi.

Moreover, the only two moments in the episode that aren't directly related to the boy both involve Tsukiko, and what little we learn about her confirms what was mostly obvious already: she's not altogether "there". Questioned by the detectives, she barely seems to register their presence, leading an exasperated Ikari to ask her Maromi doll if he knows anything. This coy moment is sickly parodied later on, when Tsukiko wonders if she has anything to do with the latest Lil' Slugger attack, and Maromi - now walking and talking again - assures her in terribly urgent language that she has absolutely no guilt, and it has nothing to do with That Other Time. It's still not at all clear if Tsukiko is hallucinating Maromi, or if something much more peculiar is going on; but it's already turning into one of the most compelling mysteries of the show.

All in all, "The Golden Shoes" finds Kon testing his series' flexibility in generally rewarding ways: if not as dramatically "grabby" as the first episode, it's arguably more self-contained and thematically resonant, while still building on the idea of society at the brink of disorder (the opening of episode one is mirrored by a scene in which a classroom full of children all start to get phone calls at the same moment, their ringtones competing in a symphony of disharmony; and then later in a moment when Ichi's internal monologue turns into a howl of incoherent raging). By showing how far the world extends beyond the base of characters we saw in the first episode, Kon raises the stakes considerably, making the question of Lil' Slugger's meaning and motivations apply to a whole society, which is even more compelling now than I gave it credit for.

8 comments:

Densua said...

By Jove, I love Yuichi. A more obnoxious child I have never known. I don't know why, but calculating snobs sliding oh-so-obviously into dementia have a tendency to win me over just through sheer force of personality. He's like this little precursor to Light Yagami - another character who gave me plenty of 'lulz' - only more puerile.

Now, food for thought of the day:

Looking at the title, 'Paranoia Agent' seemingly has a double meaning. Even as Shonen Bat triggers suspicion and mayem i.e. paranoia among the general public, he only targets those who are experiencing immense pressure and fear i.e. paranoia in their own lives. I suspect Shonen Bat is meant to be a sort of perverse hero, an exactor of peace of mind through bludgeoning. Nothing clears your head like a good whack, right? Or, at the least, it puts you in a coma so you forget all your problems - haha. Just some food for thought.

PS. 'Ichi' literally means 'one'. So, like we'd count 'one, two, three', the Japanese count 'ichi, ni, san' etc. Thanks, wikipedia!

sparrowsabre7 said...

From you comment last time I suspected that you'd seen the whole series Densua, but from this t sounds like you're watching along too =). You and Tim are both in for a treat.

And while I agree at this stage Shonen Bat seems like a kind of hero, you'll see it's not so cut and dried as that. One of the most telling things about the series came from a Kon interview on the dvd about why he chose the title. At the time I hadn't finished the series so it didn't gel with my personal understanding of Paranoia Agent, but once it comes to a close it really makes a lot of sense.

As much of a narcissistic and unpleasant person Ichi is, I did feel bad for him when no one showed to his birthday =/ and just so you don't agonise over it, it's never revealed who took the pictures of Ichi hitting Ushi, though I have a theory about it which I shan't digress at this stage since it's based on things in later episodes.

Something worth noting: to fully understand the previews it's best to know the meanings of the characters names.

I wouldn't advise wikipedia since it's spoilerific, especially with regards to an alternate interpretation of Tsukiko's surname, so don't look that up =P. So I'll try and stay a step ahead to inform you of their names so you get the full message of the previews. Most of them are associated with an animal of some kind whether direct translation or wordplay, for example Sagi (Tsukiko's surname) is a type of bird, Ushi is a cow, Kawazu is frog, Taira (Yuichi's surname) means fish, hence the ep 2 preview talking about a "fish out of water being stepped on by a cow".

So the character in the next ep is represented in her name by a butterfly, for reasons that will become evident quickly, I think ep 3 is possibly one of my favourite in the series, with a lot of undertones similar to perfect blue in a way.

sparrowsabre7 said...

heh, something I just noticed, after throwing his skates away ichi's face reddens and he looks like he's about to cry in almost the same way Tsukiko did before being attacked by Shonen Bat.

I also wanted to note that I love Kon's direction in the scene where Ushi's hit when Shonen Bat glides past Ichi silently.

Densua said...

Sparrowsabre,

Excellent commentary. And yes, I do LOVE that moment when Shonen Bat just whizzes past Ichi. I can't quite describe the feeling, but it's sort of like 'Woah, that's some awesome timing, Mr. Kon!'

And yes, I have watched this show before, but I am also rewatching and rediscovering it in much more detail. The last time, I could make neither heads nor tails of some of its obvious mysteries (still waiting to ask my REAL burning question) and so I resigned myself to just enjoying the bizarre personal lives of the characters. This time round, I want to savour the nuances, which is why it's all the more fantastic to have people to discuss it with.

genkinahito said...

I also felt sorry for Ichi at his birthday party but he kept digging himself into

Nice heads-up with the names Sparrow. Ushi does indeed mean cow in Japanese. The bit where Ushi gets clobbered was well directed and made me smile due to Yuichi's fantasy but it pulled my heart strings because Ushi was such a thoroughly decent chap.


The directing was brilliant. The whole episode managed to evoke that adolescent fear of falling out of popularity in school but when Yuichi's world view became so visually warped it was truly menacing and made his final relief all the more chilling.

Tim said...

Great comments all around. And special thanks to Sparrowsabre for that note about character names - it's great to have a couple of vets around to help out with the incredible density of this show. And by God, it's just about the densest television that I think I've ever seen.

ilmaestro said...

"the first time that the "paranoia" part of Paranoia Agent makes itself known"

I have to disagree with this. It might be because I've seen the rest of the show (but I don't think it is, otherwise I wouldn't want to risk this sounding like a spoiler), but more because the word "mousou" in the Japanese title isn't strictly limited to what we would consider "paranoia" - delusions such as, say, seeing a pink cuddly toy walking around and talking to you would also fall under this definition (I don't think there has been anything within the context of the show to suggest a genuine fantasy setting with sentient toys).

You could also go back to some of the sentiments expressed in the snatches of mobile phone conversations at the very beginning of the series and see the "paranoia" (as this show would consider it) in them, and possibly even in the anxious nature of Tsukiko's boss. The theme pervades virtually every moment of the series, imo.

Apart from that, I love your analysis of the episode and Yuichi's character.

sparrowsabre7 said...

Ilmae that's really interesting to know, because it tallies with a Kon interview on the DVD where he was describing the premise of the show and it didn't really sounds like what I thought of paranoia as being. This info you've given me makes it all fit in better. THanks =D