It seems appropriate that the story of Paprika begins at a circus. Maybe it’s the whole bizarre flamboyance of circuses that really gets the nightmarish mood going, but the first scene of a large clown emerging from a tiny toy car could represent the entire film in a figurative way. That something small, such as dreams, often being the catalyst for something large, such as the subconscious, is the single foundation of Paprika. But most of these themes are already familiar waters for director Satoshi Kon.
Kon’s a name has been thrown around both inside and outside the anime world a lot lately. Using his distinctive style of blurring reality and fantasy, Kon’s other films have been intriguing, intelligent glimpses into the human psyche. They all deal with the single unifying theme of reality and how the things we see aren’t always what is really there. Kon’s radical, nonlinear storytelling easily stands out amongst an industry constantly being bashed for its mediocrity.
Films like Perfect Blue, Kon’s debut film, was excellent in mirroring the audience’s perception with the protagonist, blurring reality and fantasy to show the protagonist’s descent into madness. The result was a psychological, mental workout that kept viewers on their toes. Kon’s television series, Paranoia Agent, was also equally innovative, bizarrely critiquing society’s inner demons through a masked criminal that may or may not have been real. So, too, Paprika‘s unusual approach is an appropriate fit for Kon’s resume.
The story, adapted from a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, was an idea passed around to several studios, but turned down, deemed too difficulty to adapt to screen. After the critical success of Perfect Blue and Tokyo Godfathers, Tsutsui, now seeing the possibilities of an animated feature, contacted Kon and asked if he would adapt his story. In the special features on the DVD, Kon confesses his admiration for the novel and how his past films have all been inspired by Tsutsui’s story. “Now that I made the source of my inspiration into its own film, I’ve got some closure,” Kon says.
Paprika begins in the future, where a group of scientists have invented a machine called a DC Mini that lets people enter in and out of other’s dreams. Psychotherapist Atsuko Chiba uses the machine to run her own independent practice as Paprika, an alter ego “dream girl” who studies people’s subconscious thoughts. Although Atsuko and Paprika are essentially the same person, they are drastically different. Atsuko is cold, serious, and dedicated to her work. Paprika, on the other hand, is child-like, energetic, and carefree. Several times Atsuko is told she should be more like Paprika, and seeing how Paprika is Atsuko’s subconscious dream form, it shows there’s something more lying beneath Atsuko’s hard exterior.
Things get weird when the DC Mini is stolen allowing, the thief to transplant dreams into people’s heads regardless if the person is awake or not. The particular dream that is imported is one of the staple images of the film; a sea of personified kitchen appliances and demonic Japanese dolls taking a psychotic march through the countryside is not only brilliantly eye-catching, but also a highlight. When the dream world and the real world eventually overlap, it escalates into an explosion of outlandishness, and both worlds crumble.
The idea of dreams mixing with reality is , of course, nothing new, and the concept could have easily became a gimmick, being the sole focus of the film as things spiral into absurdity. Luckily, Paprika takes things to a deeper level than just the depth of dreams, not only through its characterization, but also with its attention to small details.
Some of the more multidimensional characters, such as Detective Kogawa Toshimi, who has frequent nightmares and seeks Paprika for help, are used to show the complexity of dreams and how they reveal our innermost desires. In other scenes where characters are wandering through other’s dreams, we see that even the smallest things (the landscape, the artifacts) tell us the true identity of that person. There’s even the awkward, fumbling relationship between Atsuko and her co-worker, Tokika, an overweight, child-like genius who creates the DC Mini. Although strange at first, the connection between these two characters grows more genuine as the film reaches its climax..
The DVD is packed with all kinds of goodies. Although viewers are warned that the special features might not be subtitled, all of them have English subtitles. The four mini documentaries are more than enough background information on Paprika and its creation; although I could have done without “A Conversation About the ‘Dream’”, which is basically Kon, Tsutsui, and two voice actors awkwardly talking about their dreams for half an hour.
Many say that Kon’s work is anime for people who don’t like anime. In other words, it’s intelligent, unconventional, and mature without, all the tired gimmicks. Certainly Paprika is, among other things, a gateway to alternative animation.