From its electrifying opening sequence, Satoshi Kon's animated TV series Paranoia Agent (Mousou dairinin, 2004) is clearly about widespread insanity. With Susumu Hirasawa's exultant techno music driving it, the sequence shows a dozen characters laughing hysterically in stressful surroundings: a young woman stands on the top of a skyscraper, obviously on the verge of jumping; two boys stand knee-deep in the flooded remains of their shattered neighborhood; a teenage girl stands among fish under the sea; a young detective falls through the sky like a bomb released from a plane; a sleazy private investigator laughs into his cell phone in the swampy ruins of a bombed-out city and more, reaching a climax with an older detective on a radio tower with a mushroom cloud roiling behind him. Linking them all together is a demonic rollerblading boy with a bent aluminum baseball bat ready to strike: he is "Lil' Slugger" (shonen bat), the mysterious agent of paranoia.
The series begins simply enough as a detective story when a career woman named Tsukiko is the victim of an attack by a bat-wielding schoolboy on inline skates. Two police detectives are assigned to the case, and they sense that Tsukiko is hiding something, perhaps even making up the attack in order to get out of a stressful work deadline—
Then there is a second victim, a third and a fourth. Something is happening, but the detectives cannot tell if it is the work of a single serial criminal or if there are copycats at work. The situation becomes increasingly surreal and halfway through the series the detectives are removed from the case, losing their jobs. From there, the episodes descend into chaos. Yet this is not a postmodern "non-mystery" mystery, and the case rolls on with a life of its own to a most satisfying conclusion.
Kon's work is psychological, not only in the common sense of focusing on characters and intense emotions, with themes of illusion, reality and insanity, but also in a more clinical sense, as each character works to reintegrate his or her divided psyche. The two detectives quickly determine that each victim was under a great deal of stress prior to the attack, but each victim is strangely relieved after the attack. Paradoxically, the victims seem relieved by the attacks, gaining an almost eerie peace of mind. The detectives find it difficult to solve the case when each victim hides his or her own secrets.
As the 13-episode series progresses, the viewer discovers that the insanity is much more widespread than initially indicated. At first it seems to spread like an infectious disease from one attack to another, but eventually it becomes obvious that it is only an expression of a society-wide condition that existed prior to the first attack. The society has been insane for decades and "Lil' Slugger" is a manifestation rather than the cause. With the first few victims, the viewer wonders if there is any objective reality beyond a subjective experience because each of the victims is secretly insane: the first victim's doll, a Maromi toy, talks to her when no one else is around; the fourth victim is driven by his own vanity to become a violent bully; the fifth victim is a split-personality woman living different lives by day and night; the sixth is a policeman whose dream of building a house has driven him to crime and delusion. In this manner, Paranoia Agent paints Tokyo as a kind of Hell on Earth, populated by harried souls tormented by inner demons, considerably darker and grimmer than in Kon's movie Tokyo Godfathers (2003), where Tokyo is more a benign Purgatory for a trio of homeless people getting their lives in order.
In the psychological Hell of this series, there is a recurring pattern of aggressors disguising themselves as victims: characters who first play the role of attacker and then have themselves attacked so as to avert suspicion. In episode 3, schoolboy Ichii first wishes for the attack on the third victim, a boy whose sudden popularity threatens his own, and after this wish is granted, Ichii wishes for an attack on himself, so as to prove to suspicious classmates and detectives alike that he is not the attacker. After he has been attacked, he says, "I'm not the criminal...I'm the victim," denying the truth, even to himself. In episode 10, the wildly incompetent Production Manager of the Maromi cartoon show does something similar. Beginning with episode 10, the soon-to-be victims are shown saying, "It isn't my fault!" with regard to problems that the viewer knows really are their fault.
At the heart of the Lil' Slugger mystery that sweeps the nation is the repressed childhood memory of the first victim. When Tsukiko was a girl, she blamed the death of her real-life puppy "Maromi" on a fabricated random attacker, a boy with a baseball bat, when it was really her fault. The woman Tsukiko, besieged by both cartoon Maromi and Lil' Slugger, is finally forced to confront her past, at which point she accepts responsibility for her part in the puppy's death. She sincerely apologizes to the puppy, which allows her divided psyche to heal.
At this point the opening sequence of Paranoia Agent turns out to be more than just a metaphor for widespread social insanity when Tokyo itself is destroyed. The trickle of Lil' Slugger's victims grows into a stream, yet the viewer still somehow holds onto the notion that this is all "just inside their heads," all confined to a fringe of society, even during the destruction of the city in the final episode. It is only afterward, with the city smoldering and bodies littering the street, that survivors and viewer alike seem to say, "What just happened?"
Kon does not linger on the suffering of a devastated Tokyo. In fact, he jumps ahead two years to show that the city has been rebuilt and is back to normal. The citizens might even have better mental health than before, meaning that the destruction was a cathartic one, yet ambiguity remains: is it the true serenity that comes from facing up to the suppressed past, or just the "false serenity" that comes from being a victim of a "random" attack?
With Paranoia Agent, Kon is blasting all of contemporary Japanese society as insane, a national psyche torn between the "feel good" cuteness of Tsukiko's super-cute character "Maromi" and the terrifying darkness of Lil' Slugger. Both are symptoms of an event and a lie about the event. Kon reveals in the end that the repressed memories of guilt cause the guilty to assign blame to a "random" attacker, and that while that lie causes temporary relief, it actually perpetuates the insanity because it doesn't address the root cause. Only by facing up to the past and apologizing for one's actions, as Tsukiko does, can a person reintegrate their psyche.
At a deeper level, Kon's Paranoia Agent hints at a collective guilt embracing all of modern Japan, but he leaves it unidentified. When looking for an event that shook all of Japan, it is hard to avoid the end of the Pacific War and the dismantling of the Japanese Empire. In the decades following Japan's defeat, Japan came under criticism from Korea and China for whitewashing the warmongering activities of Imperial Japan.
Though his films, Kon is artistically grappling with what Karel van Wolferen famously calls Japan's "undigested past." In The Enigma of Japanese Power (1989), van Wolferen writes that the undigested past is a collective repressed memory built on a denial of Japan's "attempt to rule Asia and the blatant political suppression at home [in the pre-1945 era]." (1) Van Wolferen writes,
War in this perspective is like an earthquake or a typhoon, an "act of nature" that takes people by surprise. As one of Japan's most articulate intellectuals [Kato Shuichi] has written about the war in China: "Seen from the outside, Japan appeared to be invading China with imperialist intentions. Seen from the inside, however, most political leaders felt that Japan was being dragged into the swamp of war as part of some inevitable process." (2)
Van Wolferen posits that for the postwar Japanese, the war was not a conscious choice made by aggressors upon defenders: it was a nonhuman agency that caused Japan to suffer. There are no aggressors or defenders in this way of thinking; there are only Americans and victims. Addressing this, van Wolferen notes,
The general attitude towards the Pacific War is one of the best illustrations of Japanese "victim consciousness." Nearly all the war films of the past fifteen years [1974-1989] show the wartime sufferings of the Japanese people, and many young people are amazed when told that neighboring nations suffered also, possibly more, at the hands of the Japanese. (3)
Van Wolferen claims that the Japanese have cultivated a collective amnesia about their ruthless aggression in the 19th and early 20th centuries, transforming themselves from aggressors into victims of aggression. A result of this national amnesia is an unbalanced emphasis on Japan's war sufferings, which climaxes in the viewpoint of Japan as victim of atomic bombing.
Mushroom clouds, it sometimes seems, have become all but mandatory in the war films made by the established Japanese studios. Here is victimhood in its ultimate guise: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The belief in Japanese uniqueness has received very special support from these events: the Japanese did not just suffer, they suffered uniquely; one might even speak of national martyrdom. (4)
Van Wolferen identifies the mushroom cloud as a potent postwar symbol of Japan as victim, perhaps even the ultimate victim: a baptism by fire that erases all guilt of previous Japanese aggression.
Kon's earlier movie Millennium Actress (Sennen joyu, 2001) probes these taboos regarding the War, but does so in a subtle way that avoids alarming the Japanese viewer. The heroine Chiyoko begins her acting career in 1940 with a movie filmed on location in Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria that was part of Japan's attempt to rule Asia. The chief villain of Millennium Actress is "the Man with the Scar," an agent of the Japanese "thought police" who is pursuing Chiyoko's love interest, "the Man with the Key," showing the blatant suppression at home. It is significant that later in the movie this agent, now aged and infirm in the 1960s, appears on a personal pilgrimage to the movie studio in order to apologize to Chiyoko for his actions before the war. It is also significant that she runs away before hearing his full confession, and therefore, as she continues her quixotic quest to find the Man with the Key, she does not learn that the agent murdered him in 1940. Thus, the pre-1945 period remains undigested, even for a woman who lived through it. But the Japanese viewer is insulated because this is the story of only one woman and a rather dumb one at that.
In Millennium Actress, Kon goes so far as to directly touch on the generational-amnesia aspect of the undigested past. There is a memorable scene where Ida the cameraman, a member of the postwar generation, is magically transported back in time with his director, Genya, to the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo. Taking in the panorama of rubble, flames, and a sky full of heavy bombers, Ida says, "Ah, it's science fiction!" to which Genya, an older man who lived through the war, says, "You idiot." The scene is deftly done, providing some humor to lighten the grim surroundings without being too hard on Ida for his strange incomprehension about relatively recent history. In fact, Ida's condition is based on Kon himself, as he admitted in an interview: "The ignorance Ida shows regarding [wartime] history is actually a representation of me before I started working on this film [in my mid-thirties]." (5)
Thus, Kon made his first exploration of Japan's "undigested past" in a direct but shallow way, touching on the war and its aftermath in the life of one far-from-ordinary person. In making the film, he became aware of his own generational amnesia, as well.
According to van Wolferen, the postwar Japanese have a collective blind spot, a mental "forbidden zone" about Japanese history from approximately 1920 to 1945. Satoshi Kon seems to be repeatedly poking at this taboo. In Millennium Actress he pokes directly, but lightly, with a movie that covers the transition from prewar to postwar: the heroine who lived through it has a strange semi-amnesia about the war and refuses to learn the truth about it; and the postwar generation cameraman has been raised in such a state of denial that he perceives it as fantasy when confronted with reality. On the other hand, in Paranoia Agent, Kon pokes indirectly, but very deeply, and while he never directly links the Japanese psychosis to the war, he does establish beyond a doubt that something happened in the past to everyone in Japan, and this something is being ignored, and now everyone is crazy.
Seen in this light, Paranoia Agent shows a deeper level revolving around the undigested past. Using symbols of war in the opening sequence (the man falling like a bomb, the ruined city, the towering mushroom cloud), Kon suggests in the end that repressed memories of guilt (i.e., the Asia-Pacific War) cause blame to be assigned to a "random" attacker (the atom bomb), and that while the resulting victimhood causes temporary relief ("I'm not a criminal, I'm a victim"), it actually perpetuates the insanity because it does not address the root cause. Only by facing up to the undigested past and apologizing for the nation's actions (as Tsukiko does in Paranoia Agent, and as the former thought police agent does in Millennium Actress) can a society reintegrate its divided psyche.