07 September 2010

PARANOIA AGENT, EPISODE 5: "THE HOLY WARRIOR"

After a whole lot of stories that could, to one degree or another, all be described using the adjective "grim", the fifth episode of Paranoia Agent shakes things up a little bit, feinting towards comedy. It's not exactly a laugh riot, mind you, but "The Holy Warrior" has a definite playfulness and even silliness to it that has not been seen in the series heretofore (and, I'd wager, won't be seen again).

The episode is typical of a certain trope that comes up often in serialised television: the narrative pause. After four whirlwind plots of character development and world-building, the time has come for the series to draw a deep breath, if you will. Thus it is that the story of this episode consists, on the simplest level, of recap: describing the events in the show to this point, albeit from a different perspective.

In the full spirit of things, the episode kicks off with the local gossip: all around Tokyo, people are chattering about the arrest of Lil' Slugger, though to say their conversations verge into the fanciful would be understating it. Though short, and presently overwhelmed by the most stylistically wide-ranging episode of the series yet, this sequence is a potent mixture of content and form: as we hear the gossip, we look at what I can only think of as slightly Impressionistic snapshots of the city - a slightly "off" representation that perhaps represents the curiously exhilarating feeling of elation and disappointment when a mystery gets solved.

The action then picks up seemingly about a day after the conclusion of "A Man's Path" - the kid that Hirukawa arrested is now in the custody of detectives Ikari and Maniwa, bearing no apparent marks from what appeared to be a brutal beating. We find out that he's named Kozuka Makoto, he's an eighth-grader, and he's apparently lost his mind. As he lays out his confession to the detectives, he spins a tale based almost entirely upon the character details found in the strategy guide to a video game RPG; taking that source material as his inspiration, Makoto has concluded that he is the Holy Warrior destined to destroy the Gohma that can take over the body of innocent people.

Ikari is quite certain that the boy is angling for an insanity plea, but Maniwa chooses to humor him, and in a stylistic flourish rather similar in effect to Kon Satoshi's second feature, Millennium Actress, the act of listening to Makoto's story causes the detectives to enter into his deluded, fantastical version of events, taking place in a world that is both wildly unreal and imaginatively hidebound, clearly based with little alteration on the "rocky caves, snow fields, and grassy flat areas" universes of so many video game adventures.

It's been increasingly clear throughout the series to this point that Kon is systematically taking aim at various elements of popular culture, but "The Holy Warrior" represents something of a high water mark: for the first time, the episode itself takes on the aspect of the thing it's critiquing. Makoto's hallucinations - and despite Ikari's cynicism, it's quite hard to assume the boy is altogether bright enough to make this all up - specifically reference video games in every respect: from "Gohma" (a Legend of Zelda beast), to the appearance of turn-based combat selection and character status screens, to Makoto's tendency to hoist his newly acquired items in the air as a fanfare plays (as with all video game parodies, the music also has a distinct Zelda flavor). The commentary isn't subtle: the boy's ability to respond to the real world has been corrupted by the much more godly powers accorded to him in virtual life, and so he casts himself and all of his actions according to the only thing that's ever made him feel like a somebody.

Despite the serious-sounding message, "The Holy Warrior" consistently aims for absurdity rather than the mirthless character study of the series' earlier episodes, mostly centered around the figures of Maniwa and Ikari. They essentially play the Laurel and Hardy roles, respectively: as Maniwa goes further down the rabbit hole, getting more and more entertained by his role in Makoto's delusion, Ikari responds with thin-lipped impatience, in a line reaction shots that never fail to elicit a titter, if not an outright laugh. In this, "The Holy Warrior" rises above the danger of being just a Millennium Actress do-over.

Even the animation does its part to add to the humor: eschewing the realism of the rest of the series, Makoto's fantasy is rendered with the broad movements and simple lines of more juvenile anime than Kon tended to practice. It's a subtle thing, but it adds greatly to the totality with which the episode digs into the crudity of Makoto's dreaming.

In all of this, "The Holy Warrior" simply continues the trend of character studies that the show has been giving us; but there is a strong thread throughout that suggests - and here is why I call it a narrative pause - that we're meant to take stock of the state of Paranoia Agent's mythology at this point, reconsidering what everything means. For Makoto's video game fantasy takes the specific form of a quest to fight the Gohma as it infects each of the victims, who are visualised here as caricatures based on animals - and not just any animals, but the specific animal hidden in each character's name. Kawazu is a tiny, sly frog; Chono Harumi (or rather, her alter-ego Maria) is a princess with butterfly wings (cho is the Japanese for butterfly); Hirukawa, whose name includes the word for "leech", is a giant, bland sluglike creature. Not every character gets that treatment: the oracular old man with his sketches is recast as the sage who always tells the hero where to go next. But it strongly encourages us to take more notice of this trope, and perhaps to start reading more into it.

It's also surely not a coincidence that the one victim that Makoto doesn't mention, and the one character who doesn't confirm the attacker's identity, is none other than Tsukiko, whose beating was the start of the Lil' Slugger affair; and in fact she appears nowhere in "The Holy Warrior", the first episode without her or Maromi. This is telling, and while neither Ikari nor Maniwa takes notice of it, the older, grumpier detective still has his doubts; and the episode ends with a promise that something major is about to happen, thanks to the re-appearance of an almost-forgotten minor character who probably isn't so minor after all. This is another element of the "pause" episode in a serial: to re-assemble all the pieces and give us the tiniest tease of what is to come next. And in that spirit, I must provide a tease of my own, though I don't know what it means: in this episode that does so much to remind us that the characters are in some way inspired by animals, Kozuka Makoto includes the word for "fox" in it - and in Japanese animal folklore, as in so many other countries, the fox is invariably regarded as a sly, wicked trickster.

8 comments:

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I found this one to be somewhat self-indulgent, but I didn't mind, because I also found the fact that the "game" is exactly the same as innumerable RPGs I've played to be pretty darned hilarious. The whole thing reminds me intensely of the way that I sometimes have of endlessly spinning out RPG-flavored gibberish (which I suppose speaks more to the self-imposed narrative limitations of the genre than anything else).

sparrowsabre7 said...

KON TRIVIA A-GO-GO!

Interestingly Ikari has the same voice actor as the interview director in Millennium Actress. Later when we see flashbacks of the character, his youthful self looks a lot like the young Genbu (that was his name? I feel bad for forgetting) which makes me thing it resembles the actor himself in his younger days.


Anyways a weird episode, raising more questions than answers, I haven't yet re-watched this so I'll have to play catch up and add anything I notice later.

Densua said...

Next to the Alice in Wonderland fillers (Ouran, Card Captor Sakura) and the beach holiday fillers (Every Romantic Comedy Ever And Some Shounen), the 'Oh Gosh I'm Stuck In An RPG' fillers are probably the least annoying simply for the fact that they attempt some level of satire. Mind you, I guess in 2004, the world was still reeling from how thoroughly WoW shredded the fabric of society (and probably directly triggered our current global economic woes, if you dig deep enough!!) that this episode might have seemed utterly illuminating. Even so, I prefer Welcome to the NHK's treatment of it, which at least was parody gold.

This is not Kon at his best, and though the animation becomes more stylised - more 'cartoony' - I felt it left the weakest impression. And yes, the animal names element is pretty nifty.

sparrowsabre7 said...

Considering it fills us in on why Makoto attacked those people I'd say it wasn't really filler in the usual sense. (also I liked Haruhi in Wonderland =( )

Tim said...

It sounds to me like, when this is done, I'm going to have to ask for some advice on where to go next. I have no idea what y'all are talking about.

In terms of this episode: since I'm trying to be more descriptive than evaluative here, I didn't really get to come right out and say: it didn't really do much for me. Fluffiness just isn't the right fit for this universe.

Densua said...

Sparrowsabre, it does fill us in, but the presentation for me was overly whimsical and somewhat trite: 'Boy can't tell the difference between reality and the virtual world... woooohhhoooooooo'. That's why I'm wondering if it might be a product of its time i.e. in 2004 (which is 6 years ago, holy crap!!!), when you heard of people neglecting their babies because they immersed themselves in RPGs and young men went around killing supposedly because of violent games, this kind of psychological analysis of a copy-cat criminal might seem novel. These days, I think the gaming industry gets more respect because it's one of the few forms of entertainment still booming.

Tim: if you want a hilarious, touching, sharp drama about a man trying to escape self-destructive nerd behaviour (my terrible attempt to explain hikikomori), try "Welcome to the NHK". Paranoia also happens to be a key theme of the show. Er, wouldn't recommend the others I mentioned unless you feel in need of fluffy pink adventures aimed at (pre-)teen girls - okay, OUTSTANDING fluffy pink adventures aimed at (pre-)teen girls, but still... it won't gain you any respect.

sparrowsabre7 said...

Mm I see what you mean Dens, it's not one of my favourite episodes either, in fact it's less a filler than a disguised recap with all the previous victims showing up.

And I have to agree with Dens, Tim that if you're looking for a worthy follow up to this Ouran is not it XP I loved the series but it's as light as they come. It's also about the pinkest anime I've seen, it does make me laugh though =3.

Kyle said...

I was thoroughly entertained by this episode. While it takes stylistic influence from video games I think it serves to critique our fascination with cultural objects. The previous episode did the same thing, just with a comic book. Hirukawa had become a part of the comic's world and was caught in a contradictory delusion: he is a lecherous person in reality, but he "lives" in the world of the comic and the moral messages that it portrays. Perhaps with both episodes, the writers of the show/manga/whatever were commenting on how we tend to get wrapped up in our stories and distractions without noticing the real world; other characters in the series have their view of reality obscured by other things. Ikari is a firm realist. Maniwa indulges other peoples' individual realities because it leads to information (something which I think makes him a better detective).

Anyway, long story short, I didn't feel like this was a filler, it was more like seeing the story in another character's reality. And they had a little fun with it because it is, after all, a cartoon. I think it's not just about video games, since everyone has their own distraction.

Of course, I'm not done with the series. And I can't read Japanese so I'm missing a lot because the on-screen text isn't translated. But those are my thoughts so far.