Sunday, October 5, 2008
PARANOIA AGENT: Satoshi Kon... WHY ARE YOU SO GOOD!?!
I have to give it to ADULT SWIM... they sure know how to cut a trailer.
I'm actually a little ashamed to admit that, despite being a huge fan of Satoshi Kon's works (all of which I own now... he's the only director who's movies I will sit through subtitled). PERFECT BLUE, MILLENIUM ACTRESS, TOKYO GODFATHERS, and most recently, PAPRIKA... all of them are probably among some of the greatest examples of why you should RESPECT anime as a valid and mature storytelling medium. And Satoshi Kon is one of those rare directors that can use this medium to do more than just make a movie... he makes elevates it to ART.
See... one of the things that's always struck me about Satoshi Kon's films is that they don't actually need to be animated. Especially TOKYO GODFATHERS, which didn't even have Kon's usual themes of fantasy, unreality, and psychology; there is nothing in that movie that could not have been done in reality. So why animate it? Or any of his films? Almost all of them could just as easily have been done live action, especially in this new age of digital filmaking. Animation is a long, hard, and expensive process by comparison. So why go through the trouble to animate stories that have more in common with low budget indie character studies than high budget escapist fantasy?
Because it's art. Satoshi Kon is a genius not just because he's a master storyteller, but because he's a master animator, who understands how to portray, with either subtlety or exaggeration, the full range of human expression. His observation of motion and emotion is, frankly, astounding, and brings something to his storytelling that an actor might not be able to. That he is an animator means that he doesn't have to direct an unreliable human actor and rely on their performance to get across what he he sees so clearly in his head... he can create what is in his imagination far more clearly and more gracefully than you could ever achieve in reality.
But I digress... the real reason I'm here is to talk about PARANOIA AGENT, which is an interesting experiment for Satoshi Kon; a 13 episode TV show.
PARANOIA AGENT is a series of episodic character studies about people under extreme emotional duress, with a serialized plot in the background connecting everything together, which allows for a more decompressed story arc told through what amounts to a series of short films.
Feeling the pressure of deadlines and peer pressure within her office, designer Tsukiko Sagi walks down a dark and lonely street on her way home. Her paranoia mounts as the darkness begins to close in, and she imagines she's being followed. She runs and falls, relieved that it was only her imagination... only to be attacked from behind by an elementary student wearing in-line roller skates, and carrying a bent, golden baseball bat. This is how the urban myth of violent attacker, Shonen Bat (Bat Boy, or Li'l Slugger in the dub) is born.
The series follows the investigation into the Shonen Bat attacks, as he appears to be attacking people seeming at random, with only a thin thread connecting them. People secret lives and daily pressures are examined, as Shonen Bat's attacks become more prolific and his power grows as he feeds on the paranoia and dark thoughts of society, until he is finally too powerful to be denied.
PARANOIA AGENT is apparently a mish-mash of unused idea's that Satoshi Kon failed to find a place for in his other movies, and investigates some of the same themes; losing oneself in fantasy, multiple personalities at war with each other, abstract idea's becoming reality, the darkness that resides deep within the human heart (the one episode about the child that finds out her father has a secret camera in her room was ESPECIALLY dark)... betrayal, lose, regret, sadness, suicide, insanity, time travel, reality and unreality... there is nowhere Satoshi Kon won't go, and nothing he won't touch.
That's not to say there isn't humor... PARANOIA AGENT is a surprisingly balanced series and can even be considered a black comedy at times. One of my particularly favorite episodes is one about three people that meet on a Suicide BBS and arrange to meet in person so they can all die together. One is an old man, called "Fuyubachi", one is a younger man, called "Zebra", and the last, which is a shock to the other two, is an eight year old girl, called "Kamome." Despite the premise of the story, it's actually one of the more ridiculous, offbeat, and heartwarming episodes, as the two older characters, quite responsibly, try to dodge Kamome, all the while trying to commit suicide themselves (quite incompetently), without involving her. In the end they're brought together even as they try to die. Another element that I like about this episode, which also factors into Satoshi Kon's other works, is his willingness to have homosexual characters and not portray them as offensive stereotypes or comic relief, but as real characters (it's hinted that Zebra is gay, and if you know anything about Japanese society and their treatment of homosexuals, it helps in understand why he'd probably want to commit suicide).
In terms of animation, PARANOIA AGENT probably could not look any better. The art direction, character designs, and animation (expect for one episode, which was more along the lines of what you average TV animation looks like), are all top notch, demonstrating Satoshi Kon's ability to manipulate the atmosphere of an animated show and create an oppressive feeling of paranoia and psyhological terror (particularly in the third episode, about the woman with dissociative personality disorder, which terrifying on an almost Hitchock-ian level). This, combined with the visionary music of Susumu Hirasawa, also creates one of the best anime openings I've ever seen seen... something is simultaneously upbeat and disturbing.
PARANOIA AGENT is what I love about anime... that it has the ability to do things that are challenging and unafraid of tackling themes that would give others pause, but all done in a way that's totally engaging and entertaining... done in a way that draws you in and captures your imagination, creating a immersive world of fantasy. And Satoshi Kon is someone what creates stories about the dangers of immersing yourself in fantasy and escapism... the irony of which is not lost on one who indulges himself regularly in fantasy and escapism.