External Movie Reviews: Paprika

Note: This article was originally written for Advanced Media Network. Its editorial style differs from reviews for this site.

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.

Welcome to the maddeningly wonderful world of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, the latest production from the man who gave us the reality-twisting head games of Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress and the masterful Paranoia Agent. Paprika has elements of each one, come to think of it: the dual-personality psychosis of Perfect Blue, the world-as-nightmare and nightmare-as-world of Paranoia Agent, and the life-as-cinema and cinema-as-life of Millennium Actress. And now we have Paprika, a story of life-as-a-dream and dreaming-as-a-way-of-life, and it’s every bit as much a masterwork as his other productions.

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.

Tags: anime Japan review Satoshi Kon

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar in the category External Movie Reviews | Movies, published on November 11, 2007 1:04 AM.

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