A grotesque parade of dolls, household appliances, and stuffed
animals bustles through the city streets, turning everyone in its path
into dream monsters. People dive in and out of paintings, billboards
and movie screens. Girls sprout wings, only to be sucked into the
ocean’s depths and erupt once again from the water as mermaids.
Paprika is actually not Kon’s own creation but rather an
adaptation of a novel of the same name by Yasutaka Tsutsui — something
I’d be happy to see in English at some point based on what we see here.
According to Sony’s press release, many other directors were drawn to
the material, but only Kon managed to actually get the project off the
ground. It’s not hard to see why: for one, the visual tropes and
conceits that Kon puts into his own animated works are a perfect
complement for the cheery madness of this story. That and when you get
down to it, animation really is the best way to be faithful to a story
like this, since animation lets us suspend our disbelief even before
the first frames have rolled.
Paprika’s story revolves around an experimental device, the “DC Mini,” that can be used to enter dreams, commit them to tape, and allow others to experience them in tandem. The device has not yet been cleared for public use, but Dr. Atsuko Chiba, one of the scientists at the institute where the DC Mini was developed, has been using it off the record to help a police detective, Toshimi (a friend of Chiba’s boss), deal with a disturbing series of nightmares. Chiba’s alter ego when performing these therapeutic missions is “Paprika,” and as with the dual personality in Kon’s Perfect Blue, Paprika’s cheer and charm is a total flip side to the frosty, professional, and reserved Chiba.
The more she delves into people’s dreams, though, the more we wonder which of the two — Paprika or Chiba — is the mask, and which is the “real” person. (Both Chiba and Paprika, by the way, are voiced by the alternately perky and reserved Megumi Hayashibara, she who gave us the voices of everyone from Faye Valentine to Lina Inverse.) And while Chiba/Paprika's defined mainly by her dual nature, which is absorbing stuff, Toshimi is in some ways even more interesting: he’s nursing a wound that stretches back to his youth, when he tried to make a movie and left the project incomplete. The movie of his life has also remained unfinished, and the way Kon brings across both the man's pain and his peculiar solution to his problem are deeply endearing.
One day several test units of the device go missing, and all blame
points towards a team member, Dr. Himuro. He’s vanished, and from the
mess and rubble in his apartment, he evidently had more than a few
parts of his own on order. Worse, the DC Minis that were stolen have a
security defect: they make it possible to project a dream state
onto other people, even those who are wide awake. This leads to one
dizzying plunge into and out of the dream lives of each of the major
characters — the merry if grossly obese Dr. Tokita, the grandfatherly Dr.
Shima, and the handsome Dr. Osanai. Unfortunately, the wheelchair-bound
Chairman Inui, chief of the lab, has decided that all work on the
project must be stopped to prevent any further incidents — but it may
already be too late to stop whomever’s responsible from overwriting the
world’s waking life.
The abstract outlines of the plot are actually not that
complicated. In fact, for people new to Kon’s universe, it might be the
best starting point: it’s nowhere nearly as tangled as the hyperlink
Hopscotch of Paranoia Agent or the game of pin-the-POV-on-the-audience that persists through Perfect Blue.
What’s kept front and center — and the main thing I liked about the
story — are the characters and not the contortions of the plot, or
mountains of technical gibberish about the device. There was never a
moment when I wasn’t at least curious about what was going to happen
next, and many more moments where I was enthralled enough that I sat as
far forward on my seat as I could without falling off.
Still, the biggest attraction here is the way Kon uses the framework of the story to give us one dizzying, eye-filling spectacle after another. Again and again he returns to the same images, like a mantra, as a way of echoing his own character’s obsessions and self-perceptions — that huge, horrific parade, or a circus that turns into an action movie that turns into an endless hotel hallway where the same psychodrama of burning guilt is played out. Kon’s dream world comes across like the ultimate movie-making experience, in a way: you’re the star, the director, and the cast, all at once. Not only do we see this underscored in scenes where Toshimi slides in and out of a movie version of his nightmare, but where he happily discusses moviemaking conventions with Paprika (while dressed in Akira Kurosawa’s trademark cap and glasses, no less — a nice nudge in the ribs for those of us paying attention).Paprika is currently in the running as one of the nominees for Best Animated Film of 2007, and if you ask me it deserves at least that much if not the award itself. In a year when even the best American animation consisted of G-rated stories of cute talking animals, here’s a film that speaks directly and unashamedly to thinking adults. Even if the message within is something people of all ages can connect with: don’t just dream your life away, get out there and live your dreams for real.