published in Empire No.67, Sydney
In a mass form of entertainment like anime where 'character' is crucial to the malleable form of the medium, Paranoia Agent goes to great lengths to subvert this paradigm. By 'character' I don't mean 'characterization as we would understand it in literary and cinematic terms. 'Character' in anime is always a completely inhuman fabrication - illustrated rather than acted; imagined rather than projected. Its plastic nature is both the essence and the limits of its reality.
This obtuse lead-in to discussing Paranoia Agent is important in accepting the series' convoluted and self-reflexive purpose. The story unfolds like a detonation of narrative possibilities and consequences swirling around young Tsukiko, a famous character-designer for anime and tie-in toy marketing. In the first episode, she is savagely attacked by a mysterious baseball bat-wielding kid in rollerblades. Two detectives - the older, traditional Ikari and the younger, modern Maniwa - seek to solve her case, but in the process become entangled in a truly bizarre web that simultaneously proves and disproves that the attacker exists.
Ultimately, Tsukiko is the 'agent' that instigates a viral spread of paranoia in the congested and overworked metropolis of modern day Tokyo. The more that people and the media excitedly follow the reports of further attacks by the now-dubbed 'Shonen Bat' (boy bat), the stronger his 'being' becomes by feeding off the communal paranoia of Tokyo. As the series evolves, his reign of terror upon both characters and the series itself becomes marked: each episode grows weirder in its multi-level structuring of psychotic dimensions and symbolic recurrences. By the end, the level of delusion which shapes everyone's perception becomes exhausting - as does one's experience of watching it. Paranoia Agent is definitely a series that intensifies with repeated viewings, also allowing one to fully appreciate its superb design and momentum and its highly distinctive meld of sound, music and image.