A grotesque parade of dolls, household appliances, and stuffedanimals bustles through the city streets, turning everyone in its pathinto dream monsters. People dive in and out of paintings, billboardsand movie screens. Girls sprout wings, only to be sucked into theocean’s depths and erupt once again from the water as mermaids.
Paprika is actually not Kon’s own creation but rather anadaptation of a novel of the same name by Yasutaka Tsutsui—somethingI’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 tothe material, but only Kon managed to actually get the project off theground. It’s not hard to see why: for one, the visual tropes andconceits that Kon puts into his own animated works are a perfectcomplement for the cheery madness of this story. That and when you getdown to it, animation really is the best way to be faithful to a storylike this, since animation lets us suspend our disbelief even beforethe first frames have rolled.
Paprika’s story revolves around an experimentaldevice, the “DC Mini,” that can be used to enter dreams, commit them totape, and allow others to experience them in tandem. The device has notyet been cleared for public use, but Dr. Atsuko Chiba, one of thescientists at the institute where the DC Mini was developed, has beenusing it off the record to help a police detective, Toshimi (a friendof Chiba’s boss), deal with a disturbing series of nightmares. Chiba’salter ego when performing these therapeutic missions is “Paprika,” andas 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 morewe wonder which of the two—Paprika or Chiba—is the mask, and which isthe “real” person. (Both Chiba and Paprika, by the way, are voiced bythe alternately perky and reserved Megumi Hayashibara,she who gave us the voices of everyone from Faye Valentine to LinaInverse.) And while Chiba/Paprika's defined mainly by her dual nature,which is absorbing stuff, Toshimi is in some ways even moreinteresting: he’s nursing a wound that stretches back to his youth,when he tried to make a movie and left the project incomplete. Themovie of his life has also remained unfinished, and the way Kon bringsacross both the man's pain and his peculiar solution to his problem aredeeply endearing.
One day several test units of the device go missing, and all blamepoints towards a team member, Dr. Himuro. He’s vanished, and from themess and rubble in his apartment, he evidently had more than a fewparts of his own on order. Worse, the DC Minis that were stolen have asecurity defect: they make it possible to project a dream stateonto other people, even those who are wide awake. This leads to onedizzying plunge into and out of the dream lives of each of the majorcharacters—the merry if grossly obese Dr. Tokita, the grandfatherly Dr.Shima, and the handsome Dr. Osanai. Unfortunately, the wheelchair-boundChairman Inui, chief of the lab, has decided that all work on theproject must be stopped to prevent any further incidents—but it mayalready be too late to stop whomever’s responsible from overwriting theworld’s waking life.
The abstract outlines of the plot are actually not thatcomplicated. In fact, for people new to Kon’s universe, it might be thebest starting point: it’s nowhere nearly as tangled as the hyperlinkHopscotch 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 thestory—are the characters and not the contortions of the plot, ormountains of technical gibberish about the device. There was never amoment when I wasn’t at least curious about what was going to happennext, and many more moments where I was enthralled enough that I sat asfar forward on my seat as I could without falling off.
Still, the biggest attraction here is the way Kon uses theframework of the story to give us one dizzying, eye-filling spectacleafter another. Again and again he returns to the same images, like amantra, as a way of echoing his own character’s obsessions andself-perceptions—that huge, horrific parade, or a circus that turnsinto an action movie that turns into an endless hotel hallway where thesame psychodrama of burning guilt is played out. Kon’s dream worldcomes across like the ultimate movie-making experience, in a way:you’re the star, the director, and the cast, all at once. Not only dowe see this underscored in scenes where Toshimi slides in and out of amovie version of his nightmare, but where he happily discussesmoviemaking 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 thenominees for Best Animated Film of 2007, and if you ask me it deservesat least that much if not the award itself. In a year when even thebest American animation consisted of G-rated stories of cute talkinganimals, here’s a film that speaks directly and unashamedly to thinkingadults. Even if the message within is something people of all ages canconnect with: don’t just dream your life away, get out there and liveyour dreams for real.
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