If the first three episodes of Paranoia Agent have suggested a world in distress, teetering on the edge of ruin both global (the disastrous inability of humans to communicate truly with one another) and individual (every featured character in the series save the blobby innocent Ushi has suffered from a crisis of personality in one form or another), it’s with “A Man’s Path” that we come at last to a wholly broken world: even more than in the magnificently grim “Double Lips” (which otherwise remains a tighter character study and more beautiful example of animation), this fourth episode is so unsparingly pessimistic about virtually every development of its story that it seriously questions whether the world it depicts has any redeeming features whatsoever.
Hirukawa Masami (Nakajima Toshihiko) has already been introduced to us: he was one of “Maria’s” clients in “Double Lips”. We now discover (the eagle-eyed learned it already, and my thanks to reader Sparrowsabre for pointing it out) that he’s not just a fat, grotesque john, but a dirty cop to boot, who sticks his nose in when Harumi is found, beaten insensate in an alley. His mission: to determine whether she’s mentioned her life as a prostitute to the investigating detectives. Luckily for Hirukawa and his yakuza friends, she hasn’t, but this situation still triggers the worst possible problem for the cop: the yakuza boss who has been lavishing him with whores and money wants to call in a massive loan that Hirukawa used to build his dream home for his family. With not other alternative in sight, Hirukawa turns to armed robbery, stealing from as many people as he can manage in just a few nights – but his illicit acts open him to blackmail, and he starts falling deeper into debt. A broken man at last, Hirukawa screams into the night for someone to stop him – and guess who shows up, but Lil’ Slugger, who wings the cop but doesn’t knock him out, and for his troubles is beaten into a hideous mess by the enraged officer. The next day, we return to the press conference that closed “Double Lips”, and to Detective Ikari, who has grave doubts about Hirukawa’s honesty, though he can’t put it into words.
A simple plot, though “A Man’s Path” is nothing at all like the “dirty cop gets in trouble” boilerplate that you’d expect. It is a ghastly parade of obscenities, centered around the character who, to this point, the most unabashedly disgusting man yet seen in Paranoia Agent.
Yet… for all Hirukawa’s vile personal failures, his motivations all come down to the most pathetic of needs: he wants to provide all the comfort in the world for a family that he rather suspects doesn’t love him very much. This secondary side to his character remains with us throughout, as he is led to increasingly degrading acts by the increasingly undignifying demands made by the slinky Makabe, a yakuza thug with an oily, wiry quality to him. More than once, Hirukawa’s moments of greatest stress are punctuated by a visit to the construction site of his house, where he stares at it, dwarfed by its grandeur, taking comfort in the solid foundation of a proper life that he is trying to carve from all this wickedness.
Let us not weep too heavily for Hirukawa, though. He is slime, never feeling any real regret for his criminal actions until it becomes clear that he’s going to be caught, and grabbing for a limited personal power the only way he knows how: by subjecting prostitutes to his queasy “daddy” fantasies – culminating in his strongly-implied rape of a young teenage girl. All along, he envisions himself as following the mold of the great heroes of old pulp fiction, primarily a manga he obsessively re-reads, in which a nameless hero kills everybody and saves the girl. This manga twines around the plot of the episode like a double helix: at his most loathsome moments, Hirukawa always retreats into the story of the book, finding very specific inspiration in its dialogue and incidents for his own cruel actions, which he regards as the very height of masculine cool – hence the episodes profoundly ironic title, which serves as an indictment of mass-media depiction of heterosexual maledom that strikes as lightly as a sucker punch in the kidney. But Paranoia Agent is about the end of the world; it doesn’t have time for caginess and subtlety.
I have claimed that “A Man’s Path” is the most pessimistic episode of the series thus far; while the others have been primarily focused on the inside of a single person’s warped mind, this entry doesn’t ever establish a baseline morality in the world outside Hirukawa. One of the first images we see is also the one that made me certain to use the word “obscene” somewhere in this write-up: it is the unconscious body of Harumi, right after her unfortunate run-in with Lil’ Slugger and Maria.
Not that the whole episode is one unending cavalcade of miseries: even just 24 minutes of that would be hard to endure. But all of it, whether outrageously cruel (Harumi’s defilement, or the girl’s rape), or simply exhausted and cynical (the scenes between Hirukawa and the yakuza), is proof that Kon Satoshi wants to show us as dysfunctional a world as he can, in both the little and the large details. That this is watchable is testament to the director’s immense gift for keeping the action movie fast and furious (for the second time in a row, I cannot fathom how it all fit in less than half an hour), and to his collaborators for their help in making a glum exposition of a dying society into a genuine thriller – I haven’t yet mentioned composer Hirasawa Susumu, but this is as good a moment as any to point out that his music sets a tone for every beat of every episode that cannot be bettered, shivering and neurotic, just close enough to atonal to make you feel a bit sick. In this episode, he also creates a marvelous motif for Hirukawa’s self-serving idealisation of himself as a pulp hero, a pounding drumbeat that recalls so many genuine stories of rugged men facing down the corrupt world.
Corrupt the world is, though Hirukawa and his ilk add to that, rather than subtract from it, which may be the ultimate irony of “A Man’s Path”: it is precisely his desire to make a little slice of the world happier that directly leads to his bottoming-out, a pill-addled rapist and thief, lying in a heap of contemptible self-pity and self-loathing. A perfect candidate for whatever Lil’ Slugger is doing to his victims, all of them broken people in their worst moment; yet it’s impossible to believe that such a wanton scoundrel could actually stop a force as removed from culture or society as the boy with the bat. There’s something brewing in Paranoia Agent that still doesn’t make sense, but its clear that this world is about more than the weaknesses of the men and women who created it; if nothing else, the two subtle insertions of the eerie Maromi, one of them (on a shirt) specially designed to underscore his growing ubiquity in the pop cultural discourse of the series’ universe, are enough to remind us that there are mysteries in play which look to have an answer bigger than the vices of a single bad cop. Although, as a symptom of the rot in this world, Hirukawa’s prominent position here is ideally placed to remind us of just how deep that rot goes.