There’s a certain disconnect, or lack of understanding, when it comes to meta. Meta means self-commentary, self-awareness. But the simple acknowledgement of a medium within the medium is not interesting, and meta as meta is not clever nor is it illuminating. In fact, I would venture that most meta “cleverness” is a lack of ideas masquerading as cleverness. Abed on Community is often clever, because his meta-statements (essentially acknowledging his existence as a sitcom character in the context of not being a sitcom character) are contextualized. He breaks a fourth wall that the other characters understand as real life, and so he comes across to them not as zany but as somewhat disturbed. Not-clever meta is that which basically just honks a horn, screams “I’m a TV show!” and expects a laugh.
“Mellow Maromi” is an extremely clever meta-narrative in the middle of the Paranoia Agent world. On one level, Paranoia Agent is entirely about storytelling, because the narrative of the characters’ lives comes up short, and they require a deus ex machina – Shonen Bat. Lil’ Slugger. He interrupts the already deviated narrative of their lives with a slice of violence, real-life experience that gives them what they need.
“Mellow Maromi” is the name of a new anime series based on the toy that Sugi designed. “Mellow Maromi”‘s story is about a young boy wielding a golden bat, who is bad at baseball. He gets kicked off the team, and a Maromi doll follows him and decides to be his best friend. There isn’t more story than that, because production of “Mellow Maromi” has been delayed following the disappearance of a director and a scriptwriter (likely, if not explicitly [I didn’t recheck names], the script writer was attacked by Shonen Bat in “ETC,” the previous episode with the housewives in it).
This episode begins as an episode of “Mellow Maromi,” becomes an animatic, and takes us to the recording studio with all of the major players in “Mellow Maromi”‘s production – and as each director or producer is introduced, we get a little animation of Maromi that describes exactly what their job title means, and how an anime series gets produced. This is real meta – an anime series within an anime series that demonstrates not only how anime is produced, but develops a narrative wherein the anime is disrupted by the villain of the current anime – Shonen Bat.
And all of this meta-narrative is told in a framing story of hapless Saruta Naayuki, an exhausted (and incompetent) production coordinator who drives to a TV station with a tape of the first episode of “Mellow Maromi,” despite the fact that (as we learn late) everyone else in the production office is dead, either by Shonen Bat or, eventually, by the hand of Saruta himself – using, naturally, a golden bat.
Considering the theme of connectedness, as I have maybe ad nauseum inthese reviews, this episode can be seen as a microcosm of PA‘s concerns at large – everyone in the production of an anime series, from director to writer to color coordinator to art director, is connected, and a single incompetent in the middle of the chain, a faulty connection (as Saruta certainly is) can cause the entire production to fail. Even if he isn’t responsible for all of his fellow production members being murdered, he’s certainly the cause of stress that forces them to be “cornered,” which makes them the object of Shonen Bat’s attention.
Except Shonen Bat may be changing. It wasn’t until episode seven that he murdered anyone (the fake shonen bat, Fox). But throughout this episode, everyone dies at his hand – and despite this tragedy, the sort that would be major news and the only thing of concern to others in a just world, the TV station calling Saruta only cares about whether they get the episode on time. The world needs Maromi’s premiere! Shonen Bat’s murders may be an indication that he’s decided the world isn’t worth saving, or that the only redemption can be found in death.
Part of this episode is Satoshi Kon’s bittersweet love note to TV anime production (or it seems like one. It may be that anime TV is written and produced almost entirely before it airs, like British TV series tend to be, and American TV series are not. I don’t know). Even if lives are sacrificed, the show has to go on. And it’s an educational half-hour. And it’s a funny narrative of a guy, bad at his job, that turns less funny as we see the unearned rage, the ugly desire of a man to be appreciated even though he sucks. Even if he deserves all the contempt poured on his head. Ironically, Surata is also the only character in the episode who gives a damn about Maromi – he loves the character, but not enough to try and make sure it gets a good show to represent it.
Character is, ultimately, Satoshi Kon’s major strength, and the major reason I hate like hell that he isn’t around to make any more anime. Because most characters in anime shows conform to dull stereotypes – less than stereotypes – simple attitudes on parade. One character is the reluctant hero – and we know this because his two modes are reluctance, and heroics. The other is the brave idiot, because he alternates between bravery and stupidity. Kon’s characters had rages and desires that moved beneath the surface. Human moments in anime are rare. By human moments, I mean actions, dialogue, sequences that are precipitated by neither plot nor stereotype but by the realistic interactions of internal desires. With another creator, Surata would merely be lazy. In Paranoia Agent, he’s furious that his laziness is pointed out. In one scene, after being quite justly called out for being delinquent in duty, he rages in a storage room, using a broom to beat the hell out of some cardboard boxes. It’s a small moment (Surata’s a small man), but it shows some sensitivity to internal processes, the conflict between self-perception and reality. Human moments. Kon made them happen all the time.