The third episode of Paranoia Agent begins with the most discomfiting moment in the series yet, and it only gets more skin-crawly from there. Opening on the images of dolls of buxom young women, we hear two people having sex; a grossly fat man and a gorgeous woman with long, dark hair. No sooner than he finishes, does the man start to excitedly talk to his dolls, thanking them for their excellent skills in getting him off. The woman is already bored and ready to leave this weird little man and his playthings.
And thus begins a story that will be obsessively concerned with the creation of false truths. The john, presumably, is aware that his dolls didn’t really just have sex with him: but it pleases him to re-conceive his reality to make it otherwise. Something similar, on a much grander scale, is happening to the prostitute – for it is obvious from the first moment that the woman is just such a professional – Maria (Mitsuishi Kotono), whose first post-coital act is to listen to a message on her answering machine, from an irate woman condemning her lifestyle. It’s not clear yet, but it will be in short order, that this message comes from Chono Harumi, a teacher whom we’ve already met; she was Ichi’s tutor in episode 2, “The Golden Shoes”. And more to the point, Harumi and Maria are two personalities occupying the same body, communicating with each other via the answering machine.
Split-identity narratives are sort of whorish: just anybody off the street can take the concept of two selves trapped in one mind and treat it as roughly as he will; and this makes it all the sweeter that “Double Lips” proves to be one of the finest, most damnably troubling examples of the form. Kon Satoshi doesn’t just present the Harumi/Maria split as a melodramatic seasoning, but rather uses it as the tool for prying into the mind of a woman torn apart – by what trauma, we never do learn. It’s telling, though, that in both cases the woman turns herself into a receptacle for male desire: Harumi, in her brief appearance in “The Golden Shoes”, is described by Ichi as his “oasis”, and as we see her at greater length in “Double Lips”, our initial impression that she’s something of a willing doormat is underscored by her immense passivness, from her omnipresent pastel green clothes to – especially – the way that she blithely accepts a marriage proposal from a man whom, from all the evidence we ever see, she doesn’t particularly love.
Maria, of course, is a fluctuating concept of a person even in the context of being one-half of a split-personality; her identity is dictated by her clients’ wishes, right down to the voice she uses and the wig she wears. Yet she is much the stronger of the two women: it is plain at least that she does not consider herself used by the men who pay to sleep with her, knowing that she is at heart in control – since she is witnessing their most naked selves, while they are permitted to know nothing of her. If we allow (as the episode seems to suggest) that Harumi is the “real” identity, then Maria is likely the construct built by Harumi to explore her desire to be active, alive, in control – Maria certainly seems to regard it this way.
But Harumi isn’t so easily pinned down, and where “Double Lips” becomes so much more than just a routine dissociative identity thriller is its depiction of the protagonist – if I may use that word – as more than a bundle of Freudian neuroses. Maria and Harumi are not just doubled in the obvious, literal sense: they are actually rather more similar than not in a certain tremendously important sense. Like her alter ego, Harumi is always, essentially, acting: adopting a persona that she thinks is what other people want her to be, and lying about herself in front of everyone (about, for example, having a split personality). She is repressed, polite society made flesh, but this suffocates her, and she’s constantly on the edge of breaking in half – there’s a right impressive number of shots containing a reflection of Harumi in a mirror throughout the episode – and this is even before we recognise the fact that she has, in fact, broken in half already. Unfortunately, this has merely given her one more thing to repress. All in all, this is very much the work of the Kon Satoshi who gave us Perfect Blue, another deeply disturbing story of a woman whose identity is much too fluid for her tastes.
Kon’s treatment of this material veers from the straightforward to the elliptical to the twisty and symbolic. On the one end, “Double Lips” makes good use of a trope that, were I to simply describe it, it would sound clumsy and obvious: as our POV generally aligns to Harumi’s, we are often kept from seeing Maria’s periods of activity, and this gap is often indicated with a fade to black at the end of a Harumi scene, followed by a fade back in, on Harumi’s stunned face coming to. It’s the simplest possible way to depict a blackout, one of the classic symptoms of a dissociative personality; yet Kon’s immaculate sense of timing – especially as relates to the genuinely intense thriller structure to the whole episode, as Maria becomes more and more able to threaten Harumi’s existence – gives this ham-fisted technique the feel of a punctuation mark, not just a directorial shorthand. On the far hand, we have such things as the use of lighting, and the presence of ravens, to suggest in both visually and narratively symbolic terms the dominance of one personality at any given moment.
I could undoubtedly go on longer, but it’s best to leave some fun for the viewer to discover. There’s a great deal that’s surpassing excellent about “Double Lips”, which manages to cram a whole feature’s worth of psychodrama into 24 breathlessly brisk minutes – and that’s including the opening and closing credits, and the “on the next episode” sequence – without seeming forced, ever. So great is it, in fact, that I rather forgot about the Paranoia Agent structure, though when it comes back in, it’s rather outstanding. The scope and structure of the whole is starting to make itself clearer: for the first time, in Ichi’s hospital room, we’ve seen a victim post-attack (besides Tsukiko, who is clearly not all there), who seems to have gained a hell of a lot of perspective and maturity as a result of Lil’ Slugger’s brutality – the crisis in his life has been wiped clean, which leads Harumi to crave his intervention in her own great moment of crisis, late in the episode; and he simply drifts into being, from apparently nowhere. I hesitate to make guesses about where things are going, but the idea that Lil’ Slugger is an apparition out of some Jungian collective unconscious, who appears to those in a moment of total despair, to violently force their lives into a new direction, is hard to resist at this point (though what, then, of poor Ushi? He seemed to be perfectly content when Ichi conjured up Lil’ Slugger to wallop him…).
Near the end, we get yet another scene between Tsukiko and Maromi, watching the news that Lil’ Slugger has been caught – which spoils nothing of the episode’s plot, really, but merely sets up the next one. It’s becoming clear that, if there is a central thread, it’s that damn dog toy: with his jingly little voice and big eyes, he’s really starting to terrify me a bit, even though as (probably) just a manifestation of something very screwed-up in Tsukiko, he shouldn’t. Still, it’s freaky to see a woman reduced to such dead-eyed passivity in the face of a six-inch doll, who so plainly wants to keep her from learning too much about the outside world (incidentally, the cut taking us from the Harumi to the Tsukiko plot is unnerving and profoundly wonderful). I still can’t guess where it’s heading, but this element of the series is starting to hint at indefinable dark things, and it’s making the end-credits shot of a giant Maromi surrounded by the series’ characters, fast asleep on the grass, look like an image from a nightmare.
Still and all, if Paranoia Agent never gets around to resolving its mystery, but only every hints about its meaning while providing stories as daunting and magnificent and beautifully-animated as “Double Lips”, I don’t think I’ll be complaining anytime soon.