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Satoshi Kon, maestro of such critically acclaimed anime titles as Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, brings us Paranoia Agent - his first attempt at helming an anime mini-series. Famed for employing a captivating narrative and utilising surrealistic and dreamlike elements, Kon is certainly no stranger to the anime market, despite only having three feature length productions under his belt. In Paranoia Agent, he revisits his disturbingly erratic style as evident in Perfect Blue, but also highlights qualities from his latter animes.

Paranoia Agent Vol. 1
The Series
Paranoia Agent is made up of thirteen episodes, each one lasting approximately 25 minutes. Naturally, the first volume contains the opening four segments of the mini-series. Our tale begins with Tsukiko, a character designer under immense pressure at work for creating the next miracle toy. Snide remarks and jealousy around the office do nothing but fuel her stress even further. However an unprovoked attack one night from a roller-blading youth allows Tsukiko to become centre of attention for the media. The question remains as to whether Tsukiko’s injuries were self inflicted or whether she really was a victim.

Episode two focuses on Yuichi, a heartthrob and idol at his school. He always does well in sports and in class, earning him the title of ‘Ichi’ (Japanese for ‘number 1’). However his reputation is threatened when the children notice his resemblance to Tsukiko’s attacker from the previous episode. Rumours begin spreading and slowly, Yuichi’s fans distance away in the fear that he may strike at any time. Reaching an unstable level of paranoia, Yuichi seeks out revenge on the person responsible for the gossip, only to discover that the real attacker has plans of his own.

The next chapter illustrates the double life of Harumi, Yuichi’s tutor from episode 2, as she suffers from a dual personality disorder. By day, she is a pleasant hard working teacher but by night, she transforms into Maria – a wild prostitute who indulges in late nights and sleaze. Tired of her evening habits, Harumi decides to terminate her other character, especially as her boyfriend has just proposed. However, the sinister Maria will not diminish without a fight.

The final instalment is about officer Hirukawa and his descent into the Yakuza underworld. With his dignity and self respect gradually decreasing, the only way Hirukawa can retain any pride is if he captures the serial attacker.

It is interesting to note that each episode follows a new protagonist, who will have made some contact with the victim from the previous episode. The characters illustrate seemingly everyday Tokyo citizens – they all face pressure in their day to day lives and struggle to solve their problems. The serial attacker (known as the Lil’ Slugger) is the integral character that binds everyone together. By striking his victims with his golden bat, he becomes a metaphor for the cure to paranoia. The protagonists almost feel relieved afterwards that an assault has taken place to calm their minds.

Paranoia Agent Vol. 1
Satoshi Kon has ultimately emphasised how vulnerable human beings are to becoming delusional – certain cases are more severe than others but the fundamental problem is evident. Influences that result in these mass levels of paranoia include gossiping, envy, greed and bullying. However as the series progresses, further flaws within society are revealed to the viewer.

The series employs a diverse range of characters, many of whom appear like regular people in one episode but uncover their secrets later on. Surprisingly, Paranoia Agent never feels congested; the characterisation is kept thorough yet concise, so the viewer is able to appreciate the torment of one protagonist before moving onto the next. This technique is used to amplify the varying factors that result in extreme paranoia, as each character is a victim for different reasons.

What is astonishing is that Paranoia Agent, or indeed any of Satoshi Kon’s works, could easily have been made into a live action adaptation. Unlike conventional anime, Kon breaks away from stereotypical or exaggerated traits and clings onto realistic issues that are imperative to today’s society. In essence, Kon is a masterful storyteller who prefers substance over style to provide the backbone for his presentations. Subsequently, he can fully harness the power of animation to enhance his ideas. In one chapter he uses a ‘fly on the wall approach’ to analyse the bustling metropolis of Tokyo and its citizens. However, he later seamlessly blurs the fine line between fantasy and reality, manipulating even the audience into unforeseen misconceptions.

Paranoia Agent Vol. 1
The atmosphere Kon creates is truly profound, capturing raw tension in each episode with an eerie uncertainty. Of course those familiar with his earlier films will understand how decidedly random and unpleasant some of the images are. As a result, Paranoia Agent is an incredibly mature series that is never shy of depicting onscreen blood or sexual references. The quality of animation also appears to be of a high production value – there is careful attention to the details, facial expressions, lighting and framing. From previous experience, it is evident that many theatrical to TV adaptations lose some of the visual splendour. In the case of Paranoia Agent, everything looks strikingly rich and glossy so the artists clearly put tremendous effort into the visuals.

Paranoia Agent also makes good use of music to help set the strange, unfamiliar tone. Every episode opens with a grand synthesised pop-opera and closes with a soft lullaby. Upon initial inspection, whilst the series may appear almost Lynchian in execution, the psychological behaviour of modern individuals is exceptionally clear. The opening four episodes have captured the attention of this particular reviewer; the remaining volumes shall be eagerly awaited.

Video
Paranoia Agent is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format, maintaining an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Unfortunately, the runtime indicates that the UK DVD contains an NTSC to PAL conversion and thus, displays extensive ghosting throughout all four episodes. Every camera movement and body motion exhibits an unwelcoming trail. In addition, the transfer appears to be slightly too soft. Some of the lines and details are not as precise as they should be. Occasional edge enhancement is also present on the disc; however this issue is thankfully not too severe.

The series is remarkably colourful, utilising a distinct pallet ranging from bright blues to murky browns. Vital areas such as skin tones and scenery colours appear to be accurate. The shades are solid with plenty of integrity but suffer from smearing during certain chapters. Black levels seem reasonable but the shadow detail is excellent, which is superb considering the heavy night time activity. Moreover, the contrast is also kept nicely balanced as to not distort the picture further. Retrospectively, the transfer is flawed but does well to preserve the authentic matte finish.

Paranoia Agent Vol. 1
Audio
Paranoia Agent contains two Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround soundtracks; one in its original language of Japanese and the other in an English dub. Examining the Japanese audio, the dialogue originates from the centre speaker and is very well defined. There is also sufficient depth in the audio to add vitality to the overall soundtrack. Directional effects predominantly occur between the left and right channels and the rears manage to capture the chaos of Tokyo’s rush hour and media frenzy. The rhythmic score is carefully balanced in relation with the dialogue and ambient noise, providing a comfortable home entertainment experience.

The English dub has a slightly quieter score but louder dialogue. However the volume difference is very slight and is not of major concern. The lip synching is excellent and the voice actors sound very much like their Japanese counterparts. The dialogue has been slightly altered to match the mouth movements but the overall translation has not been lost.

Lastly, there are optional yellow English subtitles that are nicely paced and free of errors.

Extras
There is an interesting 5m20s interview with the show’s creator, Satoshi Kon. He admits that the idea for Paranoia Agent came from the dregs of his previous three movies. Kon also develops the idea of paranoia and how so many people treat it as a form of escapism from their stressful lives. Lastly, he finishes the conversation by expressing his fondness for certain characters.

Next up is the storyboard for episode 1. The viewer has the option to view the original sketches or use the multi-angle feature to watch the show and storyboard simultaneously. Only English audio is available when sitting through this option.

Two trailers for Samurai Champloo (another hit series from the creator of Cowboy Bebop) and R.O.D The TV round off the extras on this DVD. There are DVD credits available for anyone who is interested.

Paranoia Agent Vol. 1
Overall
Satoshi Kon titles have been nothing short of spectacular and Paranoia Agent is no exception. The opening episodes have set the scene for a beautifully unusual series that omits traditional anime stereotypes. Kon has provided an in depth study of paranoia; delusional human beings desperately seeking refuge from their problems caused by the holes of society. Visually stunning, mature and unpleasant, the future volumes of Paranoia Agent cannot arrive too soon.


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