By Tom Speelman
Earlier this year, Funimation secured the rights to one of the most important and significant anime of the ’00s: Paranoia Agent.
The 13-episode series is a collection of vignettes set in Musashino, Tokyo, and the only TV anime work from legendary director Satoshi Kon.
Throughout the series, citizens like character designer Sagi Tsukiko (Mamiko Noto, Michelle Ruff) and toad-like journalist Akio Kawazu (Kenji Utsumi, Doug Stone) are violently attacked by Lil’ Slugger (Daisuke Sakaguchi, Sam Riegel), a kid who rides around on golden inline skates, hurting people with a golden, bent baseball bat. A timeless mystery unravels around the detectives looking to solve this case once and for all.
It’s utterly captivating and a master class from Satoshi Kon. But who was the creator of Paprika, Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress? Why is Paranoia Agent so well-regarded? Let’s take a look.
Starting on one of the greats
Born in Sapporo, Hokkaido, in 1963, Satoshi Kon went on to major in graphic design at Musashino Art University. While in college, he debuted as a mangaka with the 1984 Toriko (no relation to the anime/manga of the same name) and was a runner-up in Young Magazine’s Tetsuya Chiba Awards. This led him to Akira auteur Katsuhiro Otomo, who hired him as an assistant.
Zack Davisson, the award-winning translator who translated Kon’s later manga Opus and Seraphim: 266613336 Wings for Dark Horse Comics (the latter of which was co-written with Mamoru Oshii, although both were ultimately unfinished), said that “[i]t is hard not to see Otomo’s influence in Kon’s artwork, especially in the faces. Rumor says that more than a fair bit of Akira was drawn by Kon, and while we will never know exactly how much, it is clear that was a visual influence.”
After working on other manga like Tropic of the Sea and the adaptation of Otomo’s 1991 live-action horror comedy World Apartment Horror (for which he also wrote the story), Kon broke into the anime industry, working on the Otomo-written film Roujin Z, as a supervisor on Oshii’s Patlabor 2: the Movie, as a scripter and co-producer on the ’90s JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure OVA series, and as scripter, layout artist and art director on Magnetic Rose, one of three short films that made up the 1995 Otomo anthology Memories.
All this laid the groundwork for his directorial debut: Perfect Blue. Released in 1997 and based on a Yoshikazu Takeuchi novel, the film, like all of Kon’s work, blurred the line between fantasy and reality as idol-turned-actress Mima (Junko Iwao, Ruby Marlowe) slowly becomes unhinged. Like all of Kon’s films, it was animated by Madhouse (Wolf Children, Black Lagoon), whose striking, fluid work helped make Kon’s ideas stand out.
Kon followed Perfect Blue up with 2002’s Millennium Actress, a mind-bending love story that sees documentary filmmakers Genya Tachibana (who bears more than a little resemblance to Kon; voiced by Shozo Iizuka) and Kyoji Ida (Masaya Onosaka) as they try to unravel why legendary actress Chiyoko Fujiwara (Miyoko Shoji, Mami Koyama and Fumiko Orikasa at various points in her life) vanished from the public eye at the height of her career, a film that Davisson describes as “infused with an infectious joie de vivre…it remains one of my all-time favorite films.”
Then, 2003 saw Kon release the alternative Christmas classic Tokyo Godfathers (with a screenplay by Wolf’s Rain creator Keiko Nobumuto).
Then came 2004 and Paranoia Agent, which originally aired on the Japanese satellite network WOWOW and aired in the United States on Adult Swim. In an interview that year with Japan Media Arts Plaza, Kon discussed the series’ genesis.
“During the makings of my previous three films,” he said, “a mountain of unused ideas for both stories and arrangements has piled up in my drawers. Not that I dropped them because they weren’t good enough, but they just didn’t fit into any of the projects. It hurts to see material go to waste, so I looked for a chance to recycle it.”
He continued. “In the case of a film to be shown at theaters, I’m working for two years and a half, always in the same mood and with the same method. I wanted to do something that allows me to be more flexible, to realize instantly what flashes across my mind. I was also aiming at a sort of entertaining variation, so I decided to go for a TV series.”
An expert on the Japanese supernatural thanks to research that has resulted in books like Yurei: The Japanese Ghost and the ghost tales website Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, Davisson found parallels between what the ultimate truth of Lil’ Slugger turns out to be and classic Japanese folklore, saying the series takes on traditional Japanese themes of revenge, spirits and internalized guilt.
“It has much in common with Yotsuya Kaidan, which is Japan’s most classic ghost story. In [it], the samurai Iyemon murders his wife Oiwa, who then manifests as a dread haunter seeking revenge. In older versions of the tale, Oiwa was a true ghost. In the post-scientific Meiji era, she becomes a manifestation of Iyemon’s guilty conscience driving him mad. Paranoia Agent combines these so that the guilty conscience also serves as the fuel for Shonen Bat [the Japanese name of Lil’ Slugger] to manifest.”
While it didn’t become much of a cult item upon its initial release, Paranoia Agent is widely considered today to be an anime classic. When asked where it sits alongside the rest of Kon’s work, Davisson mused that “Paranoia Agent is an interesting attempt to take Kon’s ideas into a longer format. It allows him to build a story over a longer time, introducing more elements that you would have in a film.”
After the conclusion of Paranoia Agent, Kon went back to film in 2006 with what is considered by many his magnum opus—Paprika—a tale of a psychiatrist (Megumi Hayashibara, Cindy Robertson) who dives into her clients’ dreams to treat them.
The following year, Kon contributed a short to the Ani*Kuri15 project done by NHK and helped establish and served on the Japan Animation Creators Association, a nonprofit dedicated to improving working conditions in the industry.
Sadly, while Kon began work on a new film, Dreaming Machine, it was never completed as he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2010 and died mere months later. In 2018, Madhouse’s founder Masao Maruyama revealed in an interview that, although the film was partially completed, production was ultimately halted due to both lack of finances and a feeling that no one could replace Kon.
Still, even with such a comparatively small body of work, Kon is regarded as a giant of not just anime, but world cinema, with no less than Black Swan and Mother! Director Darren Aronofsky penning a tribute that was included in a retrospective book, The Art of Satoshi Kon,(translated by Davisson), and all of his projects are seeing more rereleases in the West.
“Kon was a storyteller. It didn’t really matter what medium he worked in, he had a vision he wanted to get across…Kon was singular of vision. A sui generis,” Davisson said. “And I don’t think he would want anyone to attempt to become the ‘next Satoshi Kon.’ There is some artist out there now, I’m sure, with the same singularness of vision and ability to carry it off that will shake up everything we know about the media.”
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