Anime Review: Paprika

The invention of the DC Mini, a device that allows someone to enter another person’s dreams, was meant to revolutionize psychotherapy. However, just before its review for approval by the government, three prototype units are stolen. Soon after, people begin to randomly go insane, and it is suspected that whoever stole the DC Minis is using it to attack the victims’ psyches. Three of the original developers of the device begin an investigation to find the stolen units, assisted in the dream world by the agent “Paprika.”

Plot

I’ll say it up front, this film is brilliant. Its main function is to analyze the interplay between dreams and reality, a theme you might recognize from movies like The Cell or The Matrix. The concept itself is not completely original, but Kon Satoshi’s presentation is startling, unsettling, and utterly captivating.

You could read this film as a work of Freudian expressionism with a postmodern temperament. Kon never really lets the audience out of the psyche, as much of Paprika is spent on the line between dreams and reality. The end effect is that you’re always questioning, and the fulfillment or breaking down of your expectations is what keeps the story interesting.

Beyond merely interjecting dream into reality, Kon questions whether or not reality is actually something that exists. Underlying the majority of the film is the idea that what we see as “real” may be a simulacrum overlaid onto a reality that may or may not exist. Whether or not it was Kon’s intention to invoke Baudrillard remains to be seen, but that feeling is ever-present.

A contrast is also drawn between the natural and the artificial, the organic and the mechanical. In this area, Kon argues that what is naturally arising (such as dreams) can be more destructive than what people create. Although at first there seems to be a general mistrust of technology, Kon eventually shifts the emphasis to the people who use technology as the guilty party. When you apply this view to the theme of reality, it looks like Kon is validating the reality which is created through consciousness and symbols over one that is not created under the control of humans.

As a topical scrutiny of the relationship between psyche and reality, Paprika is a great success. Not once was the film ever out of thought. But to an audience, it’s more important (and meaningful) to articulate these thoughts competently. If I had to point a finger and say, “here is where the film falters,” it would be at the construction of the plot.

The core of the story is a procedural one, involving the mystery behind the DC Minis. I would have liked to have more of an explanation on how they work – or, to put it another way, what are the rules that we’re playing with? It’s not clear how using a DC Mini can spontaneously affect an unknowing victim, but this concept is taken as fact. Also, the resolution of the scenario at the end lacks a certain amount of logic. What exactly allows the conclusion to play out like it does? The answer isn’t apparent at all.

Pacing issues also rear their ugly heads. Many scenes are repetitive, and although we do learn something new from scene to scene, I still get the feeling that the point could have been made more concisely and elegantly. Even so, there are plenty of moments which are marked by unbridled energy and excitement. Unsurprisingly, these are the strongest and most entertaining moments of the film. Paprika, for all its thematic subtleties, can also be blunt as a hammer. Alternating between these moods does help to hold your attention, though.

As a cinematic experience, Paprika is hardly spoiled by the infrequently spotty construction of its plot. I found its ideas more enjoyable than the story being told, and Kon Satoshi livens up proceedings with his unpredictability. This is a film that will get under your skin, but those are the best kinds of films after all.

Characters

The central two characters are the detective Konakawa, and Chiba Atsuko, one of the developers of the DC Mini. Konakawa is troubled by his dreams, which is the reason he meets with Paprika (Chiba’s personality in the dream world) in the first place. He might seem like a stereotypical policeman at first, but as his background is established, I found Konakawa more and more sympathetic. One of the major character threads of the movie consists of Konakawa’s interaction with his fears and insecurities.

Chiba is also an appropriately faceted character who struggles with her Paprika personality. Her presence is in a way an affirmation of the power of sexuality. Accordingly, the focus with Chiba is the nature of power and dominance – whether or not they are the same thing, and whether or not they can truly be exercised monolithically.

The character interactions become all the more intriguing when viewed through the postmodern lens. The dialogue is essentially about reality, but if you interpret the words to be symbols of an underlying meaning, then they posit the notion that reality is obscured by the exchange of that which is entirely artificial. Digging deeper, you might even call this Kon’s criticism of the general public’s complacency toward the prevalence of reality in the consciousness (and the prevalence of consciousness in reality), but I’d say that’s probably reading too much into it.

The supporting cast does not carry the same amount of nuance, but Kon does a pretty good job of avoiding archetypes. In fact, I was hard-pressed to find any cliches at all, which is high praise in itself. I’m always a sucker for unconventional characterization, and Paprika has it in abundance. Not only do they help explore elements of the story, they also take on more and more layers as the film advances. This is an excellent example of how to treat characters correctly in anime – they’re not just there to populate the fictional universe.

Technical

You just can’t discuss Paprika without talking about its visuals. From a design standpoint, the film is simply astonishing. Though the plot had a postmodern bent, the visuals exhibit an avant-garde quality. They are chaotic, surreal, frequently absurd, and more often than not quite unsettling. Kon’s scenic compositions are colorful and oddly playful, but never fail to get across a sense of danger or apprehension. The experimental feel of the imagery is enhanced by some top-notch animation (thank Madhouse Studios for that). Another thing I found interesting was the use of memes, bits of cultural knowledge that have propagated throughout the ages. It adds credence to the core of the story, that the symbols we use to represent reality can subsitute for reality itself.

The voice acting could have benefitted from a bit of experimentalism, but as it stands, it’s not bad. Hayashibara Megumi lends her familiar voice to Chiba, although she comes across as a little too aloof. Ohtsuka Akio sounds quite conventional in his role as Konakawa, but it’s far from a bad performance. However good or bad the voice acting may be, it’s trumped by the soundtrack. Hirasawa Susumu has arranged an intriguing mix of rhythms and contrasting tones, and I have to say, the sound is almost virally contagious. Hirasawa’s work on Paranoia Agent impressed me to no end, but the music of Paprika is even better. All at once, it captures the weirdness and grand scale of the movie’s aesthetic while reflecting the rich textures of the story.