“A storm is coming…”
Among the most clichéd ways to grab some otherwise unearned dramatic weight, the metaphorical depiction of weather – and yet, Paranoia Agent is rife with moments that are, in the due order of things, entirely clichéd, but work like gangbusters in context. So it is with this sixth episode, in which the impending arrival of a typhoon is used as the grand, almost operatic backdrop to multiple stories that never intersect, though they weave around one another with uncanny structural fluidity.
Following the events of “The Holy Warrior”, Ikari and Maniwa have finally encountered the homeless old woman (Kyouda Hisako) seen only in the first episode, the only witness to the first Lil’ Slugger attack on Tsukiko. Interviewing her in a shabby lean-to that is whipped about by the typhoon winds, the two men must wade through her seemingly disjointed musings about all that she has lost, before she finally tells them what she saw that night. As this happens, we are also introduced to Taeko (Mizuki Nana), a teen girl wandering through the streets aimlessly, evidently a runaway. As she dully pokes around looking for shelter, she flashes back to her childhood, and especially to her doting father.
There’s nothing to tie Takeo’s story together with the detective’s inquiries at this point, but the way the two plots play against each other – as well as the the way that the episode’s third story, the arrival of the typhoon, accents them both – is elegant and evocative. As is, for that matter, the cross-cutting between Taeko’s present woes and her delicate, soft-focus past memories, which is achieved not only through narrative parallels but through visual ones as well.
Anybody can use cross-cutting; using it well is incredibly hard (or at least, it is incredibly rare). In “Fear of a Direct Hit”, it is used superbly, delicately or aggressively as the case demands. Taeko’s phone conversations – with someone she is tremendously angry at – provide a call-and-response to Ikari’s increasingly agitated conversation with the old woman, both of them reaching an emotional crescendo at the same moment, despite the audience’s total lack of awareness in that instant what’s going on; so to does the relationship between Taeko’s emotional state and the building storm grow like two competing themes in a symphony, rather than the cloying “it’s raining ’cause she’s upset” symbolism that a lesser director than Kon Satoshi would have allowed it to lapse into.
The effect of all this overlapping, in context, is to underscore one of the key points of Paranoia Agent, though one easy to overlook: the fact that this story is all taking place in a single society. As the storm builds, hits, and disperses, we see a number of faces caught in the rain in a mixture of awe and fear: Kawazu’s goggle-eyed dismay, the still-unnamed old man’s beatific look of something akin to joy, Hirukawa’s anguish. I am not certain but that “Fear of a Direct Hit” might include more of the characters we’ve seen in the series than any other (save maybe “The Holy Warrior”, but as something of a recap episode, it only somewhat counts). Five people are heavily featured in the main plot, including Tsukiko, who is the detectives’ second visit after the old woman reveals her awkward truth; the cameos I’ve noted, as well as Harumi and even (in that screenshot above), a quick visit from our intensely creepy pink dog friend Maromi.
Each episode to this point has presented an in-depth look at a single character (as this one does for Taeko), including brief flashes of the others in a manner that reminds us of their existence; the great achievement of “Fear of a Direct Hit” is to incorporate so many now-familiar faces in a context, both narrative and editorial, that so conclusively demonstrates the way in which they all live in the same world, driven by the same forces. As much as the Lil’ Slugger plot proves that they are all subjected to the same fate, that figure cannot possibly match how the typhoon creates an external conflict that affects every single one of the characters, as well as the unnamed background people in the city, in total despite of their own personal stories. One of the chief appeals of Paranoia Agent lies in the richness of its universe; this episode does the most of any that we’ve seen thus far in making the scale of that universe a primary focus.
As a character-driven plot, however, “Fear of a Direct Hit” is still incredibly strong. Splitting its focus cleanly between the mystery of what happened to Taeko, and the detectives’ growing awareness that Lil’ Slugger is a mystery much more difficult to pin down than they’d assumed, the episode manages to have its cake and eat it too: its twisty revelations on both sides are staggering, but presented in a casually offhanded way that if anything, gives the reveal more of a punch.
To pluck out just one example: there is a brilliant bit of sleight-of-hand employed: the editing strongly implies that the old woman’s long-lost granddaughter is none other than Taeko, a misdirection that I bought so readily that I missed all of the, in retrospect, blindingly obvious clues as to what other character the girl actually related to: and when we find out, it’s weaved into the plot so naturally, with so little emphasis, that it took me a good long second to be absolutely certain that I caught it right. And then, in a moment’s flash (Kon obligingly puts a bit of needless narrative dawdling right here, just to give us time to recover), I thought about all the clues that had just been sitting there, and stood in awe of the cagey storytelling.
Not that it’s only good because it’s cagey, oh no: “Fear of a Direct Hit” is, even when you know what’s going on (it’s the first episode I watched twice, to make sure I caught everything), a nervy bit of emotional brutality, both in the mytharc plot, which takes unbearable delight in telling us how little we actually know for certain, and in the Taeko plot, which is the grimmest story Paranoia Agent has told yet, but is effective beyond sheer misery-porn. If the series is dedicated to examining broken society, nothing can be more broken than the conflict at the heart of this episode; and if it is true that Lil’ Slugger – whoever the hell he is – fucntions as a release for the characters’ personal crises, that he in effect gives them whatever they want and need… let me say only that, if this what Taeko needs – it’s exactly what she says she wanted – then the world of Paranoia Agent is even darker than I gave it credit for. The sun may be out, but the final moments of “Fear of a Direct Hit” are the most unnerving in the whole episode.