by Bill Gibron

17 November 2007


Since it first became popular in the early ‘80s (at least to previously uninformed Western eyes), anime has functioned as a reminder of how imaginative 2D cartooning can be – and how derivative. Thanks to the influence of the Internet, the ease of access via new technology, and an absolute glut of product, what once seemed odd and special has been slightly marginalized due to overexposure. Even worse, purists have complained about the influence of CG elements sneaking into the process, the use of bitmaps and other shortcuts to create what used to take dedicated artisans months to accomplish. For them, and everyone who feels the genre has reached an aesthetic breaking point, there is the brilliant Paprika. Part mindf**k, part homage heavy hallucination, it’s everything devotees champion – and everything the traditionalists despise.

When an experimental device known as the DC Mini goes missing from a secret psychological research lab, the scientists in charge panic. The small machine is capable of recording, influencing, and even controlling an individual’s dreams. If it fell into the wrong hands, the untested tool can be linked to any mental monitoring system, resulting in a blur between reality and the subconscious. Doctors Chiba and Shima decide to employ “Paprika”, a digital alter ego that easily maneuvers through the nonsensical dangers of the dream realm. In fact, it’s been working with a dejected policeman who has been unable to catch an elusive murderer. His shame, along with the ambitions of others in the think tank, collide to create a carnival of corrupt, frequently horrifying delusions. As the real world and fantasy continue to merge, it will take the influence and imagination of everyone involved to stop the hideous evil that wants to save dreams by destroying reality.

While it will probably look amazing once Sony gets around to releasing a Blu-ray version of the title (due on 27 November), the standard DVD release of director Satoshi Kon’s epic Paprika is still a stunner. As the force behind such well loved efforts as Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, the animation maverick once again proves his undeniable gifts. Appropriating a classic 1993 novel by avant-garde author Yasutaka Tsutsui and twisting the premise on its head, Kon forges a reference laden tribute to the magic of movies. The narrative crashes into noir, musicals, fantasy, and sci-fi, with lush, unrelenting visuals like a compendium of Asian cultural iconography come to life. In fact, Paprika is one of the more Eastern oriented efforts in anime. Everything about it, from the allusions to the artwork, is reminiscent of the very fabric of Japan.

Thematically, the battle between modernity and myth, the customary attacking technology for supremacy, sits at the center of the tale. It’s a brilliant metaphor for contemporary existence and one that Kon employs optically to instill a sense of wonder mixed with danger. The central image in the film - the mad parade of religious and recreational symbols - suggests a wealth of history and heritage rallying against the sterile social framework. Whenever it arrives onscreen, its emblematic power is undeniable. Even more intriguing is the juxtaposition of syrupy J-Pop anthems with horrific, almost evil vistas. Kon constantly tweaks the horror film facets of the story, using the policeman’s nightmares as a means of creating suspense and dread. This mixing of styles, along with the reliance of pen and ink poetry will be the movie’s main force.

There will be some who don’t understand the motives or the meaning of the narrative. Paprika‘s elusiveness is obvious and is centered in a desire to keep questions unanswered and thoughts incomplete. We never really get a full handle on the DC Mini and how it will help psychotherapy. One just has to assume that, because it uncovers the subconscious, Freudians locked into interpreting such visions would find it viable. But then our villain argues over the purity of dreams, as if infiltrating their ethereal space is a crime against nature. The confusion collects, but luckily never adds up to very much. Thanks to Kon’s novel way with the artform, we excuse the occasional cloudiness.

And then there will be the art-oriented arguments. Many pedants may recoil at the dependence on the computer and other technical tweaks to deliver the traditional hand drawn style. Luckily, Kon never lets it overpower the everpresent human touch. Others will scoff at the script, wondering if the screenwriters were drunk or just reverting to juvenile ramblings for the sense of subconscious surrealism. Yet even with all the questions and concerns Paprika paints a nearly flawless model of sound married to vision. Providing a wealth of continuing pleasures that only expand upon additional viewings, it represents the highest order of the frequently overdone genre. It’s a movie that’s as impressive in its little moments as when it’s exploiting spectacle for the sake of nonstop action.

As for the digital presentation, the technical specifications are near reference quality. Sony Pictures Classic provides a wonderful 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, colors cascading off the detail-rich transfer with terrific clarity. Sonically, there is a stellar Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and an equally effective English version. Anything beyond the original language track is rather pointless. And when it comes to extras, much of the material feels ported over from an original Japanese release (much of it has the appearance of made for TV EPKs). One of the best featurettes focuses on a conversation between Kon and author Tsutsui. Discussing the differences in approach between the novel and the film, it’s a fascinating look at the interpretation process. Equally compelling is a full length audio commentary in which the director (with the help of two other crew members) outlines the pitfalls and problems they had in realizing this unusual vision.

In contrast to the typical American animation, where anthropomorphized animals trade lame pop culture references within a message-heavy happenstance, Paprika is like 2001 without Kubrick’s obsessive ambiguity. It’s a big picture premise folded into a dozen personal tales, harvesting significant from the strange and wonderment from the well-honed. As he has done before, Kon continues to impress with his desire to bend the rules in order to fashion a whole new animated language. By introducing concepts that confuse as well as endear, that construct as much internal angst as they fuel entertainment bliss, he produces a kind of multidimensional drug. Like the DC Mini at the center of the story, Paprika doesn’t fully explain its purpose or potential. It leaves it up to us, the viewers, to figure it all out. And that’s half the fun of this fabulous film. The rest is what anime does best – amaze.

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