Worry Not About The Tidal Wave
Continuing our month of positivity, we come to a rather curious moment. In the last weeks I covered music and movies that I enjoyed. This week, I want to talk about television. First, however, I must make a confession.
I don’t watch t.v. There’s something about the serialized series that just does not do anything for me. I don’t spend much time in front of that screen so emblematic of the 1950s. It is not designed for me in mind. When looking at the things which are generally popular, none of them interest me. Unlike other mediums, television seems the most focused on hitting that ‘mainstream’ audience. I don’t know why that is, perhaps it is an unfair assessment. All I know is when my tastes don’t align for typical fare in other mediums, it is not too difficult to find a niche that I enjoy.
Perhaps I simply gave up on t.v. too early. When considering what I would do for this post, I ran through the few usual suspects of anyone in my position. I considered discussing those shows that did resonate with me. But what is there to say of Arrested Development, Firefly, Six Feet Under, Community or Pushing Daisies? They’re all slightly quirky. They’re all excellently done. They each strive to hit a specific style and accomplish it with varying degrees of success. And most of them were cancelled well before their time because they could never catch the mainstream taste and are left in some strange, unfinished or hastily completed limbo. Each speaks of the injustice afforded whatever endeavour that strives for something odd, different or unsafe. The sole exception being Six Feet Under which managed to survive perhaps longer than it deserved mercifully because it was broadcasted on a lesser known channel which was happy for whatever views it could obtain.
No, I’d rather discuss a piece that is complete. I’d rather discuss an anime.
The shock and horror–I know! I’m not a weeaboo (a term that, if you’re unfamiliar with then you most certainly aren’t one) and there are very few anime from Japan which I actually enjoy. One of the best, however, is a little series recommended to me by a random backpacker at a hostel in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is Paranoia Agent. It is a show that I absolutely love and think it is brilliant.
And it is a show you will never watch.
I don’t mean to say that for hipster credit but simply because I can think of very few people that would like the series outside of myself. Paranoia Agent is something unlike most other anime. It falls into that strange camp as Atlus games and Serial Experiment Lain. It is, primarily, weird. I’ve seen it twice and outside of loving it both times, I find myself unsure if I’ve truly got it both times. Not that Paranoia Agent is as indecipherable as Serial Experiment Lain. It’s a thematic piece and it wears its themes plainly. The rich symbolism employed serves to heighten and strengthen the story–not carry it. But it is a story that is, nevertheless, steeped in Japanese cultural. I love it because it is so refreshing. It’s something that would never be made in western entertainment and for that it says far more about human nature than its creator likely ever supposed.
But Paranoia Agent is bleak. It is unsettling. It is unpleasant. It is a complex psychological thriller that dips into so many stories, ideas and characters as to be nearly confounding. Its opening credits is perhaps the perfect highlight for what it is. Its title track, Dream Island Obsessional Park (such a delightful example of Engrish in all its glory), is overlaid an aggressively confusing series of shots containing characters standing in peculiar locations laughing maniacally. I don’t use that word lightly. It starts with a young woman, bare foot with shoes in hand, standing upon a highrise rooftop laughing into the wind as a heavy rain transitions us to two young boys in the wrecks of a typhoon struck suburb as the waters threaten to wash them away–while laughing. We see a girl submerged beneath water, a man standing upon the sky upside down, two women in a trash heap, a woman in the wreckage of a home, a man on a radio tower with a mushroom cloud in the backdrop, a homeless woman on the table of an upscale restaurant, a traditionally dressed tourist upon a snowy mountain peak, an elderly man dressed as an orchestral conductor on the moon and finally a school-aged boy with gold rollerskates and a bent gold bat in a green pastoral field. Of course, all of them laugh.
It’s demented and amongst these incongruent places often outright depicted as plain destruction and devastation are the main characters of the narrative. It’s a perfect way to introduce a cast as rambling as its narrative structure. In thirteen episodes we are introduced to a staggering number of individuals who barely feature outside of their own story self contained to a single twenty-five minute spread. The main characters are Tsukiko-a character designer- and the detectives Ikari and Maniwa. Ostensibly, Paranoia Agent is about the investigation into an alleged assault on Tsukiko by the aforementioned kid with skates and a baseball bat. But that isn’t what Paranoia Agent truly is.
The show is a rather harsh and unyielding criticism of modern society. Those other characters flashing past in its opening segment are the window into the troubled lives of individuals who struggle with school bullying, terminal disease, multiple personality disorder, gang corruption, parental abuse, constricting patriarchal expectations, dangers of virtual worlds, repressed fear and guilt and an ever increasing inability to handle all the pressures and stress building upon the cast until it forms an all-consuming tidal wave to consume them all. The main thread, however, focuses on people’s tendencies to retreat and try to escape their problems instead of addressing them. Here, the criticism is leveraged against societies tendency to extol and promote this behaviour. Tsukiko is the creator of the famous Maromi–a pink dog whose sole purpose is to be cute and gently comfort people in order for them to forget their troubles and woes.
Rather obviously contrasting this is the series primary antagonist, anglicized as Lil’ Slugger and taking the appearance of an elementary school student that shows up when people are at their lowest and in desperate need for escape. He provides it with a harsh strike from his bat. As the series goes on, this takes a turn from a minor injury which hospitalizes Tsukiko for a few days and leaves her with a quickly healed limp to outright pummeling the individual to death–arguably the definitive escape from one’s issues.
The show is heavy with its character study and psychological examination. It’s why someone like me absolutely adores it. But when examining the human psyche, one is unlikely to be exploring happy themes or stories. This isn’t your standard anime where a bunch of highschool students are on a fun romp to save the world from a supernatural horror. In fact, the supernatural horror itself turns out to be nothing more than man’s cowardice and overbearing despair in face of the pressures and isolation of modern society.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. If there is an element of hope weaving through the series, it is that we are all connected and tied together. Ostensibly, this is framed as a problem as Tsukiko’s underlying psychological turmoil turns out to be such a minor issue that blossoms and grows wildly out of proportion and control as it infects, like a disease, those with even a simple fleeting connection to her. But though her issue is of such little significance, it is through the assistance of strangers that these problems are addressed. When we fall to our lowest, it is often the most unlikely people who can have the greatest impact on our lives. It takes near thirteen episodes for this ray of hope to shine upon the grueling dreariness that is the building despair of the cast but that it comes after all that slogging through mud and filth makes it all the more powerful.
Which is great for even at its best, Paranoia Agent still deals in simple plots and devices. The dialogue is not necessarily rich–perhaps owing to its translated nature–but the themes and characters of this twisted world more than make up for it. And for all its encouragement at its end, Paranoia Agent is not shy about still ending on a disquieting note. Much like it starts, the show concludes much the same way it started. Despite all the grandiose and city encompassing destruction that the story of Lil’ Slugger and Tsukiko covers, we’re left with the same shots of faces people complaining about their poor lot in life. It’s a pessimistic look, for certain, for though Tsukiko and the other characters which touched her life are changed, the rest of the world is not and we are left on nearly the exact same note as when we started: a crazed man in a hospital parking lot looking up in horror after coming to some inscrutable conclusion from an incomprehensible equation only he can understand.
In many ways, it reminds me of Lovecraftian horror. But instead of some tentacular beast from the distant unknowable stars coming to consume us, it is instead the horrors we produce on our own which threaten our society that dangles on the weakest of threads.
So, please, watch Paranoia Agent. It’s a fantastic series which no one will ever put on.