- Monstrous Media and Delusional Consumption in Kon Satoshi's Paranoia Agent
The Otaku Manqué
Kon Satoshi's 2004 thirteen-episode TV anime series Mōsō dairinin1 (translated as Paranoia Agent, although mōsō is more akin to "delusion") presents a twist on the usual Tokyo-destroying monster. The monster that lays waste to the city springs not from an atomic mutation or alien planet or from a supernatural realm or robots run amok but apparently from the stressed-out psyches of the people themselves: when feeling cornered and under pressure, a mysterious inline-skating, bat-wielding boy (dubbed "Shōnen Batto," literally "Bat Boy" but translated in the English version as "L'il Slugger") appears and whacks them, sometimes fatally, thus releasing them from their anxieties. As the series progresses, Shōnen Batto transforms into an increasingly monstrous shape, first through rumors and media hype and then in "reality" by feeding on people's anxieties and desires for escape. By the climax of the story, he is an amorphous black ooze flooding violently through the urban landscape, absorbing everyone. While the origin of Shōnen Batto is revealed to have been a young girl's inability to take responsibility for her actions out of embarrassment and fear of punishment, the social conditions under [End Page 139] which her present actions trigger Shōnen Batto's assaults and metamorphosis point to the monster as something beyond a mere mass-psychological projection of stress made manifest. Media itself attains monstrous proportions, feeding and fed by a hollow hyperconsumerism, a consumerism for the sake of consuming.
I'd like to read Paranoia Agent as working through the unexpected and monstrous transformations that mass-mediated consumer capitalism effects on social relations and individual agency, turning consumers into what we might call otaku manqué—obsessive "fans" of media products without the attendant specialized knowledge of them or active engagement in them. In this context, the "fans" are all those who passively participate in and sustain this consumption, not the archetypal otaku, although the figure of the otaku occupies a key position in the critique I think Kon is offering as overseer of the series (the thirteen episodes have several different directors). Here the classic otaku figure becomes the active, overt, and concentrated instance of the passive "soft fandom" that progressively congeals, hardens, and materializes among the Tokyoites depicted in the series. In their hypermediated daily lives and in their mania over a media consumable, they become unwitting and incomplete otaku without even knowing it. Not that being a complete otaku fares much better. This vision of a kind of otakuization of society through media and consumption differs from the usual emphasis on the obsessive otaku inhabiting semiautonomous "islands in space" carved out by self-consciously attained media-based knowledge of specialized subjects.2 Rather, these consumer-fans, by dint of their unreflective and generalized but no less obsessive—in a word, delusional—relationship to media and media consumables, drown in an undifferentiated mass (culture).
For this analysis, Marshall McLuhan's famous but often misunderstood dictum "the medium is the message" provides a useful springboard. For McLuhan, a "medium" is "any extension of ourselves" (a tool, a technology, a system of signs). A "message" comprises the often-unnoticed structural changes (of "scale" or "pace" or "pattern") that a new innovation brings into society.3 In Paranoia Agent, the medium is the monster, where the medium comprises the electronic media technologies that have become part and parcel of mass—I would say mass-delusional—consumption. The monster—the structural transformation or, in this instance, structural deformation—lies in the figure of comfort-providing character goods: the soft plush toy, the childish accessory, the cute "superdeformed" anime figure. The overtly monstrous figure of Shōnen Batto is wedded to the covertly monstrous figure of Maromi, the "sleepy-eyed dog" character at the psychic heart of the series. [End Page 140] Both absorb virtually all the public's attention to become potential objects of otaku knowledge and desire that remain unfulfilled. This relationship between the threatening Shōnen Batto and the kawaii Maromi comes across in one promotional still for the series where the former...