doomsey reviews Paprika

Paprikaaka Papurika (Original Title)
90 min., 2006
Written by Seishi Minakami/Satoshi Kon
Directed by Satoshi Kon
Language: Japanese
My rating: ★★★★★

DC Mini, bringing your nightmares to life.

* * *

I first encountered Satoshi Kon’s work when I watched the movie Millennium Actress, but it was his following anime series Paranoia Agent, made with Kon’s unused material from other projects, which truly made me aware of his increasingly unusual worlds. This series, which could be described as 13 bizarre nightmares linked together by a teenager wielding a baseball bat, was followed by the film Paprika, based on a Japanese novel of the same name, making the figurative nightmares from his previous work the film’s reality.

And I have no idea what that reality is.

Conventionally, when reviewing a movie one begins by writing a plot summary. I suppose I could try, but there’s not a whole lot of point to the exercise. Maybe it could be described as Paranoia Agent in reverse: instead of bizarre nightmares held together by a common thread, it is instead a common thread held together by bizarre nightmares. The thread is that a gluttonous genius named Takito (voiced by Toru Furuya) invents a device, the “DC Mini,” that shares dreams. Its prototype, which lacks access controls (and therefore can link into just about anyone’s subconscious) is stolen and abused. The abusers implant dreams in victims, including psychiatric department chief Shima (Katsunosuke Hori), to drive them insane. A search is mounted, lead by Tokita’s psychiatrist colleague Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara). Shima, Detective Kogawa and a character that exists only in dreams, Paprika (also Hayashibara), assist.

But the plot itself breaks down along with the boundaries between people’s dreams, and the boundaries between dreams and reality. The original heist may or may not have been done at the instigation of a “master of dreams,” (Toru Emori) who may or may not have been the chairman of the company in which the dream machine was developed. The perpetrator may or may not have been Takito’s assistant Himura. And so on. Paprika herself may Chiba’s dream alter ego, or a person, or a delusion.

But a movie centered on dreams should be dreamlike. To achieve that, some amount of incongruity is required; our dreams are not the ordered, organized, and plotted scripts we would find in an ordinary movie. (Even the more recent Inception, another dreamscape movie thought by some to be inspired by Paprika, falls short in this regard.) Dreams don’t have a plot, don’t make sense, don’t have clean resolutions. Paprika lacks these as well; although there is a happy ending (of sorts), it leaves us unsure of exactly what has happened. A dream doll destroys a real building; real characters jump along with Paprika through a television set and into a scene where dream-Takito, now a giant robot, is terrorizing the populace. Even the body count (and there are several bodies) ends somewhat ambiguously. But everything is carefully constructed and despite the descent into nightmare the narrative hangs together; perhaps nothing that happens makes sense in the real world, but it still follows its own internal logic.

The visuals exist on a grand scale and match the dreamlike state of the film. The visual style is hyperrealistic, but animation allows Kon flexibility that remains difficult in live-action films; characters can disappear and reappear, change form and size, even show up in translucent, ghost-like forms. More importantly, they can do all this without being diminished in verisimilitude compared to the “ordinary” characters in the form, avoiding the “Jar Jar Binks” problem where the animated character just sticks out from the rest. Animation frees Kon from the constraints of actors as well, permitting Takito and the chairman in particular to be just slightly unnatural. The artwork itself is impressive as well; I particularly enjoyed the circus-themed parades of nightmares (complete with calliope music) and “Dreamland,” a run down amusement park that ends up being used as fodder for the dream world. Another impressive aspect of the film is attention to detail even in apparently trivial shots. In one shot a fan in the background is blowing a tissue around; in another light through a slatted ceiling is carefully projected onto a character’s suit.

Satoshi Kon worked with his frequent collaborator, Susumu Hirasawa, on the soundtrack, which ranges in style from classical orchestra and chorus to heavy electronica. It fits in well with the grand visuals but lacks somewhat in variety. This is especially apparent when compared to soundtracks for Kon’s other films, which sound very similar.

Paprika is Kon’s last film. It was released in 2006, a few years before Kon’s untimely death in 2010. Kon left his final project incomplete. I wish I could have seen what he would have done next.

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