Okay, let’s get it out of the way: Satoshi Kon was a dude with a very interesting mind and perspective on the world, and one of the things that really interested him was the nature of reality.
Like a lot of philosophers and neuroscientists he was aware that for most of us, most of reality is something that happens inside our heads. We believe things because we THINK they are correct, not because they are correct.
You can see that all over his first film, Perfect Blue, for instance. He knows how we construct the reality of a story and so he shows us something that appears to fit one story, and then pulls the camera back to show us a different reality.
And we sit there saying, “Oh, cool!” because it is.
They only let him have one series. I don’t blame “them.” In a lot of ways Paranoia Agent is wild, but god help anyone that can make real sense of it.
At the center of Paranoia Agent is Tsukiko Sagi, a character designer and a woman under enormous stress. She also has a loose grasp on reality, as her last character, the puppy Maromi, has become real to her.
One evening, under that terrible stress, she is gets attacked by the then-unknown Li’l Slugger. BOOM. At least no one’s asking her for character designs any more, at least not until she heals up.
Paranoia Agent’s Li’l Slugger isn’t really a character, in a way. He’s not intended to be someone the audience can relate to or interact with.
What he is is a construct, a device assembled to represent the feelings of Tsukiko and the other people (real characters) who cook him up.
You can see this in the first episode. When Li’l Slugger attacks Tsukiko, all she sees is just a shadow and a glint of metal.
As the cops probe her, the metal becomes a gold baseball bat, and the attacker short, a fifth or sixth grader, she thinks/remembers. Or invents, to satisfy the bullying chief of police.
Other people start to build up the story. When he attacks the journalist, Tsukiko sees the gold inline skates. And other people add other details: His shorts. His baseball cap, the dogleg in the bat, his cruel grin.
You see what’s happening? They are collectively BUILDING him.
Okay, background: There’s a philosophy out there called Social Constructionism that says people build certain forms of reality simply by agreeing to act as though they are true.
Money is a good example. There’s nothing real about money. Seriously. Pull a bank note out of your pocket and look at it. Don’t bother READING it, because the words are just blather. Look at it.
It’s a piece of paper worth maybe about a tenth of a US cent.
The value in it comes from the fact that we all AGREE that we will treat that valueless piece of paper as though it really has a given value. You can use a ten dollar bill to buy ten bucks worth of real stuff, like gas or vegetables or whatever, because we as a society agree that’s its value.
In Social Constructionism, believing in something makes it TRUE.
The trick to Paranoia Agent is that Kon took that one step further. He said, “What if believing in something makes it REAL.”
BOOM. That’s what Li’l Slugger is. Tsukiko – and other people, including fans and copy-cats and haters and thousands of others – believe in him, and that makes him real. Real enough to kill and injure people, put them in the hospital or the grave.
That isn’t a new idea. You see it a lot in works of fantasy. Terry Pratchett explored the extensively, especially in Small Gods and Hogfather. How do you make a god? Believe in him/her. How do you unmake one? Stop believing. Even The Simpsons went there, in one of their Halloween specials. Remember the advertising characters come to life? They had power because people believed in them. Their power was destroyed when Paul Anka told everyone, “Just don’t look.”
At the end of Paranoia Agent there’s a bit of blather that seems to lay the blame for Li’l Slugger on Tsukiko, which I suspect is there to give the story some kind of closure. But the real trick to the solution is that the people need to understand that Li’l Slugger is just like Maromi. Right? That’s what they keep telling Maniwa in the last couple episodes.
That’s 100% true. Because Maromi, as portrayed in the series, is a beloved character with millions of fans and an anime series (remember: anime is animated and animate means “bring to life”) even though he’s really just a stuffed doll. Maromi is real because people believe in him. He’s socially constructed.
Just like Li’l Slugger. They really are the same.
It’s just like any other form of stardom, really. People get to be stars because people believe they are stars. We like to believe it takes talent or skill or something, but, I mean, seriously, have you seen those Kardashian people? Or the Gabor sisters in my day. Kon is showing us the unreality of stardom by showing us how stars get made.
Satashi Kon and reality. There’s a scary combination.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.
PS And as we always say when we discuss Satoshi Kon, fuck cancer.