Paranoia Agent Review - Why So Serious?

Jared Popelar · March 1, 2017

In completely unrelated news, I just finished rewatching ERASED from last winter, and it is just as amazing as I remembered it to be. I’ve always been a big fan of mystery shows both inside and outside of anime, and ERASED satisfied me in a way I haven’t felt in ages. It was a well-told, well-paced and engaging whodunit that admittedly I guessed six episodes in advance of the actual reveal.

“What a great series this was,” I said to myself as I cracked my knuckles and opened up a fresh Word document to start reviewing. But for some reason I just couldn’t get started writing it. There was something nagging me in the back of my mind.

“Don’t you usually like to explain the background on the shows you review, SnYves?” was the general gist of it. What would a show like ERASED be inspired by, I wondered. The first thing that jumped to my mind was Death Note, but that would’ve only been true if approximately five hundred other people died over the course of the show, although Satoru would have the perfect cover story as a manga artist if that’s what actually happened. Your Lie in April seemed like the next best choice, but not only were there less kids to keep track of, none of them were actively trying to solve a murder mystery during the middle of their depressing-as-hell piano recitals.

Then inspiration hit me like a wayward soccer ball as I remembered Paranoia Agent also involved a mysterious serial criminal that liked to target horribly depressed people as well. Now there’s an idea! And just to get myself into the mood I decided to put on the first episode as a refresher.

A few hours later, and before I had any clue what I was doing, I was completely done with the series. It was amazing. Superb. Never mind ERASED; that’s hardly a year old. It can wait. Paranoia Agent is turning thirteen this year and I need to get the word out! More people need to see/rewatch this one!


Everybody do the Maromi dance!

Paranoia Agent sets itself up as a psychological thriller and mystery show with some darkly humorous and satirical undertones on the side. Our story centers around a series of assaults and murders, claimed to be the work of a roller-blading, bat-toting middle schooler known only as Shonen Bat (or Li’l Slugger in the dub). His first victim is the character designer Tsukiko Sagi (Mamiko Noto), and due to the circumstances regarding the attack, the two lead detectives Ikari and Maniwa (Shozo Iizuka and Toshihiko Seki respectively) initially suspect her of faking the incident. Shonen Bat, not one to be so easily dismissed, promptly goes after a tabloid reporter, two elementary school kids, a hooker, and a lower-ranking officer, spurring the detectives to investigate further.

This show is psychological in the most literal sense in that, on a first viewing, it’s entirely possible you’ll have no idea what the hell is going on. But I’d actually say that’s for the best. We jump around from character to character in almost every episode, and really there are only two things our “protagonists” all have in common with each other. They all have some sort of psychological or mental disorder - Tsukiko talks to stuffed animals, one of the kids I mentioned earlier is an utter narcissist, the hooker is actually that kid’s tutor by day and suffers from dissociative identity disorder, you get the picture - and they all eventually get dinked by Shonen Bat just before they hit their breaking point mentally. Hence, we get an opportunity to see the attacks from the viewpoints of many different people, and we are also allowed a chance to view the circumstances leading up to the attacks firsthand.

On a deeper level, the series is a dissection of the human condition and how we deal with adversity. To this end, one of the underlying reasons the series has so many characters is so we have a higher chance of identifying with one of them and the hardships they go through on a daily basis. Once that relationship is created, it suddenly becomes a lot easier to sympathize with a character and feel what they do over the course of the series' events. And since Shonen Bat likes to whack people who’ve gotten so stressed out they feel like their life is almost out of control (wink wink, maybe he’s a little more than just another thug), when a character’s stress levels hit that dangerous threshold, we totally get how they got to that point, because we’ve been there before. As a college student, I’ve had a couple times where I’ve been so worn out I thought about just flipping my desk and sleeping in until two in the afternoon. Shonen Bat represents how sweet that sort of release can be, but the show confidently goes on to state that no, that’s not what we’re trained to do as humans. Overcoming hardships and pushing through stressful times is all part of the job description, and usually the easy way out isn’t the correct one.

The series has to be lauded for its visual storytelling and engaging, relatable, and varied cast of characters, all of which aid in conveying its message to the audience. I can’t say with certainty that there will be a character in this series that you will identify with, but if you do, then it is very easy to feel their struggle throughout this series. Paranoia Agent lets its dialogue and visuals do all the heavy lifting for the plot, which lets the story evolve and develop in a more meaningful and organic way. It also means that we don’t need to be interrupted at any point for exposition dumps or any other uncomfortably placed lulls in the story, and that keeps up the show’s pace and flow from scene to scene and episode to episode.

In that same spirit, Paranoia Agent almost manages to go its entire runtime without ever having to resort to narration from anybody, and for an anime, that’s an impressive feat.


A perfect reenactment of a Friday night at my apartment.

I think the only time they break that policy is for that narcissistic little bastard I mentioned a second ago, and that is for the sole purpose of getting the audience to hate him right out of the gate. He tells us he’s the best sports player at his school, he’s top of his class, hell he even introduces himself as “Ichi,” (literally “Number One”) just to hammer home to the audience just how full of himself he is (and how punchable his face is as well).

You remember that incredibly annoying twerp Nui Harime from Kill la Kill? I remember her. Distinctly. She was the most obnoxious thing on TV at the time. I wanted to reach into my computer monitor and throttle her while whacking her over the head with a cricket bat.

“I’m guessing you didn’t like her too much, SnYves.” You think so, reader? How insightful. And fine, I’ll admit my initial reaction to her popping up on my screen like an unwanted porn ad was maybe a little visceral. But as I was watching this “Ichi” strut down his street, wooing the girls and hyping up just how awesome he was directly to my face, something clicked in the back of my mind. It was that exact same feeling: pure, unadulterated, loathsome, white hot hate. And I challenge you to not feel the same way about him the moment he turns to camera and gives you that self-fulfilled, toothy grin reserved only for the antagonists in slice of life shows.


Like, seriously. Look at him!

Fortunately, because he likes to wear a baseball hat and gold in-line skates, the kids at his school start associating “Ichi” with Shonen Bat, and we’re teed right up to see him get absolutely ruined. That’s Paranoia Agent in its finest form - we hardly get twenty minutes with each character but over that span of time we are able to formulate a pretty well-characterized opinion of each of them, invoking a pretty powerful emotional response during the show’s various events.

I do not know a ton of other series that can pull off that sort of audience pathos that effectively.

By the way, “Ichi” does totally eat it as far as his reputation is concerned, but speaking as the cynical, snarky person who was totally waiting for that to happen, I didn’t feel one ounce of catharsis or satisfaction from it. It was actually quite the opposite. I mean, make no mistake, I still hate him vehemently and passionately with the fury of ten thousand suns, but as I was watching his social life completely fall apart on him, I actually felt bad for him.

And no, for once in my life, I’m not being sarcastic. Paranoia Agent actively goes out of its way to get you to hate “Ichi” as much as you can, and then pulls a complete 180 and gets you to sympathize with him. This show is a master of emotional manipulation, which I think speaks volumes about the series' writing and characters as a whole. None of the things I experienced in Episode 2 would’ve ever come about had the dialogue been anything short of perfect.

In addition to the stellar mystery and suspense, we also get some comedic asides in a few of the episodes. Episode 8 in particular stands out at one of the series' many high points as we follow a suicide pact that just can’t seem to get around to the actual suicide business. Well, when I word it like that it’s actually kinda morbid, but Paranoia Agent makes it work. Yeah, there’s grimly silly undertones in the rest of the episodes as well - there’s an episode where three gossiping ladies tell some pretty wacky stories about Shonen Bat attacks - but these more off-the-rails episodes not only serve as a palate cleanser between acts in the main story, but also serve to expand the world of Paranoia Agent as well; that is, Shonen Bat’s influence reaches beyond just the main cast, and these break episodes allow us glimpses at what the general population as a whole thinks of the story so far.

Hell, for those with a sharp mind, there’s even a good bit of foreshadowing and information to be found in some of the not-main episodes. Inconsequential as they may seem on the surface, they actually contain pretty useful clues as to the kind of universe we’re in, what Shonen Bat’s motivation is, and some other stuff I can’t really discuss without going into Spoilertown. So yeah, even the filler episodes have something to do with the larger overarching story.


Everyone gather for a picture with the colonial Jamestown settler!

In terms of atmosphere, tone and setting, Paranoia Agent feels like a good, long, extended episode of something like The X-Files. The intrigue among characters not involved with the investigation itself, the almost supernatural way Shonen Bat is able to find his victims when they’re at their worst mentally, the mostly serious mood occasionally paired with a few off-the-cuff humor bits, and of course two investigators looking into a series of strange attacks that nobody can really tie together - the comparison almost writes itself.

The only negative that comes to my mind is that I’ve pretty much explained all that I can without giving away too many major plot points. This is kind of a universal problem I have with reviewing these sorts of shows: the fun in watching something like a psychological thriller is actually deciphering the code and figuring things out by yourself with the clues the show provides you. In that spirit, I’m not sure what else I can tell you about Paranoia Agent without possibly giving something away in the process.

But what I have said about it still stands, and the fact I can’t talk about it more, I think, should tell you just how much I want you to experience this show for yourself if you haven’t already. It’s an artful, well-written, well-paced mystery series that will hook you the instant you hear the OP.


The bat swings so hard it bends space-time.

Paranoia Agent was the only TV series Satoshi Kon had a chance to direct before his tragic death in 2010, but if he wasn’t already cemented in anime history after Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers and that Jojo’s OVA from the 90s, then this certainly took care of that problem. Psych thrillers, admittedly, are not one of those genres everyone has an affinity for, but if you like your detective stories and want to go a few levels deeper - maybe having a laugh or two down the line - then you need to put this on at some point.

Guess you could call it a…home run?

Next time: I actually talk about something recent.

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