Consider the opening of Paranoia Agent:
That is, I think I can say without serious fear of contradiction, one of the most aggressive, transporting opening theme sequences in all of television. To begin with, we have the song, “Dream Island Obsessional Park”, composed (as all of the show’s music was composed) by the groundbreaking Hirasawa Susumu. Its lyrics – now that’s a tricky matter, because just about everywhere you look for the English translation, you get a different version. Here is the one provided by AnimeLyrics.com:
Raaiiyaa ra ra i yo ra – a magnificent mushroom cloud in the sky
Raaiiyaa ra ra i yo ra – on an afternoon of small birds eating feed on a path
Touching our hands to a lawn dappled with light, let’s you and I talk
Look, over a lunch bench, my dream will bloom
Take the roar of the sea into your heart; submerge your depression
Stretch a bridge to tomorrow; never worry about any tsunamis
Raaiiyaa ra ra i yo ra – a magnificent mushroom cloud in the sky
Raaiiyaa ra ra i yo ra – an afternoon of small birds eating feed on a path
Raaiiyaa ra ra i yo ra – a dream reared on a lunch bench
Raaiiyaa ra ra i yo ra – oh, an afternoon born on a day dappled with light
Such lyrics! On the one hand, so many images of peace and sunlight; and yet the hint of darkness peers over it. “Magnificent mushroom cloud” – only one connection you can make there, especially for a socially-conscious Japanese artist.
And as this menacingly happy song plays out, sweeping and grand and just not quite “right”, what do we see. People laughing. People who we come to know very well over the thirteen episodes of Paranoia Agent, and who, in the main, are not the sort to laugh like that. Of the many possible explanations for what the hell is going on, the one I favor is that we’re watching people who are completely demented, madly cheerful in the face of all sorts of chaos and brokenness, some of which echo the imagery of that character’s episode, some of which are just a little bit disconcerting and peculiar for the hell of it. And yet they laugh, laugh, laugh. “Never worry about any tsunamis”, indeed. Oh, wouldn’t that little shit Maromi just absolutely agree with that sentiment?
It’s the only opening sequence that Paranoia Agent could possibly have; for the show is itself dedicated to exploring the ways that fragile human beings insulate themselves from the world, finding ways to make everything bad go away by, in essence, ignoring it. What is the single constant in every one of the narratives, even those which totally ignore the main plot of the series? Lil’ Slugger, who comes when you are in an emotional crisis, and hits you with his baseball bat, and as a result, your problem goes away. Possibly because you are dead.
What an obvious metaphor this is: taking the easiest way out will hurt you. Yet in the hands of Kon Satoshi and his exemplary crew, that obvious metaphor is played in so many keys throughout the various episodes that it never feels repetitive or insultingly easy. “Easy” is very much one of the last words that appropriately describes Paranoia Agent, in fact; a more layered, complex, lustfully philosophical television show is hard to find, even in an era when television regularly trounces all but the best novels and movies for thematic complexity and richness.
The world is broken – it is broken because we all break it, every time we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves – this is the heart and soul of Paranoia Agent. And so we come to “The Final Episode”.
Following hard upon “Radar Man”, the final episode begins with Ikari Keiichi, dishonorably retired detective, and Sagi Tsukiko, painfully withdrawn character designer, trapped in a fantasy world in which Ikari is able to live his beloved fantasy of being a simple cop faced with simple problems, where an ineradicable problem like phantom teens on rollerblades never comes up. In the real world, Maniwa Mitsuhiro, former detective and current crazy visionary, faces down the present face of Lil’ Slugger: a formless black mass that devours the people it comes into contact with, and leaves total destruction in its wake. Only Tsukiko can stop it, but she is also rather enjoying Ikari’s fantasy world.
“The Final Episode” is rife with heartbreaking revelations and moments, and the first is what we learn of Ikari and Tsukiko: he has always wanted a daughter, to prove that he could be a better father than the one who raised him; she has always wanted a father who would love her and treat her kindly, instead of the strict, cold man who brought her up after her mother died. They find this in one another, with Tsukiko eventually regressing to a child, toting along a pet dog – the real Maromi.
Setting aside the external narrative concern of the episode, the drama is primarily focused on how these two characters are made to confront what is true, rather than what they wish to be true. Ikari does this through the ghostly presence of his beloved wife Misae, and much as she was able to triumph in “No Entry” because of her awareness that their shared love meant that her life was no longer hers alone, he is only able to escape his self-designed cage her by the constant reminder of all the things she has meant to him, which would be invalidated in this painless, meaningless existence.
Tsukiko’s self-realisation is not merely the climax of “The Final Episode” but of Paranoia Agent itself: for by now we have long since realised that Lil’ Slugger was entirely her creation, but she herself has not known that. It’s only now that we learn why she invented the strange youth whose acts of violence makes problems go away; yet the answer to this longstanding question ends up being far less important than the story that immediately follows, what Tsukiko chooses to do with that knowledge. The scene in which she makes her choice is at once the most harrowing, tender, and breathtaking (as in, I literally stopped breathing) moment in all of Paranoia Agent.
The more, shall we say, “paranormal” aspects of Paranoia Agent are grand and vexing, of course, and best dealt with, I suppose, by conceding that what appears to happen is exactly what happens. This might be immediately unsatisfying – the human animal naturally craves “realism”, and of course there’s not a damn thing realistic about any of this – but as the literalisation of a theme, it’s quite cunning, and a corker of a narrative device. In essence, Paranoia Agent tells us that what you believe, is what you will experience – and if it seems odd that one girl’s self-deluding invention of a bat-wielding thug could take over an entire country as we see over the course of Paranoia Agent, it should never be forgotten that Tsukiko had already done the exact same thing with the disarmingly cute Maromi. Unbeknown to her and her beleaguered boss, she has, in fact, created the next huge character to supplement Maromi in Lil’ Slugger – both of whom are, in essence, the same, just like Maniwa insists. They both are manifestations of the desire to have all your problems go away without any active effort.
Thus: the populace that embraced Maromi embraces Lil’ Slugger, and in believing in him, gives him life. Again, this isn’t “real”, but it has a truth of its own. For it is basically true that the reality we live is the one we construct: this is true both in terms of perception and neuroscience, and in psychological terms. Believe that you are going to be miserable, and its ten-to-one that you will be. Paranoia Agent simply externalises this to make a point, and it makes the point with exquisite beauty and grace.
The episode ends with a passage that re-creates the opening of the first episode, in sometimes shot-for-shot detail. Here we find the dark, pessimistic side of the show’s theme: for if some of us, like Misae, can learn to rise above the indignities of everyday life and triumph, most of us always want the easy way out. People still have almost exactly the same conversations, trying in every way to put the blame for their state on everyone else; people still want a friendly face to say,”just go to sleep and it’s all fine”. Not even a massive, city-devastating crisis can do more than briefly interrupt this grand pattern of behavior. It is not a miserable ending, but a cautionary one: if we don’t change, then everything that we do to ourselves will just happen again. I don’t know what Maniwa sees at the very end, leading to the final iteration of the end credits; but I suspect it would be rather familiar to anyone who’d just watched the series.
With that, may I do as Shounen Bat himself, and bid you all sayonara.