The best—if not the most delicate—way to describe Satoshi Kon’s Paprika is to simply say that it’s a solid five-stars worth of mind-f**kery. And I mean that in the most positive sense imaginable. It’s not often that I find myself watching something and realize that my mouth is hanging open in astonishment, but that was exactly the case with Paprika, which I’ve now seen two-and-a-half times. It was only on the second viewing that I was able to begin to understand the brilliance of Satoshi Kon’s achievement.
It’s one thing to throw a lot of weirdness up on the screen for its own sake. Anyone with a degree of imagination (or the ability to fake it) can do that. It’s another thing to create something intrinsically weird and have all that amassed strangeness tie together in a coherent story that actually means something. In the case of Paprika, not only does it tie together and mean something, it creates an almost bottomless mystery of possibilities as concerns that meaning. This truly is a film that invites the viewer to delve as deeply as possible, allowing for a wide variety of readings, each of which is perfectly valid.
In the main, I am not generally keen on anime (Miyazaki to one side). The genre tends to bring forth unpleasant memories of well-meaning folks who have tried to introduce me to things like Dragon Ball Z (1996), Vampire Hunter D (2000) etc. (What is it with the alphabetical appendages anyway?) I found the animation in such films rudimentary and the writing between bad and nonexistent. Anime fans tell me I just don’t get it. With this in mind, I wasn’t expecting to “get” Paprika either, proving that pleasant surprises still permit themselves the luxury of occurring these days.
The film opens with a series of frequently stunning images that involve an unidentified man, who turns out to be a police detective (voiced by Akio Otsuka). He is first seen trapped by a circus ringmaster, then attacked by throngs of people from the audience, escaping their clutches when he’s propelled into another “reality,” and out of that into another and then another. (It’s significant that all these realities reflect stock-movie genres.) He finally arrives at what might or might not be reality, only to have it slip away from him with the question, “But what about the rest of it?” echoing in his brain. It turns out that he’s been dreaming, and more, that the title character, Paprika (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara), has been dreaming with him with the help of a newly developed device that allows people to enter each other’s dreams.
Paprika, it seems, is a dream therapist and a kind of superhero, but she’s also (in a different guise) Dr. Atsuko Chiba, who is part of the team developing the new invention. Not long after the session with the detective, she learns from the device’s actual inventor, a comically obese genius, that the DC Mini (as it’s called) has been stolen. The problem is compounded by the fact that the device hasn’t been properly finished, allowing whoever stole it to infiltrate any dreams he or she chooses. This is merely setup.
The film quickly turns into incredibly hallucinatory dreams that move from one plane of reality to another with the kind of “dream logic” few have dared to attempt and a richness of imagery that few imaginations could conjure (a parade with a band of musical frogs led by an ambulatory mailbox and a refrigerator, and followed by hordes of toys and animals, for example). Shapes shift; identities change; locations mutate. The images are sometimes charming, sometimes nightmarish—and occasionally both at the same time—but all of them have a bearing on the story and the characters. Note carefully how nearly every main character has a double in the course of the film. The most obvious is Paprika and Dr. Chiba, but the inventor also has another half (apparently homosexual), while the detective’s problems (and his attendant fear of movies!) are grounded in a lost other self. Even the villain of the piece (who may also be something of a hero in his—at least stated—quest to protect the sanctity of the privacy of dreams) has a weird parallel in a strangely homoerotic partnership with his minion.
It all has a point; or rather it has a variety of them. The film is both a critique of the Westernization of Japanese society, and a kind of valentine to any and all pop culture. It worries about modern life with all its media and Internet-driven overload, while plugging into that overload. It raises questions about the nature of dreams and about how complete any of us really are in ourselves. And that’s just the beginning of what it suggests. My guess is that 20 or even 50 viewings later, you’d still find little mysteries buried in its amazing tapestry. It’s clever, creative, funny, scary, erotic and provocative (catch the guys with cell-phone-camera heads taking up-the-skirt pictures of schoolgirls)—which is also by way of noting that this is not a movie for kids.
But more, it’s simply the most refreshing piece of cinema I’ve seen this year, not in the least because Kon dares to remember that with animation anything is possible. Animation, far too often, tries to be too much like real life—or at least like a real-life movie. Kon’s breathtaking film is having none of that, and yet in giving rise to fantasy unhampered by what the camera can and can’t do, it creates the kind of hyperreality that only stylization can give voice, where the unreal becomes more real in terms of emotion and impact than reality. Paprika is quite simply one bold and brilliant film. And don’t wait to see it—you’ll kick yourself if you don’t see it on the big screen—because despite good reviews, it’s fared poorly at the box office and may very well play locally for a very short time. Rated R for violent and sexual images.