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Seasoned Detective Toshimi Konakawa is haunted by a case he can’t solve and calls upon a secretive woman with a special skill. Using a device called a DC-mini, she is able to enter the policeman’s dreams as an alter-ego named Paprika and help him search for clues to his dilemma. The woman is Doctor Chiba, a scientist working with the inventor of the DC-mini, Doctor Tokita, a rotund genius with some maturity issues. This special counseling Chiba is conducting is illegal as the device has not been approved for public use, but Paprika is proving very effective, and very attractive to her clients. Complicating the issue, one of the prototypes of the mini has been stolen and is being used to try and kill members of the laboratory staff by manipulating their minds. Things get out of control and soon dreams and reality come together as a madman gains power. The detective under Chiba’s counsel is assigned to the case, and soon after Tokita is lost in another man’s dream, walking the streets as a gigantic robot. It’s up to Paprika and Chiba to save the day.
Sound confusing? Don’t worry, it is. But this being a Satoshi Kon animated film (based on the 1993 Yasutaka Tsutsui novel), it is a gloriously rendered journey of amazing visuals, stunning direction, and sensational action. From the opening dramatic and disturbing moments to the thrilling and satisfying ending, Paprika is an emotional experience that at time confounds and shocks, but is powerfully moving and genuinely thought-provoking. It is NOT a children’s film. But like every movie, it has one great moment.
Chiba, using the DC-mini and in the form of her alter-ego Paprika, is inside a dream of the prime suspect, Himuro. Strangely, his dream is strikingly similar to another dream Paprika has seen, and Himuro can’t be found. She discovers an odd crack in the dream and decides to explore behind the shattering façade.
Where does one start when talking about the works of the now legendary Satoshi Kon? Before his untimely death, the talented artist had created a lasting reputation for his artistic expression in manga, screenplays and animation. We here at That Moment In are big fans Mr. Satoshi. We love his art style in the incomplete Opus manga series (soon to get a rerelease from Dark Horse) and are devotees of his animated films Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers, and of course Paprika, our favorite. Even if you’ve never seen any of these films you’ve seen their influence. Director’s Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan have openly credited Kon in their work, with both matching live-action scene in their movies to those in Kon’s animation. Paprika, for us, is one of the greatest animation movies ever made, heavily dependent on its powerful images, and Satoshi’s attention to detail and whimsical often kaleidoscopic style. It demands multiple viewings.
Animation films have yet to really be accepted as anything more than something for children. Hardcore movie fans often have devoted followers of adult classics such as Gerald Potterton’s Heavy Metal, Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, Martin Rosen’s Watership Down, and the Katsuhiro Otomo masterpiece, AKIRA to name a few, yet studios like Disney and Pixar have so well-defined the genre for children, it’s hard to consider animation and not think about kids first. As much as we enjoy many of the Disney and Pixar films, it is the adult animation that has always been the biggest draw for us. Satoshi Kon’s work is a benchmark in this genre and while what is considered his best might be debated, his contribution is not. For our selected That Moment In–something almost impossible to choose for this post–we went with something a little dark, uncompromising, and haunting. It captures well Kon’s visual style, unwavering dedication to a theme, and incredible story-telling skills. (*Keep in mind that the Japanese language version with English subtitles–or your preferred language–is the superior form. For this post, we went with English dubbing, which, in a rarity, is actually very well done.)
Paprika is a special creation. While those unfamiliar with Japanese animation may be overwhelmed by its style and content, it has much to offer those willing to invest in the experience. Most especially, it doesn’t wallow in exposition like many films often do. It challenges viewers and toys with ambiguity. We are not given a clear path and the usual landmarks and cues we may be used to are nowhere to be found.
For example, Chiba and Paprika, the two leading women. Who and what they are remain a tantalizing mystery for much of the beginning as we jump and cut from one to the other, slowly, tentatively, piecing things together. The sensational opening is a master work of suspense, confusion, drama, and curiosity. With a single viewing, one is so wrapped into the visuals the dialogue becomes secondary, which is a shame when much of it so remarkably delivered.
But this holds true for the entirety of the film. From a long slow pull in a darkly lit room to a rapid-fire sequence across a vast battle-strewn cityscape, Kon does not minimize a thing. Every frame is work of art and Kon’s direction is among the best. Our eyes are nearly overloaded with splendor yet Kon keeps us focused with lighting, movement, and color. While the story is meant to be circuitous, confusing and metaphorical, the imagery is a cacophony of symbolism that is both undeniably obvious and often ethereal.
Kon is more than telling a story, as he typically does. His message is deeply rooted and it takes patience to reap its rewards. Paprika is about dreams, a word itself that has more than one meaning. Each of its main characters have aspirations and hopes, some they are learning they may not wish to discover. By the end, dreams and reality have become one, with each world overlapping the other. All the dreams of those under the DC-mini are now sharing a dream world with characters and images from them all gradually coming together, and entering reality. In the dream world, anything is possible, so control of the device, which, under the influence of its creator Tokita was designed to help people, is now seen as tool for power. The thief, who himself is unable to walk, and initially wants the project destroyed, realizes its potential and falls under the spell of ultimate control. Along the way, Kon uses the journey to comment on a number of issues and express how society and technology are developing into a relationship that has, if anything, consequences.
Kon most expressly uses the Internet as a parallel for the dream world, with Paprika even noting there is no difference. In each, we can be anyone we want, go anywhere we wish, experience, at least abstractly, any desire, be it the most romantic love or obscure sexual gratification to conquerer of the universe and beyond with no limit to our malevolence. Most importantly, all of this can occur under the guise of total anonymity, relieving us of any and all responsibility or, and here’s this word again, consequence. We essentially become two people, one for the real world and one, our alter-ego. Kon explores how the two may not be so different when world’s collide.
Satoshi Kon is well known for using women as protagonists, claiming his inability to relate allowed more freedom in portraying them. They are undoubtedly strong characters, but Kon is not afraid to explore mature themes, casting them as smart and emotional, but also flirty and sexy, a theme that inspires a conversation about his use of the ‘male gaze’ in his work. While his women are the lead characters they are seen through the eyes of the men in the film and through a heterosexual perspective camera. We, the audience are an implied straight male. This is common in many types of media, of course, but is noteworthy here as the theme of the film is how we might see ourselves reflected in our dreams. Chiba, a conservative type in neutral colors and a decidedly plain appearance, is reflected as Paprika, a spice by name, brightly colored in throbbing reds and rich greens. Even her hair is a different color. Chiba never truly seems comfortable with Paprika as her alter-ego, lending further credence to the idea that her reflected persona is designed for a male. The two are entirely different, despite their goals, and each hold power and attraction over men. At one point, in what is arguably the film’s most disturbing moment, a man literally dissects Paprika like a butterfly (there are even wings on the table) to reveal Chiba within. It’s violent and sexually aggressive, and yet thrilling to watch as the dream brings important characters together. There’s even a little homage to Japanese tentacle erotica thrown in (not that we are in any way fans of the genre). In context, the scene is remarkable and reveals even more how powerful Kon’s animation truly is in propelling a story and using symbolism. *Warning: brief nudity and strong sexual reference
Before we wrap this up, we want to talk a bit about the animation and visual style on its own. Kon showcases some beautiful transitions, subtly giving his art more power than words to tell the story. Take a look at a few examples. First is a short conversation in rain-soaked car. Notice the wording and the timing of the rivulets of rain water on the windshield.
We really enjoy films that play with reality and dreams. There is something very tantalizing about someday finding a way to relive dreams or be a part of someone else’s. Satoshi Kon did a lot in his short life, giving the world a look into his vivid imagination and incredible talents. For us, Paprika is the pinnacle of his work.
Director: Satoshi Kon
Writers: Yasutaka Tsutsui (novel), Seishi Minakami (screenplay)
Stars: Megumi Hayashibara, Tôru Emori, Katsunosuke Hori