12 September 2010

PARANOIA AGENT, EPISODE 8: "HAPPY FAMILY PLANNING"

The eighth episode of Paranoia Agent, "Happy Family Planning", is weird. Weird in a way that beggars the very word "weird" - I don't think English has a proper way to describe how massively peculiar, in a (of course) disturbing way, this story is, nor the way it is presented. However, Paranoia Agent has consistently thrived on breaking rules and bending expectations, by which count "Happy Family Planning" is simply par for the course.

Still: "par for the course" doesn't feel exactly right, not for a story about an internet suicide cult and their wacky misadventures in trying to kill themselves, replete with "wokka-wokka" music cues. Structured as a slapstick-heavy farce, "Happy Family Planning" is in every important structural way a comedy, except for the categorically important fact that it is not in the remotest degree "funny".

Indeed, it opens with a series of abstract shots of a person walking across the street that's rather more unnerving than anything else, especially because the man walking is wearing a Maromi backpack, whose dead-eyed gaze (his googly eyes shift about as the man moves) is one of the most unlikable expressions that this wholly creepy character has worn yet. In case I haven't mentioned, Maromi gives me the goddamn willies.

This individual is an old fellow we'll only know as Fuyubachi (Kawakubo Kiyoshi), though his identity is pretty easy to guess: in fact, he is 18th Century inventor and political philosopher Benjamin Franklin.

His friends are Zebra (Matsumoto Yasunori) and Kamome (Tominaga Miina), respectively a pleasant, somewhat awkward young man, and a hyper-enthusiastic young girl. And for 24 minutes, we get to watch as they try to kill themselves.

There are hints here and there as to why they've been driven to this extreme. Fuyubachi is suffering from a disease of some manner or another, and it appears to be the kind that you don't get better from; Zebra, as we learn from a brief cutaway shot late in the episode, is suffering from a very particular sort of lost love that is often associated with suicide amongst the morally conservative. Kamome, it's impossible to make out: a bubbly little thing who is all smiles and laughter, she's hardly wracked with the kinds of depression and hopelessness we usually associate with the suicidal - and yet, of the three, she's the one who is most urgent about it, eager to die with that all-encompassing eagerness found only in the Japanese schoolgirl. If this were a polemic about the rise of internet suicide pacts (a bizarre cultural phenomenon found elsewhere in the world, but reaching the levels of "a definite problem" in Japan, if not probably "an epidemic"), I'd say that Kamome is the sort of guileless innocent who thinks that anything on the web is totes awesome, sucked into a vortex of self-destruction because she doesn't know better.

But "Happy Family Planning" isn't a polemic: unlike "The Holy Warrior", which is clearly About gaming culture, or even "A Man's Path" which is about the idea of masculinity presented in old-school gangster fiction, it doesn't really say much about the internet as such. That these characters want to kill themselves because of their time on a chatroom is taken as given, and the episode itself is mostly a study of their character. And hijinks. Mustn't forget the hijinks.

For "Happy Family Planning" could be nothing more than another entry in the Paranoia Agent Depression Olympics - following "Fear of a Direct Hit", with its pedophilia, and "MHz", with its overall sense of moral rot, and its skin-tingling sound design, it wouldn't have been unexpected for an episode about a suicide pact to be the darkest one yet. And while it's massively disturbing, it's not "dark".

The trick about the episode is that it forces us to agree with the three suicideketeers without our even realising we have a choice. For the basic mode of the episode is the farcical error: throughout the whole piece, as Fuyubachi, Zebra, and Kamome fail to jump in front of a train, or to hang themselves, or to suffocate on exhaust, it's always presented with the same tone of "woops! haha, oh that Kevin James is so silly", and while I'm hard-pressed to imagine anyone in the audience actually laughing as hard as the show seems to expect that we are, this is the very point: it is presented from the emotional perspective of someone like one of the protagonists, who is so detached from life that suicide, like anything else worth doing, is just plain funny when you do it wrong. The episode itself thinks so little of life that it doesn't understand why, for example, it's not funny to use clowning-around music to accompany an image like this:

We see it as ironic, but the episode, symptomatic of a broken world in which suicide pacts are just a thing, doesn't have a hint of irony about it. Zebra's failure to hang himself has the same moral status as if he'd accidentally turned on a blender with the lid off, splashing himself with a smoothie. In the end, it's creepier than a more straightforward presentation of the same material, if anything.

Oh, and the ending. I won't give away the ending, except to say: Fuck me. We figure it out before the characters do, but still, it's eerie (and probably explains in part why the episode seems to devalue life so much).

"Happy Family Planning" takes place almost entirely outside the Paranoia Agent plotline: the three central characters used to chat online with someone who was almost certainly the now-deceased Kozuka Makoto, under the name "Fox", and at one point they see Lil' Slugger - who is, it would seem the Kozuka-Slugger, not the "actual" slugger - pursuing him in the joyful hope that he'll club them all to death (and of course that creepy fucker Maromi is all over the place). It does nothing that we can see right now to advance the plot of the series - but it is an exemplary entry in the series anyway, for its massive dysfunctional view of the world is the sort of story that might be told by someone living within the Paranoia Agent universe. That is to say, it is a story told from "inside" that universe, rather than "about" that universe, and it confirms the obvious: inside the Paranoia Agent is a powerfully uncomfortable place to be.

16 comments:

sparrowsabre7 said...

This is the episode I've wanted to talk about the most for so many reasons.

I'm not sure why you think it's the Kozuka slugger, especially since the 3 of them outright state that he was killed by the Slugger and the fact that aside from Hirukawa and Ushi he didn't attack anyone and was since imprisoned until his death.

I assume you thought it was Kozuka because it fled from the trio but, think about it this way, no one else can see the three of them. I also think that the fact they wanted to die was another reason to drive him off. He attacks cornered people yes, but while they were cornered they were also actively looking for release, the previous victims weren't wanting to be attacked and killed. If you ever read a book like Whizziwig you'll get what I mean. He attacks those who sort of think without really meaning to "I want a way out!" rather than an active wish to die.

Ok for other things, I think that Fuyubachi's reason to die also has something to do with the "Sayo" he mentions in his sleep, a dead wife perhaps. As for Kamome, I feel the final shot is most important "happy family planning - extra thin condoms" that's surely no coincidence, I assume she's an unwanted child, perhaps left in an orphanage/ foster care most of her life hence the "don't leave me alone!" line. Of course this is all conjecture and this ep is the most obscure and least forthcoming with bonafide answers.

ANother thing I think worth noting is the cameo "appearance" of 'Horse' if you remember which character was associated with a horse it ties in very well with the previous episode.

I find it pretty humourous that PA's most light-hearted episode (save for perhaps Holy Warrior) revolves around 3 people wanting to commit suicide. It's a dark ironic humour totally befitting paranoia agent.

Also why does NO ONE but me seem to notice the massive drop in animation quality this ep? All the detail falls off and especially that shot with Kamome crying is absolutely dire =/ Why this was done I have no idea as no other ep suffers from such a change.

Tim said...

I actually did notice the animation quality changed, I assumed that, like "The Holy Warrior", it was a stylistic choice to reflect the zaniness of the plot. Not that it's a terrible good reason...

Also, my feelings about it being the Kozuka Slugger is precisely because he is dead, and they've already seen dead people, and if I'm reading the ending right, they've been dead all along. But as you point out, it's a particularly difficult episode to decipher.

I have forgotten who "Horse" was! Though I'm not surprised it was someone, given how much it was emphasised. Who was it?

sparrowsabre7 said...

Hmm that's actually an excellent theory, but wrong I'm afraid.

There is a way to tell when they die. It's the absence of a shadow which happens after the crane comes into the building. From that point on they're dead. Slugger isn't dead because he has a shadow. Though of course he's not quite human either.

Horse was (you'll kick yourself when you hear =P) Maniwa. Ties in neatly with his radio dealings no?

And yeah a change in style would've made sense for that reason but in quality it just seems odd =/ maybe to make the suuicde scenes more removed from reality. Who knows.

Densua said...

"Fuck me. We figure it out before the characters do" - Oh Tim, WRONG! Because I didn't! For a long time, anwyay.

The first time I watched this episode (a couple of years ago, mind you), I thought it was another idiotic filler like episode 5 and dismissed it entirely from memory. The second time, I watched for the purpose of this discussion and noticed the connection of 'Fox' with the fake Shounen Bat. But something kept nagging at me, the way the old man goes a bit mental towards the end, the photography scene - I just didn't get it. So I watched a third time, thinking 'Yeah, Kon never explains how they survived taking all those pills and inhaling carbon monoxide at the start'. And then as the old man flipped out once more it all clicked. In one instant, a seemingly obscure and barely amusing episode turned out to be one of the cleverest in the series. I feel quite stupid.

I'll admit, suicide has rarely been so witty (I didn't laugh, but I smiled a lot). From the snappily-timed popping of pills to the train death. There's something Laurel & Hardy about people desperately trying to die but failing miserably because they are just THAT inept. On the other hand, Kon did a very un-Kon-like thing and created an annoying female protagonist in Kamome. Her need to name obvious things several times ('[Mountain! Mountain! Mountain! Field! Field! Field!') got old very quickly.

Also, I suppose that explains why Shounen Bat killed Fox i.e. Fake Shounen Bat, when all his other victims survived. It's because Fake Shounen Bat wanted to die.

Finally, I'm sure the point of death is the carbon monoxide/pills, and I did notice the drop in quality but figured it was also suitable, so not necessarily worth critiicising.

sparrowsabre7 said...

No I don't think it's the pills, I think it's the digger thing demolishing the building with them still in it. Note how they're laid out after on the ground, not unlike the way corpes are after they've been pulled from a wreck or something.

brian said...

Hi
nice analysis.I just thought id add that it seems then end credits scene, where the characters lie asleep or dead around the maromi...they form a question mark!

Brian

brian said...

heres the ending:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5LKs6LlsPQ

lets see who can see the '?'

brian said...

Theres no drop in animation quality...there IS a change in animation style...just as you can see in later episodes.

Daniel Silberberg said...

@sparrowsabre7: I think if they had been killed by the crane, their dead manifestations should have looked a lot more beat up. Remember how the guy looked who got hit by the train? He could barely walk, and was all bloody. They didn't even get their clothes dirty! It seems more likely they were killed in a way that didn't show physical signs, like poisoning.

sparrowsabre7 said...

Good point. I guess that's just when their bodies were discovered then. Either way the fact it cuts straight from them seeing the crane to them being laid out on the pavement is quite telling.

Allari Ruiz said...

The picture scene is one of the best twist endings i have seen in quite a while, genius work no dousbt!

Bocca said...

To everyone,

after watching the episode, i can say for sure that all the characters are dead before the episode for one simple detail : the shadows.
You will see that none of the characters have any shadow contrarily to the living people, and this is clearly visible. Amazing episode.

Dezzy said...

They did have shadows. The last shadow I saw was on Zebra while he was popping sleeping pills in the abandoned building. You can see the shadow of his arms. After they got out of there the shadows were gone. This has to be the best episode in the series. Hands down.

Sam F said...

What if the little girl was already dead, that's why she wanted them to kill themselves. It also explains how she was able to appear randomly in the abandoned building, it also explains why she "doesn't want to be alone". Also the reason why she says she doesn't want to be left behind could mean that when she died her parents moved away or possibly her ans her parents died and her parents spirits moved on but she was left behind.

Sebastian JVW said...

Sam F: Actually, you can see her shadow for a split second near the start, at 3:38/39, right after she calls out "Wait for me!". Of course, given that that's the only time you can see it AFAIK, it's possible it was an animation goof and that you're right, but I doubt it.

有依 said...

I agree that the title and last scene with the condoms are hints as to why kamome might want to kill herself: she's an unwanted child. Also has anybody else noticed that she bears a striking resemblance to chihiro in spirited away (who also had rather cold parents)?
I actually thought the flat animation quality was a fantastic decision, kamome crying was hilarious. Great episode.