Directed by: Satoshi Kon
Written by: Seishi Minakami & Satoshi Kon
Try too hard to make sense out of Paprika's plot and you're liable to miss out on all the pageantic fun. While it sports a muddled, convoluted, esoteric and enigmatic storyline, it isn't as a result of carelessness, at least not entirely; essentially, Paprika's about contrasts, and its complex storyline functions in clever contradistinction to its wild and viscerally affecting imagery—some of the most far-out animation to ever fuck my mind. As such, it's like an animated, Japanified Inland Empire—and just as narratively coherent—with a "Sonic the Hedgehog" soundtrack. Paprika's mythology is about as sensible as its mercurial sense of space, but at its heart it's simply a film about dualisms, namely the real self in waking life vs. the dreamself in dreamlife—or, the spectator vs. the spectacle, a film about film.
Satoshi Kon's film seems designed as a commentary on our pressing desire to find escape from the mundanity of quotidian existence. In the film, the real world is full of dull spaces, like elevators, offices and laboratories, bland in their blank and impersonal construction, while the dream world's landscapes are colorful and tactiley multitextural. The real spaces in Paprika are confining and limiting—one of the earliest scenes features a morbidly obese scientist physically stuck in a narrow elevator—but the virtual spaces of dreams, cinema and even the internet prove infinite. (A necessary fantasy for the Japanese, whose small island nation is steadily growing in population, regardless of their recently spiking suicide rate.)
"Don't you think," Paprika, a sexy sprite of sorts, asks her new friend Detective Kogawa, "[that] dreams and the internet are similar? They are both areas where the repressed conscious mind vents." (Paprika, in its profundity and perpelxity, is not intended for a young audience.) Dreams, the internet, and the movies all function in the same way in Paprika; there seems to be little distinction between them, and in the film's universe they're each corporeally pervious. Japanese scientists have invented a device they call the "DC Mini" which, when attached to a subject's head in a very Cronenbergian manner, allows the subject's dreams to be viewed on a monitor like an unpausable DVD; but it can also allow two people to dream together, much like the dreamlike space of the darkened movie theater. When a DC Mini prototype is stolen and misappropriated, the citizens of Japan's dreams and waking life are invaded and affected; madness spreads as reality and dreamity begin to fuse.
There's a lot of confounding exposition in Paprika that inevitably leads to a confusing climax and resolution. As David Denby recently wrote, the narrative logic is "an outright challenge to American viewers, who may, in the face of its whirligig complexity, feel almost pea-brained." It's the images, however, that count, and it's there that the viewer can discover what Paprika really has to say—for example, when an enormous little girl is sucking up a stream of broken dreams and growing into a giant woman, which enables her to eat an evil and giant man, what matters isn't the mythological intricacies, but the sexual subtext and cultural commentary beneath the bare imagery.
It's even difficult to explain who or what exactly Paprika, the title character, is; she appears to be some sort of fourth dimensional, full-grown-human-sized pixie, but eventually she becomes, in effect, one of the characters' idealized cinematic doppelganger, one who is able to travel freely through the interconnected intangible virtual spaces. Although, as the real world and dream worlds begin to overlap (don't ask how), all of the characters become free to, for example, jump into a television set and pop out of a camera, or to push through a movie screen, like Freddy Kreuger pushing through Nancy's wall in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, and break into the (dream) action on its screen, à la The Purple Rose of Cairo.
I like movies, obviously, and as such I have a sort of predisposition to liking movies about movies and the experience of watching them; while Woody Allen is nearly in tears when watching Duck Soup, near the end of Hannah and Her Sisters, I'm crying along with him. And so I was thrilled by Paprika; ostensibly it's a muddled science fiction tale but below its manga-esque surface it's a penetrating exploration of spectatorship and a celebration of cinematic spectacle. The film opens with a dream sequence, Kogawa's, that brilliantly captures the actual illogical rhythms of the dreaming experience in all its spatial inconsistency and logical incongruity, but it also plays as a quick trip through a myriad of film genres, like flipping through the high-numbered cable stations where all the movie channels are. Later on, an ascending elevator stops at every floor, opening up onto glimpses of Kogawa's dreams, as though his mind were an enormous and vertical multiplex.
The very first image is of an enormous clown exiting from a ridiculously tiny car, exclaiming (in English), "it's the greatest showtime!" And it sure is! But the most mindblowing image in Paprika is the recurring appearance of a snowballing dreamparade, comprised of various pop icons—Japanese dolls, the Statue of Liberty—and various twentieth century detritus, such as refrigerators and toy robots. It's a manifestation of the collective unconscious of (Japanese) society, marching in step, an unstoppable force that at one point spills out of a theater's projector room window and steps straight through the screen. I wanted to march right alongside them, in a conspicuous display of amour du cinema. The final image in Paprika is of a man buying a movie ticket, and I enthusiastically encourage you to follow his lead, readership.