The True Brilliance of Paranoia Agent and Why It’s All About the Bomb

Old Man from Paranoia Agent

I had intended to launch this website on Tuesday, but it was difficult with the tragic news of Satoshi Kon’s untimely death at the age of 46 lingering over my head.

Kon is best known for his flawless filmography of directorial work which includes Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika, and The Dream Machine which is currently unfinished. However, one of his most substantial works may in fact be his thirteen episode television series, Paranoia Agent. Despite being frequently dismissed as a collection of left-over ideas, a 2006 article published in the Nichi Bei Times summarizes and dissects the true relevance of the series in a fascinating way. The article has been offline for a few years, but I have taken the liberty of recovering and reposting it below.

Kon was without doubt my favourite auteur of Japanese animation, and many shared that sentiment even before his death. With his tendency to create works distinctly targeted at adult audiences, Kon dared to take experimental approaches even in his earliest titles by blurring the lines between fantasy and reality as a critique of the escapism that pacifies our modern lifestyles. Unfortunately, because of his tendency to eviscerate the hypocrisy of Japanese society as well as otaku subculture, his work is not at all popular in Japan. Not with the general public, or with Japan’s anime fandom, which tends to be notoriously conservative and hypernationist compared to western fandom. You certainly aren’t going to see his death acknowledged at certain “Complex”-related sites that focus on popular moe anime.

These were definitely not the circumstances under which I had hoped to present this article. But alas, here it is.

Entertainment Re-oriented: Atomic Pop Pt. II: Hello Kitty and the Rape of Nanking

From the Nichi Bei Times Weekly August 10, 2006

Nichi Bei Times

“The lost children are a spectacular Mushroom Cloud in the sky,” the theme song of the anime “Paranoia Agent” joyously proclaims. The corresponding image? A middle-aged man laughing arms extended to the sky with a huge mushroom cloud in the background.

The television show is a surreal and epic exploration of what it means to be Japanese, (in that way similar to Haruki Murakami’s “Wind-up Bird Chronicle”). It makes a case that the culture of kawaii (cute) was birthed by the atomic bomb and functions as a mask for Japan’s World War II atrocities.

The series opens with scenes of Tokyo: packed commuter trains full of people text messaging excuses to phantom friends and not acknowledging the real human beings around them. They are a perfect illustration of what artist Takashi Murakami calls, in his essay “Earth in my Window,” the “monotonous ruins of a nation-state… perfectly realized in the name of capitalism.”

Artist Noi Sawaragi argues that in the 1960s, the government promoted economic expansion over cultural preservation, thus dissolving community life and regionally distinct tradition. Families moved to large cities to find jobs and thus formed danchi, grid-like housing complexes. Fathers became largely absent out of devotion to work.“Those who inhabit this vacant crucible,” Murakami writes, “spin in endless inarticulate circles.”

There is an entire episode of “Paranoia Agent” devoted to a kind of dark joke at the expense of Japan’s disproportionately high suicide rate: you can’t kill yourself when you are already dead.

“On the benches on danchi rooftops,” the “Paranoia Agent” theme song goes, “dreams blossom.”

The first episode of the show focuses on a woman, Sagi Tsukiko, designer of the popular character Maromi.

Like Hello Kitty, Maromi is a cute cartoon animal (in this case a pink dog), developed expressly as a marketable icon.Maromi has become a runaway success and the creator Tsukiko is under intense pressure to replicate the lucrative magic. She walks home overcome by anxiety, but is injured along the way. She becomes the focus of media attention when she makes claims that she was hit with a baseball bat by a youth. The bat-boy, she says, wore shorts, a baseball cap (bearing an inverted peace-sign pin) and golden inline skates.

The year 2000, I believe, saw two incidents of a teenager assaulting people with a bat (the first killing his mother, the latter attacking random people on the street). Curiously, baseball bats were a huge metaphor in “Wind-Up Bird” as well.

The bat-boy then sets off on a violent spree, assaulting people afflicted by various social problems. The people awaken at peace.

Both the bat-boy and Maromi become sort of a pacifying force for the troubled people of Tokyo. They are both very much connected to the bomb.

“Whatever true intentions underlie ‘Little Boy,’ the nickname for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, we Japanese are truly, deeply, pampered children,” writes Murakami.

The bomb rendered a previously aggressive Japan a helpless child. The United States Army moved in and occupied the country, setting up a puppet government. Since the bomb, Japan has remained completely dependant on the U.S., economically and militarily, with no hope of achieving any kind of autonomy.

It was in this environment that characters like Hello Kitty emerged. She has short limbs, a blank stare and the lack of a mouth. It has been noted by animator Yasuo Otsuka that long limbed cartoon characters tend to be extroverts, while those with stubbier appendages are introverted. A quick survey of popular Japanese characters reveals a preference for short arms and legs, Totoro, Doraemon, the entire Sanrio lineup.

Such characters can be described as yurui, an adjective difficult to translate into English. The closest equivalent might be “self-deprecatingly endearing.” The word never has a negative connotation. It can mean, “slow,” “bumbling,” “lethargic,” “forgiving,” “mild” and “loose.”

Such characters also tend to be popular with adults and children alike in Japan. Some have attributed this to Japanese culture not drawing as distinct a line between children and adults as Western countries (men and women often live with their parents their entire life). However, this aspect of the culture is not new and kawaii and yurui characters are all post-war.

While cute mascots appear in every country, it is their use in promoting adult products and ideas that is unique to Japan. City governments, credit card companies and even condoms make use of yurui characters. This often amuses and puzzles foreigners and one could argue that it represent the way the world sees Japan — in the “Daily Show’s” book, “America,” the section on Japan adroitly lists the Prime Minister as “Hello Koizumi.”

Maromi from “Paranoia Agent” is a self-conscious example of a kawaii, yurui icon. Near the end of the show, we learn Maromi’s true identity. She is Tsukiko’s childhood pet, who got run over by a car when she wasn’t being watched. The corpse that was the real Maromi is transformed by Tsukiko’s pen into a cartoon dog, soft and cuddly, with no blood, no fragile network of organs, no accountability and no ability to hold others accountable.

This can be seen as a metaphor for Japan’s self image and the way it sees the world. Urban isolation and rapidly advancing technology have helped erode reality in favor of representation. Connection with real human beings becomes less desirable; cartoon characters to which you will never be held accountable become ideal friends. Some fear that eventually real human beings will no longer be seen as different from their digital and plush counterparts.

Rendering the country a cutesy 2-D figure also provides a way to mask the bloody dog corpse that is Imperialist Japan. Human experiments (including vivisection without anesthetic), abduction of women for use as sex slaves, and the infamous Nanjing Massacre; all of these things hidden beneath Hello Kitty’s vacant stare.

Japan was also an unofficial participant in the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and the Iraq Wars. Still Japan is seen as doe-eyed and peaceful.

While pop culture often serves to mask government, it does occasionally reference them both directly and indirectly.

In the original Godzilla film, the government tries to hide the monster’s nuclear origins from the people to avoid mass panic, but a female senator takes a stand for the truth.

This may reference the way the Japanese government conspired with the American military to cover-up the effects of radiation poisoning.

It is also curious to note that Godzilla, in the original film, is not foreign at all. He’s a legendary monster, sleeping off the coast of Japan since ancient times. It may be a stretch, but I think this is an implicit recognition that Japan brought violence to its own country with its aggressive imperialist war.

In “Akira,” the holocausts are clearly the result of human rights atrocities committed by a power hungry Japanese government.

In “Barefoot Gen,” the protagonist’s father advises him that Japan’s war is one brought on by the greed of the ruling class.

A subtext can even be read into “Doraemon,” one of the most beloved Japanese cartoons of all time. Nobita, the protagonist of the series, seems to embody yurui. He is helped by a cute robot-guardian, Doraemon, who always gives him some sort of fantastic device with which to solve his problems. It is interesting to note that a twisted desire for power sometimes emerges from beneath the generally good-natured boy’s hapless exterior, but the gadgets he uses always have an unforeseen consequence.

In “Paranoia Agent,” Maromi provides comfort to a number of people who are in some way or another victims of larger social problems: A boy who cannot bear to be less than number one, in a school system that demands competition. A “proper” woman destined for a bland marriage and career, the only outlet for her sexuality being a split personality who is a sex worker. An avid video game fan who has lost his ability to see a reality. A homosexual man.

They cannot reconcile their true self with social expectations and long for a release, which comes to them in the form of the bat-boy. Once assaulted, the characters become victims and they are alleviated of responsibility. They are docile; some are amnesiac.

I will end this column the way I began last week’s: with a riddle. What turned Japanese people into blameless victims, wiped away their memory of history and left them hollow, amiable and passive. In the anime “Paranoia Agent,” it is the bat-boy. In reality it was the atomic bomb.

Paranoia Agent originally aired in 2004 on WOWOW, a Japanese subscription service that was once well known for broadcasting anime targeted at intelligent adult viewers. Sadly, due to declining profits, their focus has shifted in recent years. It was released in North America by Geneon Entertainment and broadcast in 2007 by G4TechTV Canada. The title is currently out of print, but it is highly likely that the series will be re-licensed by an active distributor soon. You could say that doing so would be capitalizing on Kon’s death, but I’d argue that it would be a public service. His work is simply too good to remain in legal limbo.


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