It's been critically lauded and given more column inches in DVD mags than any anime series that I can remember, and we've now had the chance to see what all the fuss is about.
Paranoia Agent starts when a designer, cracking under the pressure of coming up with a new character to rival the success of her previous creation, is attacked by a mysterious baseball bat-wielding assailant whilst going home at night. Two detectives brought in to look at the assault soon find they are dealing with a lot more than they first thought - what is the identity of the mystery rollerblading assailant dubbed 'Li'l Slugger' by the press? Is it a child or an adult? And more importantly, considering the victim's mental state at the time of the attack, did it actually happen at all? Things are further complicated when more attacks occur, each victim having a connection to the previous one, and each suffering from extreme stress, anxiety or mental disorder at the time...
Director Satoshi Kon cut his teeth on feature films so this series is a bit of a departure for him, but he has sacrificed none of his vision in the transition to the small screen. Paranoia Agent vol 1 is constructed like a series of vignettes, with each of the four episodes featuring a different character who often appeared briefly in the previous episode, and the story winds between them throwing up questions at every turn. It is masterfully constructed, surreal, dark, intriguing and utterly brilliant. Paranoia Agent vol 1 effortlessly shifts from David Lynch inspired surrealism (check out the next episode previews, which feature an ageing butler standing in odd places) to police drama via Kon's own special brand of suspense and intrigue.
The characterisation is excellent throughout, successfully drawing you into the psyche of each neuroses-ridden character, and it's impressive how the characters work as well when they are in the background as they do when they are in the spotlight. The story weaves a complex web of intrigue around them which touches on themes covered in Kon's earlier films, with some parts reminiscent of Perfect Blue, but these themes are approached in different ways and there is plenty of originality on offer too. The series effectively depicts the seedy underbelly to the respectable personas many characters outwardly project, often to very creepy effect, and the visuals and music are masterful throughout. By the end of the volume we have seen a successful designer cracking under pressure, an attention craving schoolboy consumed by jealousy, a mild mannered teaching assistant fighting a personal battle against multiple personality disorder and a policeman losing himself in comic books in an attempt to justify the crimes he is committing, yet you will still be no wiser as to who the assailant is than the middle-aged detective who is trying to piece it all together.
From that description it does sound like David Lynch without the cherry pie but, despite some stylistic similarities, from the evidence of this first volume Paranoia Agent is far more accessible and less confusing than most of Lynch's works. What really impresses me is that I have no idea where it is going to go next, something that is quite rare nowadays. Just when you think you have things worked out the series throws something new at you, and there is a real twist in the tail of this volume which will completely throw you off. I really can't wait for the next volume of Paranoia Agent, this one succeeded in hooking me from the first bar of the superbly odd opening song to the surreal next episode preview at the end of episode 4. MVM have really pushed the boat out with their releases this year, but with a start like this Paranoia Agent could really prove to be the cream of the crop.