By any standards, this is one of the most remarkable animated shows that has ever been produced. PARANOIA AGENT deals with a number of characters who are linked both in an odd chain of acquaintances and by being the victims of an attack by a juvenile on roller blades who unexpectedly strikes people with a bent metal baseball bat, called by the press Shouen Bat. The first disc introduces the viewer to five victims of Shouen Bat in four episodes entitled "Enter Li'l' Slugger," "The Golden Shoes," "Double Lips" and "A Man's Path." The opening credits of each episode, with an especially frenetic theme song (with the usual odd lyrics typical of anime) and dynamic animation, announces what a unique show this is.
The first episode deals with the first victim of Shouen Bat, a famous designer who has designed a pink dog that has brought her great fame and success. The trouble is that she is at a loss to repeat her success, and her boss is putting pressure on her to come up with a design that will be equally successful. Her story of a boy on roller blades who attacked her is greeted with some skepticism, until a seedy journalist who is harassing her for an interview is also attacked.
The second episode deals with a young boy who is an acquaintance with the designer. He fancies himself the coolest kid in school and the most popular, but one day he discovers that his popularity has plummeted because his roller blades and his skill in baseball have made many imagine that he is Shouen Bat. To make things worse, the overweight, brainy transfer student who is running against him for president of the student council (and who he imagines is behind the rumors) looks like he might win the election. Everyone except the young woman who works at the university and who serves as his tutor suspects him of being Shouen Bat. That is, they do until first his school nemesis and then he himself are both attacked.
The third episode is the best of the first four, an absolutely brilliant episode whose story would be worthy of Philip K. Dick. The tutor of the boy who is the fourth victim works during the day at the university, where a researcher has asked her to marry him, an offer she accepts. But at night her alter ego, Maria, emerges, and plies her trade as a prostitute. In Philip K. Dick's A SCANNER DARKLY, a police officer investigates a drug dealer who distributes an extraordinarily powerful drug whose primary side effect is to induce a profoundly split personality. Only gradually do we learn that the detective and the drug dealer are the same person. (A SCANNER DARKLY is currently being made into an animated film by Richard Linklater, who previously made the fascinating animated film WAKING LIFE, along with many live action films.) In the same way, the tutor and Maria are utterly disconnected from one another, though each is aware of the other's existence. In a succession of fascinating moments, the two leave messages for each other, throw away each other's clothes, and manage to undermine the other in various ways. She becomes the fifth victim of Shouen Bat.
The fourth episode follows the life of one of Maria's regular tricks, a crooked cop with a penchant for prostitutes, gambling, and drinking. A gangster in turns begins shaking him down, demanding more and more exorbitant amounts of cash from him, until the evening when he is attacked by Shouen Bat, but nonetheless manages to subdue and arrest him.
The creative force behind the show is Satoshi Kon, who was previously best known for PERFECT BLUE and MILLENIUM PRINCESS, but who in the future will probably be better known for PARANOIA AGENT. Those previous films were rightly considered significant innovations in anime, though I felt that both had some difficulties with narrative. The story here is much tighter and more coherently told than in either of those films, and represents a significant maturation of Kon as an artist. It is almost impossible to over praise the animation in this film. His characters possess little of the woodenness and derivativeness that afflicts so many anime characters, and he pays attention to foregrounds and backgrounds to an extreme fashion. For instance, you might have a shot over a cop's shoulder of a bar top, with an ashtray that is a perfect representation of just about any ashtray every seen. What is amazing, however, is that Kon does not allow the camera to linger over it. It is a perfect detail, marvelously drawn, but it exists to give the imagery depth. There are a host of marvelous touches in nearly every scene, many of them of shade and lighting, but many consisting merely in marvelously drawn images. He also achieves some superb framing of his shots. The tutor, for instance, might react with horror to see that the alter ego she has suppressed has reemerged. As she recoiled, the camera will jump from one angle to one shot from inside a recess looking out at her, with various make up and grooming items forming the foreground. In one superb shot, the crooked cop stands outside his station house, the camera moving at a turtle's pace behind his right shoulder. All in all, this is some of the best animation that one is ever likely to see.