This August marks ten years since revered Japanese animator Satoshi Kon passed away, taken by pancreatic cancer at only age 46. Known for mind-bending films like Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Paprika, Kon was not only beloved by animation fans, but also influenced live-action filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan. For more than 12 years, however, his sole television series hasn’t been accessible in the US (unless you could scrounge up an out-of-print DVD or spring for a region-free player). But now that’s finally changed. Paranoia Agent, possibly the peak of Kon’s career, is available to stream for the first time, with a Blu-ray release planned for later this year.
Paranoia Agent is a 13-episode series which first aired in Japan in the spring of 2004. While there is an overarching plot and several central recurring characters, it’s mainly an anthology, with each episode telling its own story. (This offered Kon a way to use various ideas he’d had that he couldn’t flesh out into full features.) In each installment, different characters find themselves under mounting pressure that frays their sense of what’s real and what isn’t — a cartoon character designer can’t come up with a worthy followup to her mega-popular creation, a popular schoolboy suddenly finds himself the target of bullying, a prim teacher clashes with her alternate personality who moonlights as a sex worker, etc. All are headed for an encounter with a mysterious juvenile assailant on roller blades wielding a golden baseball bat, known as Shōnen Bat (literally “Bat Boy,” translated in the English dub as “Lil’ Slugger”). The baffled police investigators on the case eventually have to come to grips with the fact that they’re dealing with something supernatural, all while Shōnen Bat’s legend grows throughout Tokyo, and the number of attacks increase.
Kon is masterful at portraying a sense that something is just off, even in superficially mundane scenes. That works well for Paranoia Agent, which is all about the myriad ways people live double lives, and how they can succumb to the temptation of delusion. Many of his works deal with the interplay between real life and some form of fantasy, often making the two inextricable. In Perfect Blue, an actress being stalked finds her role on a crime show bleeding into her reality; in Paprika, a device that lets people access one another’s dreams makes it increasingly difficult to tell when they are and aren’t awake.
For its part, Paranoia Agent examines mass hysteria, escapism, and how the two are connected. It isn’t long before the show shakes up the formula it establishes in its early episodes. Shōnen Bat is essentially a living urban legend, and the focus gradually shifts from his individual victims to the ways society at large reacts to the fear of him. The episode “ETC,” for instance, is composed entirely of vignettes as a group of women recount outlandish (but still possibly true) rumors they’ve heard about different attacks. “Happy Family Planning” follows a suicidal trio who embrace Shōnen Bat with open arms (to his great alarm).
At the same time, we see people become more and more obsessed with Maromi, the Hello-Kitty-esque cartoon mascot invented by the aforementioned character designer (and, not coincidentally, the first person to encounter Shōnen Bat). Maromi also has her own agency as an embodiment of collective willpower, though in her case it’s escapism instead of fear. Through this plotline, the show scrutinizes the role of cuteness in Japanese culture, critiquing how it can become unhealthy. Occasionally animate, Maromi will talk even to certain characters (carrying herself in a revoltingly adorable manner). She and Shōnen Bat are posited as societal forces apparently in opposition but their relationship is actually symbiotic.
In the same way that Paranoia Agent was a repository for Kon’s scattered ideas, he put all of his usual directing tricks into it as well. While a TV budget meant he couldn’t wildly flex in the same way he loved to in his films, each episode is still a masterfully composed and edited work. (Video essayist Tony Zhou, offers a terrific primer on his singular style here.)
Paranoia Agent is at turns disturbing, darkly humorous, and deeply heartfelt. It exemplifies everything people love about Satoshi Kon’s work, and why fans still miss him so many years after his death. After Geneon, the show’s original US distributor, went belly-up in 2007, it languished for more than a decade. Its return is something to celebrate, even as we continue to mourn him and everything he still had to give.