Paranoia Agent – A Beautiful Critique of Society, the Self, Life and Death

        “Paranoia Agent” is a fascinating anime that pulls you in almost immediately as it proceeds to critique and explore reality through the world it exists in and the characters who inhabit it. My friend had recommended this anime to me and I’m glad that I finally got around to seeing it as any story that explores deep concepts and ideas and does it through complex characters is a story worth watching. It helps that the director Satoshi Con is one of my favorites for his film “Tokyo Godfather.”

     The story takes place in Japan involves Tsukiko, a character designer who created a famous character named Maromi (after her childhood pet)  who is under pressure at work to create the next character just as famous. When she is walking home at night a young boy with a twisted bat and roller skates attacks her leading to an investigation that leads to questions about what really happened as this Lil’ Slugger grows into legend as more attacks occur.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is very much a reflection of our own but with supernatural elements as Lil’ Slugger proves to be a major break from reality beyond the breaks from reality our characters face in the show. This is part of what makes it so fascinating. All our characters are broken and it is through their fractured lenses that we view their world.

The Tone – The tone is dark with an element of unrealness. From characters like toys being able to talk, but only a select few hearing them, a guy who sees life as an RPG where people are monsters to be defeated and an actual monster in Lil’ Slugger. The tone is dark as all our characters are broken in different ways and that is established early.

The Animation – The animation is beautiful and does a great job capturing the twisted reality of our characters and the dark tone. It is beautiful and at times trippy as warped reality scenes appear on multiple occasions.

The Characters – The characters are complex and fascinating, with the Police Chief being my favorite as he is caught up in his old ways but it is in his finding empathy for others and their perspectives that helps him save Tokyo from Tsukiko whose fears and denial created Lil’ Slugger in the first. We get a lot of days in the life of characters too and their relation to the events unfolding and how they react to the Lil’ Slugger incidents.

Gossip and the Creation of Legends – One of the major themes of the episode is Gossip and how it can feed the darker aspects of already horrendous things (like the Lil’ Slugger attacks) we see a group of women isolate and pick on another as each tries to one up what they know about Lil’ Slugger…Through it all there is fear of the other and the woman who is quiet is constantly targeted by the gossiping horde who has turned Lil’ Slugger into Legend.

Consumer Culture and How it Feeds Isolation and Fear – Isolation and the things that feed isolation are a major theme of the show too. From Maromi being the isolating factor of consumerism that gives Lil’ Slugger a feast of people’s insecurities and their avoidance of others and responsibilities. The ending sets up Lil’ Slugger is likely to return as rebuilt Tokyo is just like the Tokyo before meaning the same culture of consumerism is likely to lead to another being overwhelmed and creating another Lil’ Slugger as no one cares about anyone beyond themselves.

Escape versus Obligation and Responsibility – Escape versus Obligation is another theme as all our characters are running away. Whether it is running away from life, suffering, responsibility, etc. The episodes are about reeling them back in and forcing them to confront their obligation or responsibility. IT is only in taking responsibility for the death of her pet that Tsukiko is able to stop Lil’ Slugger from completely destroying Tokyo.

How Denial Can Consume – Denial consumes a lot of our characters…and each instance Lil’ Slugger arrives and kills them or knocks them out. Sometimes he saves, sometimes he arrives after they’ve already done the damage, like the anime worker who kills his entire team or the Police Chief after he’s lost his position. In one instance he has a suicide group who chases him and it is the only time he’s afraid as his power comes from those consumed by guilt and fear and the three who chase him were not. In the end denial destroys Tokyo as even Tsukiko’s guilt was not enough to turn Lil’ Slugger into the darkness that consumes Tokyo.

Isolation versus Relationship in Culture – All our characters are isolated and it is only in moments of connections with others that they find relief and peace. Isolation is what feeds Lil’ Slugger as lack of communication leads to obsession and fear. In the anime the culture of Japan in the story is one where everyone is isolated on their phones and stuck in their jobs and not wanting any responsibility or obligation. It represents the own darker nature of humanity and our own contradictory nature of wanting connection but wanting to be alone. Wanting responsibility but wanting none at all. This anime is great at showing the two sides of wants and desires and does it so well.

  This is easily one of my favorite animes now. Like “Tokyo Godfathers,” Satoshi Con created another classic that gives us complex characters and deep things in an overarching narrative that is willing to push the boundaries of understanding and comfort and in the process creates a masterpiece well worth your time. I’m extremely grateful to my friend for recommending this anime, and I plan to watch it again. There are so many deep themes that are covered and the complex characters are the perfect way to present these ideas. This is a perfect anime that sets out and achieves it’s narrative ends.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Birdman (2014): A Surreal Exploration of Meaning and Ego

birdman-movie-poster-1

      I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of good and okay movies over Thanksgiving Week. Out of all those movies, “Birdman” wins hands down. It will probably be in my end of year Top 5 list, but we’ll see. December still lies ahead and there were some films that I saw before reviewing the blog that will be major competitors.

   “Birdman” or “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu who also was one of the producers and writers. The other writers were Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo and the other producers were John Lesher, Arnon Milchan and James W. Skotchdopole.

      The premise is Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an aging actor famous only for being Birdman trying to make it big on Broadway and be relevant again. From here the story unfolds as he wrestles with situations, his ego and characters and his possible magic powers as well as the character of Birdman who pressures him into actions. From here the story unfolds as things become undone. From here the story unfolds.

The review does contain SPOILERS.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Soundtrack –  The music for this movie has a life of it’s own. There is a snare drum (and you see the drummer) at different points during the film and it does a good job of giving New York City life and creating tension. It makes everything organic and tense and draws you into the scene at hand.

Lesley – Naomi Watts plays Lesley, a character who has been working all her life to get on Broadway and is roommates with the selfish method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), when he attempts to rape her on stage she fights back and has her dreams come crashing down as the one who had helped her get to where she was betrayed her and didn’t own up to it. After she connects with Laura (Riggin’s girlfriend) and they share a kiss and appreciate each other as Laura reaches out on how Riggin had never showed the appreciation for her performances the way he did for Lesley. After she sets the boundaries with Mike she is a rock throughout the rest of the film and is able to comfort Riggin when he loses it after another bad Preview before opening night.

Jake – This is the best role I have seen Zach Galifianakis play. His character is driven and does all he can to pull the play together…from hiring Mike and doing what Mike wants no matter how outrageous and finding the money for different things the play needs…no matter how tight it gets. He comes through and his darker side is only revealed when he lies to Riggan to keep him afloat telling him they were sold out and that famous people showed up tonight to cast for movies and when he is celebrating the show’s success even though his best friend just shot off his nose and he hasn’t checked into his friend’s mental state. He was compelling to watch though.

Sylvia – Amy Ryan plays Sylvia…Riggan’s ex-Wife who he cheated on. Post divorce she is the only person he is honest with and opens up about Birdman being in his head pressuring him to do certain things. She listens to him but keeps him grounded and it looks like they are able to resolve things as he shows he cares and has learned and it happens organically too as she’s the adult in the room and he’s the one growing past his ego.

Sam – Sam is Riggan’ daughter and is played by Emma Stone. She plays a young woman out of rehab and she plays the part well. From the apathy and skeletalness, to using what she learned there (marking a napkin with dashes to represent time) she is there for her dad and admits he wasn’t a bad father after she talks to Mike about he was never there and realizes he wasn’t bad. She makes him relevant again and uses the popularity he receives on youtube after he gets caught outside the theatre in his underwear to boost him to relevant again as at the end she’s the one running his social media sites. They are friends at the end and she knows he found freedom as when she goes into the empty room and looks outside, she smiles.

Mike – Edward Norton plays a prick who is only real when he’s on stage and being someone else. We see this in how he plays a critic talking poetry and meaning…but than bashes everyone and during Truth or Dare has Sam spit on a bald guy’s head…as well as when he tries to rape his friend. I didn’t like this character. He was complex but he doesn’t even compare to Riggan in regards to how good he is. He is driven by ego, jealousy and want above all else. He only really cares about people after Riggan calls him out and fights him and after he loses Lesley. That is when he begins to learn and see beyond himself. He is devoted to the craft and that is part of what makes him interesting. If the script says his character is drunk, he was real liquor on stage, etc. I’m glad he grows but because of the scene with Lesley I could never like the guy.

Birdman – Birdman is Riggan’s ego and desire to matter. He is core Id and at one point during Birdman’s monologue near the end that gets Riggan to imagine he’s flying he’s describing that people want action, special affects and most of all him as Birdman taking the screen and soaring. He describes how they’ll make billions and outdo to “The Avengers.” It’s a messed up scene and you see just how twisted that part of Riggan is as it is the part where he believes he can move objects with his mind and where the show is just about him…not all those apart of it. Birdman is defeated though after Riggan faces death on the stage and shoots off his own nose leaving him in a Birdman mask of bandages that he takes off to reveal is bedraggled face but who is finally free of Birdman’s voice as Birdman sits silently on the toilet.

Riggan – Riggan drives the plot as he wrestling with his own self worth which gets shot down multiple times as the press only wants to talk about a possible “Birdman 4” or shoot him down for entering into their world (the critic who hates him for bringing Hollywood to Broadway). He is a flawed character and we see how his ego drives him as he dismisses those who try and help him like his girlfriend and how he isn’t able to connect to his daughter and ex-wife until he is at the bottom. Everything is about his popularity and power until he loses it all. It’s only after getting through losing it that he comes out flying and free from the voice of his ego and the outside pressures around him. It’s a powerful arc.

Messages – Riggan’s arc is growing past his ego and realizing it doesn’t matter. That he can be free if he chooses to be and what everyone wants to see is himself not the character as when he is truly himself on stage (he describes the play as a twisted version of himself but in the end accepts that darkness into himself) that he is able to survive and grow from it. He dies and is reborn without the beard and without Birdman’s voice in his head. We also see that art transcends all mediums as this film is a film and not a play so the critic’s point about Hollywood not being art is countered as the film represents the use of both mediums. Mike is also revealed to be a selfish hypocrite who can talk deep things but can’t live it in any meaningful way until the ones who have been through Hell (Sam and Riggan) pull him out of it. There are more as well, but these were the major ones.

Symbolism – Birdman is a dark bird representing the darker side of the ego I got from the film and the flight is only true flight when he lets go of that part of himself and is free. We also see the symbolism of the city which is loud, large and confining. Riggan and other character care trapped unless they are above it all from Sam, Mike to Riggan himself. These were some of major symbolic moments I caught.

Okay: Ambiguous Ending – The Ending is pretty ambiguous so I have mixed feelings about it. It implies he flies or is free after he blows off his nose based on his daughter’s reaction and the fact that Birdman is present but is not longer pressuring him to become Birdman again…but I would have liked it to be a little clearer. I get the symbolism of freedom and rebirth but when he had an imagination sequence where he was flying it was just that as the taxi driver is angry at not getting paid when he returns after getting drunk for opening night. This is my only issue, but it isn’t a con. It’s just not a pro.

     This film gets so much right that I can’t help but recommend it. It explores the ego, meaning and the different identity of individuals and groups and how they relate to each other…as well as that in relation to the art of the stage and life as a whole. It is powerful and one of the best movies of the year I’ve seen. If you have the chance to watch it, check it out. It is worth the money and time as it tells a story with a point and with amazingly compelling characters.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10. The only thing keeping it from a perfect score is that ambiguous ending. I would have liked to get what Riggin was thinking but his silence may have lended for good acting…but no answers on what actually happened.