20 September 2010

PARANOIA AGENT, EPISODE 9: "ETC"

Perhaps the oddest episode of Paranoia Agent thus far - and coming hard on the heels of both "MHz" and "Happy Family Planning", we're talking seriously odd - "ETC" is another one of those slow down, take a breath, let the plot idle sort of episodes, with even less to do in terms of the grand plot than "The Holy Warrior" - save for a tossed-off reference (maybe) to Lil' Slugger's appearance in a hotel in "Happy Family Planning", there is absolutely no narrative thread connecting this episode to the eight preceding it, not even a cameo by the ubiquitous Maromi. In fact, the content of "ETC" mostly seems to be false even in relationship to itself: not only doesn't it "matter" to the show, it doesn't "matter" in the very moment it is communicated to us. Yet, much as the last episode did, it treats on the greater society in which the series unfolds, telling us much about the kind of world in which Lil' Slugger thrives, and the impact of this wandering, unfocused 24 minutes is infinitely greater than its "meaning".

Internet chatrooms; video games; kawaii branding; so far, everything that has fallen under Kon Satoshi's satiric eye in Paranoia Agent is hyper-modern, but in "ETC" he turns to something much, much older: the uninformed prattle of gossiping housewives. The framework narrative of the episode follows four women, three old friends and Kamohara, a relative new resident in their apartment complex. This collection of individuals is so conspicuously anonymous that they don't even get real names or personalities, and save for some details of Kamohara's home life (she's married to a screenwriter), no backstories. We caught a glimpse of them all the way back in the first episode, but other than that, they might as well not even exist. This sounds like a complaint, I realise, but in foregrounding such uninteresting characters after what amount to eight densely-packed character studies, it's both a nice change of pace, and a clear indication that we're meant to take the content of the episode as archetypal: conversations like the one we witness in "ETC" are going on all over the city, presumably.

The four women are talking about Lil' Slugger: each of them has at least one story that happened to a friend's brother's co-worker, that sort of thing, and the whole episode consists of nothing but vignettes:

-A teenage boy, having studied for an important math test, finds himself sneezing and vomiting out his knowledge in the form of little black words, and as he panics, Lil' Slugger assaults him in the bathroom. Some time later, he commits suicide.

-A henpecked daughter-in-law is prepared to beat her mother-in-law, but Lil' Slugger appears at the front door, and mistakenly kills the old woman himself.

-A young man tries to keep his lover alive by painting a leaf on the tree opposite her window - when the last leaf falls, she expects to die - but just as he finishes, he sees Lil' Slugger standing over her dead body, and he slips and falls to his death.

-A mob boss wants to hire Lil' Slugger as an enforcer, and terrorises his underling in an attempt to make the phantom show up.

And several other things along in that vein. The three older women are content to swap stories with abandon, but every time poor Kamohara tries to add her two cents, the others mock her for the patently absurd lies she's peddling. This despite the fact that her stories are neither more nor less impossible than the ones they're telling (the very first story we hear is of the young man spitting up his knowledge - from that point on, we can hardly take any of this seriously at all). More to the point, the old women likely know that their gossip is so much hot wind, and don't care, and it's Kamohara's desperate attempts to fit in that repel them, not the quality of her stories per se. Which adds even more of a pathetic tinge to the Twilght Zone-esque final moments of the episode, in which Kamohara finally gets her chance to impress the others.

Above and beyond whatever it has to say about these four women, "ETC" is a cockeyed, cynical look at the way that people tend to bask in the reflected light of the news. "Oh, I know about that!" - it's the cry of anyone who wants to look smarter and cooler and better than everyone else, trying madly to win in the constant game of one-upping everyone else. The precise nature of the episode makes it all about the tired gossip of bored people, but it's easy enough to apply it outwards to anyone who would rather make the news about what they know than about what's happening in the world. It's an entirely sour worldview, but do we expect anything other than sourness out of Paranoia Agent by this point?

Visually, the episode is a mixed bag, which I mean in the nicest possible way: as each of the women tells each story, the style of animation changes dramatically: some of it extremely detailed, to the point of grotesqueness, and some of it done in the glossy, round-eyed style typical of "pop" anime; from lots of motion-lines in the style of "action" cartoons, to desaturated, dirty images that look uncannily like '70s film stock done as animation.

If one thing connects all of these styles, it is a commitment to leaving the viewer feeling off-kilter and uneasy: as Paranoia Agent shifts ever more fully into the world of psychological horror, it's more and more the case that even the simplest image can be fraught with tension, and the images that aren't as simple, such as the constant, repeated sight of Lil' Slugger leering right into the camera with a killer's smile, are bone-chilling.

"ETC" does virtually nothing other than set a mood, but it does this so damn well that I, for one, never noticed that it's nothing more than wheel-spinning. As a quick snapshot of where Paranoia Agent finds itself running into the last third of episodes, it's a perfect embodiment of all the feeling of universal wrongness that has made all the series to this point such a sick kick, and a promise that the things to come will not let up in one tiny degree on the bleached-out weariness of the series. Quite the contrary.

8 comments:

sparrowsabre7 said...

KON TRIVIA A GO GO!

The gossiping wives (save the outsider one) are all from Tokyo Godfathers design wise.

Alos you'd be surprised how relevant this episode is in view of the later episodes. It's still indirectly relevant but certainly builds upon themes already established.


Also is it just me, or does anyone else instinctively jerk their heads to the right whenever Slugger's trademark strike is shown on screen. I did it once just for a a laugh and now it seems to be reflexive o.O

I think it's also interesting how in this episode almost none of the clips involve Slugger actually hitting anyone save in the mother-in-law clip and implied in the old fashioned style (which I thought was awesome, I wish the other clips had been just as experimental style wise) politician clip.

Still not sure I get the rocket one, does the rocket malfunction on its own, randomly spelling "I love you" and Slugger says "thanks for calling" since he's going to 'release' all of the ground crew? I'd welcome other interpretations.

TIll next time,

yasuminayo, yasuminayo, yasuminayo, yasuminayo...

Densua said...

Of all the stories shown here, the romantic one with the painted leaf and the nasty mother-in-law one were my favourite. The first one had me laughing - mainly because it so perfectly satirises overly poetic romantic shows (put me in mind of KyoAni or Makoto Shinkai works). I don't watch that much romance precisely for those reasons so appreciated the unceremonious interruption of Shounen Bat. Oh the chuckles! The mother-in-law one was also dark comedy gold. Kon was a comedian at heart, I just know it. It's why Tokyo Godfathers is my favourite of his, and why...

...Episode 10 is my new favourite. Cannot wait to read your comments on that one.

sparrowsabre7 said...

Episode 10 rules. And that story is actually a parody of "The Last Leaf" by William Sydney Poter/ O Henry, which is why the fourth housewife says "that's a famous..." (credit to Satoshi Kon the Illusionist by Andrew Osmond for that tidbit)

I really like the baseball one, just because of the straightman comedy that comes from the commentators "it's heartening to see a rookie receive such support from his teammates" XD. And you're right, I think Kon was a comedian at heart, it certainly comes through in many of the quotes in The Illusionist.

sparrowsabre7 said...

also that mother-in-law totally deserved it

sparrowsabre7 said...

It's quite interesting how Paranoia Agent sets up its story in mini-arcs in a way. Eps 1-4 are all individual character study episodes, 5-7 focus on the progression of the investigation 8-10 are somewhat unrelated to the series besides thematically, giving us a view of the world outside of the previously established characters, often tangential in nature and then the final 3 acting as a closing arc.

Tim said...

I haven't mentioned lately (because I haven't been posting these lately), but Sparrowsabre, you are an absolute treasure. It's gotten to the point where the extra detail you bring to every episode is making me lazy - "What the hell, anything I miss, Sparrosabre will mention for me."

I think you two are 100% spot-on with the comments about Kon's dark, dark sense of humor, which was stronger here than I think I've seen it in anything else he's done.

sparrowsabre7 said...

Oh you! *blushes* =P I just really love Kon's work and since his death, anything I can do to help spread his genius is just a treat to do. It's great to have a place to discuss Paranoia Agent too, because it's definitely the one of his works that merits the most discussion.

Kon is literally the only director who's captured my attention so thoroughly as to actively want to seek out everything he's done. I bought The Illusionist to help add to my knowledge and the audio commentraies are great too, though they tend to be more about production and so on than the themes. THough one of my favourite things about it was his discussion of the OP and ED (I may have mentioned it before) but how all this marvellous imagery that everyone tries to read into and he just light-heartedly says "It doesn't really have a meaning, it was just on late at night so I felt the opnening should say WAKE UP and the ending; go to sleep" that honesty and sense of humour is something that I truly love about Kon. He was such a humble man and I'll sorely miss his talent =(

Also, don't rely on me too much for the next few eps, I'm no critic and the next few eps ramp up the mind screw a good deal. I've only just sorted ep 10 in my head upon most recent viewing and even that's up to interpretation. But don't worry I have plenty more trivia in thecoming episodes, I suspect I'll have an essays worth on the last ep XD

Shayne O said...

I actually thought this was a really important episode, because it seems to be about how Lil' Slugger, who seems so far to be not quite corporeal's power over society arises from the *myth* of him, rather than the reality. And for a myth, it needn't be true. Most of these tales are supposed to be invented , things that dont seem to be quite true but serve as tounge waggling exercises for the chattering protagonists. Except for the young lady whos lil slugger stories are met with disaproval (apparently because her husband is a script writer, or because she's young , I'm not entirely sure).

But the twist at the end ties it all together. Lil' sluggers powers of society are almost entirely mythical, but his power over those he targets? Maybe not so mythical, but at this point in the story whats mythical and whats real are just not so clear anymore.

I thought it was a very important episode.