There is no doubt that Satoshi Kon is one of the best directors on the anime scene. The man really has done no wrong, amazing me with Perfect Blue and continuing to dazzle ever since. Even his one film that didn't strike me as perfection the first time around, Tokyo Godfathers, has grown on me. But is he growing a little stale? I suppose it depends on your point of view. His latest film, Paprika, is a visual delight and an entertaining journey well worth any anime fan's time, filled with memorable characters and thoughtful concepts. If you've not caught up with the Satoshi Kon wave, this is as good a place to start as any. However, I have to say that despite its wonders, there are some minor holes...and it may be simply because Kon has gone to the same well too many times.
In a near future, psychotherapy machines that would send Tom Cruise into hysteria are used to help people with neurological and psychological disorders. For some time, they've been used to record, literally, the stuff of dreams. They are useful devices, since therapists could see what's going on in a client's mind. Now, a new tool known as the DC Mini is in the testing stages. The DC Mini, which fits onto its user's head, allows a therapist to actually enter into the world of the dreaming client and steer him through his visions and nightmares.
When we first meet Paprika, a spritely and enchanting young woman, she's working with Konakawa Toshimi, a detective haunted by recurring dreams of a murder he seems unable to stop. Who is the murderer who runs off down the corridor, unable to be apprehended? Who is the victim? What does it mean? Paprika wants to help Toshimi get past his own demons, which include an aversion to seeing movies. By getting into his head, Paprika hopes to give Toshimi some guidance that will help him in the real world.
At the same time, we meet Atsuko, a deeply serious and even stuffy dream researcher who learns that there might be a terrorist group interested in the DC Mini. What kind of power could be unleashed by someone who could make nightmares into reality? Her compatriots in the lab who designed the DC Mini don't seem to be nearly as concerned, but when various folks from her workplace start spouting nonsense in real life, it becomes clear that the lines between sleep and dream are blurring. Atsuko will have to come to terms with her own reality -- and that of her doppleganger Paprika -- if she is not only going to help her client but help the world avoid a disaster of night terrors turned real.
Everything about the Paprika package is truly astounding. Kon's fans will appreciate his character designs, but what they might not even notice is just how well animated this film is. Many shots have to be computer generated, yet they are so seamless that one never feels (as with so many "computer enhanced" anime) that they are watching a movie made on a machine. In fact, it is nigh impossible to spot some of the visual enhancement except for the effect on the dreamlike world we enter. The music is playful and yet shifts into slightly sinister modes when the film calls for it. Quite simply, if you cannot appreciate the artistry involved in Paprika, you're not looking hard enough.
There are many trademarks of Satoshi Kon's work at play in Paprika. We continue to investigate the lines between fantasy and reality that framed Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress; we plumb the depths of unique friendship as seen in Tokyo Godfathers; we realize society's role in our social problems as explored in Paranoia Agent. Kon gives us a fun movie that wraps together all of these themes and comes out with an exciting blend. There's really not been an anime experience like this in some time, and I welcome the opportunity to have more truly intelligent and thought provoking anime in our midst. Seeing this film brings to mind all sorts of great discussions -- how do dreams make us who we are? Would we want to share our dreams if we really could? How much can we control our dreams? And, in our day and age, perhaps the most important question is this: are we really willing to be interconnected one to another, or are our fears of rejection and our subsequent isolation what define us?
All the intelligence of Paprika makes it a film that most anime fans will gobble up. That said, I have to say that I was slightly disappointed, and that despite of the fact that it is an obvious artistic success. The problem, as I see it, is that Kon has made so many works that deal with the psychological realm that he is no longer surprising us. The reason that I first wasn't sure about Tokyo Godfathers was because it was so different, but I've grown to love it precisely for that fact. Paprika, as hard as it was technically to pull off (as the commentaries and featurettes on the DVD show), was child's play for Kon. It was an adaptation of another author's work, Seishi Minakami, which to my understanding he hasn't done since Perfect Blue. Nevertheless, Kon wrote the screenplay and made many significant changes to make the original story flow as a film. It fits perfectly into his oeuvre, and somehow that's the problem. I would like to see him branch out and move in some other directions. He's immensely talented and has given the world yet another brilliant film. That said, in all of the uniqueness, it was somehow...a little predictable.
Kon also falls into an important trap that many films in this arena have fallen prey to -- some of the dreams he creates have little to do with dreams that anyone actually ever has. Had the dreams been more grounded in reality...had they been dreams we deal with on a regular basis, the dreams that bring out each of our deepest anxieties...it might have worked a little better. This is possibly why the detective's dream is the most important one in the film. For its fantasy, most of us have at some time in our lives been bothered by a dream we couldn't solve, and thus we relate to him. But honestly, I don't have dreams about parades with dancing refrigerators and I never have, and while the visuals were dazzling, I didn't connect. Maybe my dream life needs to get out more.
Perhaps the best way I can say it is this: if you've seen little of Satoshi Kon's work, you will probably be dazzled by Paprika. It is a very good movie that is thoroughly enjoyable and worthwhile viewing. But for those of us who have (perhaps accidentally) idolized Satoshi Kon's filmmaking, it might be best to get some distance and lower one's expectations. You haven't seen all of Paprika, not by a long shot. There are parts of it that will make you glad you saw it because they are simply wonderful. But be prepared that, just like in real dreams, you may feel like you've run around these circles before...as has been said, deja vu all over again.
Paprika -- violence, brief nudity, a brief suggestive scene -- A-