Satoshi Kon’s mind-melting mystery tour Paprika wastes no time pushing us into its fluidly trippy dream logic. One of the heroes, Detective Toshimi, is having a nightmare about being caged at a circus, viewing a murder in a hallway, and God knows what else. His dream is being monitored and recorded by Dr. Chiba, who has another persona, Paprika, who can enter dreams. Lost yet?
Paprika, another philosophical anime from the director of Tokyo Godfathers and Perfect Blue, explicitly likens dreams to movies, and this movie is itself a dream of sorts. It’s a brew of several genres, with borrowings from Dreamscape, Until the End of the World, The Cell, and other anime. A literal parade of Japanese pop imagery marches through, absorbing anyone who comes close to it. Paprika plays like the end and the beginning of Japanese cinema: it contradicts itself and contains multitudes.
For some, this will inevitably equal confusion and frustration. Makers of anime do enjoy starting with a simple premise and complicating it beyond sense. The movie is full of tech jargon, mostly having to do with the DC-MINI, the contraption that allows psychiatrists like Dr. Chiba to enter and analyze a patient’s dream. But someone seems to be using the device to access people’s dreams to drive them mad. Or maybe, one character suggests, dreams are rebelling against the encroachment of technology. The techno-dorks in Paprika who created the device or understand it better than anyone are cases of arrested development, prone to jealousy and childishness. This may be a commentary on those other dream-weavers, moviemakers, forever playing with what Orson Welles famously called “the best train set.”
Really, the throughline isn’t hard to follow, and, despite Devin Faraci’s unfair slam over at CHUD, Paprika is no more incomprehensible than many a failed Hollywood narrative. This one is at least splintered and warped by design, and the design reveals itself bit by bit. The visuals veer between rhapsodic and nightmarish, though the reality-bound parts of the film are pleasingly subtle and realistic. Paprika herself is a fresh creation, a sort of Supergirl of the subconscious, morphing from humanoid to fairy to mermaid as the atmosphere dictates. The story decidedly couldn’t have been told in any other way, and probably in any other country.
With rare exceptions like Waking Life, why aren’t American animators taking this sort of imaginative leap? Well, as poor Ralph Bakshi found out in the ’80s, there’s not a terribly large market in the U.S. for adult-oriented animation. Our cartoons and our comic books (the superhero ones you see clogging the shelves of most comics shops, anyway) are mired in juvenilia, while Japan’s anime and manga tackle a wide range of subjects, for various ages and audiences. Japan gets Miyazaki and Paprika; we get Pixar and Shrek. Even a skilled and witty practitioner like Brad Bird is essentially only doing what others have done; he’s an entertainer, not a true visionary.
Imports like Paprika will suffice to close the gap. Japan alone seems to have the vision and the wallet to push the envelope of animation, and if this movie is any indication, it can be pushed pretty far.