TV review: Paranoia Agent (2004)

One of the best tv shows that I’ve seen in a long time has just finished its run. No, I’m not talking about Six Feet Under, though that was an amazing and sometimes brilliant show (and it had a fantastic final episode). Instead I’m talking about the amazing cartoon import from Japan called Paranoia Agent. Paranoia Agent is an astonishing journey: an impressionistic, brooding series of character studies that present a view of modern Japanese life that we in America seldom if ever see. It’s a completely unique TV show. I’ve honestly never seen a show, cartoon or live action, that so effortlessly mixes the interior and exterior for characters, where surrealism and hyper-realism blend together to create a portrait of how people really live their lives, partially in the real world and partially in their own personal worlds.
The central concept of Paranoia Agent is that there’s a young boy on gold roller skates randomly attacking strangers. The boy rapidly gains the nickname "Li’l Slugger" and becomes a cause celebre throughout the country. If the show had stayed on that level, as a satire and indictment of the way that media sensationalizes violence, or a meditation on violence in modern society, the show would have been terrific. But those are only two aspects of the show. As the show goes on, it seems that Li’l Slugger is a transcendent, supernatural element that embodies the angst and stress that so many people feel in modern society. There’s an outstanding episode centering around an anime studio where that idea is explored in eerie depth.
And just as viewers are getting used to that idea, a whole additional level of depth is added to the series. Is Li’l Slugger a manifestation of the complex past of a young woman who has created a hot new cartoon character called Maromi? Are Maromi and Li’l Slugger a kind of yin and yang of characters – one amazingly cute, the othern amazingly violent – manifesting the inner lives of their creator?
One of the real joys of the show is that it doesn’t provide easy answers to the questions it brings up. Much like life, it provides a search forn answers, a few moments where things seem clear, but those momets of clarity seem to evaporate the closer one gets to them. I’m still struggling with the question of whether viewers are supposed to take the apocalyptic elements of the final episode are intended to be taken literally or figuratively.
I’ve never been a big fan of anime as a genre. I know that there are many great programs that have come from Japan, but few of them have really captured my imagination. But the story and feel of Paranoia Agent is so unique, so thoughtful and transcendent, that it overcomes any surface prejudices I had. Any show with this level of depth and passion is worth discovering and celebrating. I will really miss watching this show every week.
I know this show is out on DVD, so there’s a good chance your local Blockbuster has a copy of it.

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