Paprika by Satoshi Kon (Review)

To attempt to come up with a more detailed plot synopsis is sort of beside the point, and to be honest, I don’t even know if it’s possible.
Paprika - Satoshi Kon

In their January/February 2007 issue, the long running anime magazine Protoculture Addicts published an article titled “Top 9 Anime Directors (Who Aren’t Hayao Miyazaki).” The list included a number of noteworthy names, including Mamoru Oshii (Ghost In The Shell) and Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop). However, the name at the top of the list — Satoshi Kon — might have taken some readers by surprise.

But the fact is that, with the possible exception of Oshii, no one is currently making anime that’s as intelligent, unique, and, well, adult, as Satoshi Kon. He’s made a career out of constantly pushing the boundaries of the artform, and with none of the usual clichés that tend to permeate it. And Paprika is yet another example of this.

If you’ve seen any of Kon’s other words — specifically Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Paranoia Agent — than you know that his pet themes include exploring the boundaries between truth and reality, fact and fiction, dreams and waking life. (If Hayao Miyazaki is to be considered the Walt Disney of anime, than Kon is surely the David Lynch.)

He loves to explore how they shape and influence each other, how we as humans try to differentiate between them, and what happens when the usually clear lines delineating begin to blur and shift. And it doesn’t hurt that he usually also adds in some social commentary about materialism, modern society’s tendency to alienate, and the role that art and media play in shaping society.

With Paprika, he’s taken that exploration to an entirely new level.

Based on Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel of the same name, Paprika involves a team of scientists who have recently developed the “DC Mini,” a machine that allows them to enter other peoples’ dreams in order to root out psychological traumas. Shortly before the machines are finished, however, one of the DC Minis is stolen and various members of the team begin exhibiting extremely bizarre and violent behavior.

It’s apparent that whoever has stolen the DC Mini intends to use it for nefarious purposes — the term “terrorism” is even bandied about, as more and more people begin to show signs of the DC Mini’s influence.

The lead researcher, a cold, professional woman named Dr. Atsuko Chiba, is determined to retrieve the DC Mini before the project can be shut down and more damage is done. Chiba has been using the DC Mini for some time now during unauthorized tests, and has even developed an alter-ego — a cute, perky “dream girl” named Paprika that represents all of the positive sides of Chiba’s psyche — during her forays in other minds. And so, with Paprika at her side (or in her mind), Chiba begins hopping from mind to mind, hoping to track down the thief.

This is when Kon decides to throw reality into the blender and hit “purée.”

To attempt to come up with a more detailed plot synopsis is sort of beside the point, and to be honest, I don’t even know if it’s possible. At the very least, attempting to do so would certainly rob the film of much of its surreal power, which would be a great disservice to potential viewers. Much of the thrill of watching Paprika comes from just having no idea what in the hell is going on — something that is bound to be true even after several viewings.

Strangely enough, it’s to Kon’s credit that he never really stops to explain much of anything. There’s some technobabble about the DC Mini and how it works, and some psychological mumbo-jumbo about brain wavelengths and whatnot. However, most of the time, Kon decides to just throws everything at the viewer with no explanation, and it’s up to the viewer to decide whether they’ll sink or swim. In this way, Kon places the viewer in the exact same puzzling position as Chiba and her cohorts — her boss Dr. Shima, Tokita, the inventor of the DC Mini, and one of Chiba’s patients, a police officer named Konakawa.

Soon, reality becomes blurred, dissected, and thoroughly split along its seams. It’s impossible to tell if what is happening is really happening, if it’s happening inside someone’s dream, or if it’s happening inside someone’s dream inside someone else’s dream.

At times, all of this shifting, breaking, and layering of reality does get a little tedious, especially since Paprika lacks some of the human element that anchors Kon’s other films. The closest thing here is Tokita, whose cheery, childlike demeanor is matched only by the size of his waistline (which is quite considerable). But just when things seem to be slowing down too much, yet another mind-blowing visual onslaught comes along — such as a massively nightmarish parade of frogs, dolls, monuments, humans with cellphones for heads, and figures from Japanese mythology — and the trip starts all over again.

Bringing all of these sights to life are the talents of Madhouse Studios, who’ve animated all of Kon’s previous titles, and prove once again that they are one of the top animation studios around. One sequence in particular — the opening credits — always catches my breath. It’s a gloriously madcap sequence, as Chiba/Paprika winds her way home from a late night session with Konakawa. Almost from the very beginning, Kon is teasing our perceptions, and doing so in a carefree and visceral manner that is only possible with animation (especially 2D cel animation).

Also worth mentioning is Susumu Hirasawa’s electronic soundtrack, which, in keeping with Kon’s visuals, is playful and joyous, and yet alien and disturbing at the same time.

Altogether, it makes for a stunning picture that, a few minor quibbles aside, is completely unlike anything you’ll see all year. Many films have played with the idea of dreams and reality — most recently, Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep — but I think it’s safe to say that most of them can be considered snoozefests compared to the boundless creativity and imagination that bursts forth from Paprika.

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