The tenth episode of Paranoia Agent does all that it possibly can to knock the viewer off-balance from the first frame. Without a single word of warning (unless the “dream confessions” preview from the end of “ETC” counts), it picks us up and throws us right into the middle of something that, whatever it is, isn’t Paranoia Agent. Unless Paranoia Agent has suddenly taken to looking like this:
Obviously, it hasn’t, and it becomes fairly clear fairly quickly that we’re looking at the unfinished animation for the first episode of Maromi Madoromi – literally “Drowsy Maromi”, but translated as “Mellow Maromi”, to maintain at least some of the flow of the Japanese phrase – an anime based on the effervescently popular pink dog toy who has been poking up all throughout l’affaire Lil’ Slugger, though for what reason, it is still difficult to say. This episode, itself titled “Mellow Maromi”, has a two-pronged narrative exploring the tortured creation of that in-show pilot: the bulk of the episode is a flashback, told more or less in reverse chronological order, of the plague of troubles striking the Maromi production team, while the present follows production coordinator Naoyuki Saruta (Yoshino Hiroyuki) in his breakneck race to deliver the Betamax tape holding the pilot to the network within 30 minutes, in the pouring rain. This is Saruta’s very last chance to do good, for as we learn from his flashbacks, he’s been fucking-up constantly at every stage of the game, delaying a production already frazzled by the inexplicable disappearance of most of the top-level staff, beginning with the director.
First things first: since this is the production of the Maromi TV show we’re dealing with, it comes as no surprise that there is a whole lot of Maromi on display throughout the episode. For those of us who’ve already been driven to find the floppy pink bastard somewhat unnerving, it’s like being pitched headlong into a 24 minute waking nightmare. For while Maromi is never as terrifying as when he’s idly chatting with Tsukiko, urgently demanding that she repress whatever memories are just below the surface (Tsukiko does not appear in this episode, though she is mentioned as the character’s creator), “Mellow Maromi” more than makes up for this in the sheer quantity of scenes of Maromi being hell-ass creepy.
The most skin-crawling moment of all, for my tastes, is first scene in pencil tests, when Maromi tries to comfort the young boy who has decided to give up a career in baseball, by crawling all over his head and cheerfully repeating, “Just take a break” – a sequence repeated as the very last moment of the episode leading into the credits, this time with full animation. I still have no idea what Maromi is all about, but I know that this gives me the screaming willies, and it seems to be absolutely deliberate. If it weren’t absolutely clear that Maromi and Lil’ Slugger had some kind of strange connection with one another, this episode would drive that point home with the force of a baseball bat to the head. Something experienced by a lot of people over the course of the episode, for Lil’ Slugger appears to have a particular vendetta against the crew of Mellow Maromi – if it is Lil’ Slugger. A late revelation strongly suggests that it was somebody else all along, who convinced himself that Lil’ Slugger was actually responsible: the second time it’s happened since Tsukiko clubbed herself and then hallucinated that it was Lil’ Slugger that the phantom skater has been used as that kind of psychological crutch. And that horrid little Maromi was present both times!
The only “true” Lil’ Slugger attack, then, is the one stretched out across the scenes of Saruta driving. First appearing in the far distance out the back window (so distant that I can easily imagine someone missing him), the boy with the bat draws ever nearer to Saruta’s car as Saruta’s deadline closes in, reminding us that the nature of a Lil’ Slugger attack is to strike only when the victim is in a moment of great crisis, and striking only in such a way that it gives the victim what he or she wants and needs to escape that crisis. And Saruta does in fact get out of his crisis by the narrowest of margins, though I can’t imagine it’s in the exact way he anticipated.
Beyond its contributions to the Paranoia Agent mytharc – which are many, and the bulk of them clearly haven’t paid off yet – “Mellow Maromi” does double-duty as Kon Satoshi’s tribute to the small army of artists it takes to put together a TV anime program. It’s easy to use the lazy shorthand of the director’s name, particularly when (as here) the director is also the writer, and when (as here), the themes of the series dovetail so beautifully into the feature films made by the same director.
But Kon will have none of that, and so he introduces us to the Mellow Maromi staff using that backwards chronology so that the series director – the first man to go missing – is the last person we meet, and so that we’ve had a good chance to observe how effectively the process can still go on in the absence of any director at all. As each new member of the production team is introduced, the action screams to a halt, as Maromi himself explains what that person’s duties include (that Maromi interrupts in the middle of dialogue sometimes, I take to be a further demonstration of how much of a terrible little asshole he is). Each and every one, from the director down to the production coordinator, with stops at the producer, the sound designer, and the chief colorist, among others, is identified as being such an important element of the whole production that without them, the whole edifice would collapse.
If it sounds like a running gag, the truth is the farthest thing from that: it’s the writer-director’s way of indicating that, in fact, every person involved in making anime is an essential part of the process, and if you take away any individual, however un-glamorous their job might be, the result is a nightmarish clusterfuck like we see in the episode. It’s easy to forget that cinema is inherently collaborative, animated cinema doubly so: and whatever else it does, “Mellow Maromi” deserves a special measure of respect for calling attention to just how many people working all in tandem it takes for even thirty minutes of something as relatively shallow as Mellow Maromi – clearly no Paranoia Agent, in ambition or in execution – to come into existence.
As to why Kon then sees fit to pay tribute to his staff by telling the story of how they got killed off one-by-one; well, that is probably a matter for his sly dark sense of humor. Indeed, “Mellow Maromi” is among the most sarcastic episodes of Paranoia Agent of them all, though calling it “funny” would be pushing things. Still, there’s something that diffuses the darkness of an episode like “MHz” or “Fear of a Direct Hit”, though strictly in terms of plot developments, “Mellow Maromi” is one of the grimmest episodes in the series run. Part of it, I think, is the constant presence of Maromi and his merchandise: turning both the show and Saruta (the only member of the production team who apparently likes Maromi) into the punchlines of some unspoken sick joke. Then again, there’s also the presence of Lil’ Slugger, grinning like a maniac demon, to remind us of how nastily serious Paranoia Agent can be. In the end, “Mellow Maromi” is as inexplicable and twisted as the series has been yet, and it sends us into the final run of episodes in the perfect emotional register.