Director: Satoshi Kon
Screenplay: Seishi Minakam and Satoshi Kon
(Voice) Cast: Megumi Hayashibara (as Doctor Atsuko Chiba/Paprika); Tōru Furuya (as Doctor Kōsaku Tokita); Tōru Emori (as Doctor Seijirō Inui); Katsunosuke Hori (as Doctor Toratarō Shima); Akio Ōtsuka (as Detective Toshimi Konakawa); Kōichi Yamadera (as Doctor Morio Osanai)
A 1000 Anime Crossover
Synopsis: In an alternative Japan, a piece of newly created technology called the DC Mini is created that allows people to enter dreams of other people and recorded them for psychoanalytical purposes. However when the three prototypes are stolen, a series of events start to take place where a dream of madness, represented by giant parade, starts to infect people and leave them in a delirious state that will leave them a hollow shell or unable to protect themselves. Alongside the inventor of the DC Mini, a child in a giant of a man's body called Dr. Kōsaku Tokita (Furuya) and a detective called Toshimi Konakawa (Ōtsuka) stuck on a case which has affected his dreams, a female psychiatrist called Dr. Atsuko Chiba (Hayashibara) is on the path to stop this, her secret persona that of a free spirited nymph of dreams called Paprika who acts like a separate representation of her subconscious.
The passing of director/animator Satoshi Kon at 46 to pancreatic cancer in 2010 was one of the saddest tragedies of anime in the last decade or so. Great and potentially innovative creators with idiosyncratic personalities are thankfully contributing to the anime industry, but Kon existed as one of the most distinct auteurs of it who'd always create something that felt like an event. He was one of the few like Hayao Miyazaki to reach a wider audience outside of anime fandom, and with only four feature films, one short and one thirteen episode television series in his career, alongside staff work as an animator and a writer, and a career before as a manga author, I'd argue he had the perfect career where every film and the sole series is distinct and important to him as an anime creator. Paprika for me was the one work in his career that felt lesser than the others despite its virtues, unfair considering that his other feature films were Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2001) and Tokyo Godfather (2003) but with a lot of expectations after them to follow that effected it. Revisiting it any flaws with what was sadly his last completed production, I can stricken those original concerns of mine away.
Baring Tokyo Godfather, his most conventional film in tone, Kon's most distinct trademark alongside his realistic character designs is his unique take on dream logic. The fluidity of animation allows for dream logic to mesh greatly, but Kon took it to an aesthetic extreme with his own high quality style. The concept of reality and various forms of unreality exist in other anime as a common theme but Kon in his various takes on it - psychosis, cinema, dreams - viewed the border as being exceptionally thin even next to other anime narratives. Paprika's is more blatant, the absurdity of dreams being taken to its farthest based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui of the same name. In a simple conspiracy plot, one that is dense in exposition but simple in presentation, the film dives head first into some of the most absurd and strange imagery possible for a film on the subject helped further by the fact of it being animated, of a giant parade that infects minds and turns victims' minds to jelly, led by a frog orchestra and marching through anything in its way with so much detail within it that the production would have to use digitally assisted animation because animating it by hand would be impossible.
The film's pleasures exist within being a spectacle unlike some of the director's other work but Kon's characterisations of his films' casts is another great aspect of his work and as strong here. His characters are always interesting, sacrificing the big eyed schoolgirls of other anime in favour of adult men and women who are very realistically depicted even when slapstick is at play in scenes. Philosophical ideas still permeate this film too, in this case through a laid back attitude discussing the ideas of dreams even in the context of a sci-fi action narrative with a potential apocalyptic ending. None of this ever comes off as navel gazing both because of how alive the film is visually and in plotting, and how the characters are dynamic as they are, even two virtual bartenders for a website (voiced by Satoshi Kon himself and co-screenwriter Seishi Minakam) who exist in a blur of the web and dreams and talk of intellectual ideas in an almost deadpan way to anyone who visits their site.
It's strange however with these virtues in mind that there is one flaw and it's a peculiar, unexpected one - that the villains are possibly all gay with hints made to the fact throughout - one far from a sad homophobic streak but something exceptionally weird in Kon's filmography. It's expectionally weird considering he was very open to ideas sexuality throughout his career including making on the protagonists of Tokyo Godfathers a transvestite. If anything it feels now like a badly fleshed out idea, likely meant to deal with ideas of desire which are subconscious to a lot of Paprika's take on dreams but no way as properly dealt with as it should've, more so as while it's all vague there are plenty of allusions to sexual desire throughout the film that are both honest but also dark, particularly for the later with a character called Dr. Morio Osanai (Yamadera) whose love for Atsuko Chiba becomes more disturbing and leads to one of the most adult scenes in the whole film. There is the likelihood, considering Kon was never black and white in his ideas throughout his work, that there's more complexity to this idea but the abruptness of it does stand out like a bad taste in the film that's above it and smarter everywhere else. Even if it's in the background, sexuality and gender is throughout the film, especially as the ending has a yin yang conflict between the feminine and the masculine to settle the strife, making this one flaw more obvious, more a problem as it spoils a perfect slate in Kon's filmography and goes against a film in Paprika which is as stunning and far more three dimensional to even its villains everywhere else as it is anyway.
Paprika is a technical achievement, a testament in how whether hand drawn or animated with assistance with computers you can create lush, imaginative dreamscapes. Of importance is not to downplay the work of the production staff for Kon's projects, all of his work produced by the animation studio Mad House whose high benchmark in quality is matched by having continually produced the work of auteur anime directors like Kon or Yoshiaki Kawajiri in their studio. The results in Paprika are suitably spectacular for a studio, amongst the various teams that would be involved to animate each frame of the film, known for some of the best productions on a technical side.
The other factor of great importance is the music of Susumu Hirasawa which, in honesty, is the best thing about Paprika even above everything else. With the help of the film's wide release and the soundtrack being available as an album, the eerie and beautiful synth songs of musician/composer Hirasawa could be appreciated further and reach a wider audience. It's clear since Hirasawa started composing scores since Millennium Actress onwards that his distinct contributions have been as much a part of the director's DNA and his worlds, melding world music (especially with the vocal chanting in the dream parade's theme) with the music of the future, Paprika's score he first use Vocaloid artificial voices.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium
Narratively, Paprika is very simple and straightforward. The imagery to tell it however is what stands out and makes the film as it is. Anything from a pink elephant pushing an albino alligator in a wheelchair to a chorus line of schoolgirls with camera phones for heads in a street is possible for the film. Adding to these bizarre images is Kon's trademark style of how small the membrane is between reality and this, blurring as much from the characters' psyches and memories as it is by the DC Minis in this film, where characters in Paprika can be pulled into dreams while awake and peoples' dreams mix with other peoples' dreams. Kon rather than merely bleeding the two side between each other used it to depict the mental states of the characters even if the internal had escaped into existence, the best example found in his sole TV series Paranoia Agent (2004) where an older male police detective traps himself purposely in a nostalgic world of innocent bygone days, having to be dragged out of it literally when he warms to the cure, two dimensional streets and paper toy people who are not affected by the grimness of reality.
Kon's films used this to deal with issues of identity to sexuality. The medium of cinema itself has been frequently referenced as part of a person's psyche as much as anything else that illicit emotions in his work, explicitly talked of through Konakawa's dream therapy and a huge part of the film's content. Based on a youthful passion for cinema he represses, it becomes a huge part of Konakawa's sub plot of picking himself up during a difficult case, and dealing with a deep seated regret in his past, denying that he likes films as a result despite his dreams being filled with billboard marquees for movies like Tarzan to Roman Holiday (1953) with Audrey Hepburn. The use of symbolism for each character - robots for Tokita, dolls for the elusive Kei Himuro (Daisuke Sakaguchi) who may have stolen a DC Mini for nefarious purposes etc. - is as much as adding to their characters as their dialogue and behaviour does. Everything is so well woven into the film, baring the one flaw mentioned paragraphs above, as with many Kon works that you end up picking up new details upon each viewing.
The realistic character designs Kon used throughout his career against such surreal imagery also adds to Paprika and his films' general oddness. Sometimes he would exaggerate a character design, like the exceedingly overweight but lovable Tokita, but the realism he had not only negates stereotypes of anime, gladly depicting men and women of all ages and sizes, but also provides a bridge to gauge viewers with the worlds depicted. When the films have a normalcy it means that the moment it's invaded by the unreal had a greater impact.
Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Mindbender/Psychotronic/Surrealism/Weird
Abstract Tropes: Dreams; Dual Personalities; Dreams Against Reality; Bizarre Dialogue; Pink Elephants; Subconscious Sexuality; Subjective Reality; Too Many Tropes to Count
Despite its one flaw, Paprika does ultimately become a rewarding end for Satoshi Kon's career. Sadly Kon's last project, fittingly named The Dream Machine, about two robots on a road trip, was never finished and will likely never exist beyond some images, but it's hard to deny Paprika is still a beautiful, weird and poignant career finish for someone who should still be alive and had many more ideas left in him. Aptly the last image of his last directorial work is a character going to a cinema and buying a ticket, maybe a little indulgent but for a film about dreams, from a director-writer who specialised in dreams and the subconscious through animation, it's an appropriate tip to the hat of the medium also called the dream machine he was obsessed with.