Satoshi Kon’s Paprika is the finest, most exhilarating animated feature film that I have seen in quite some time. Actually, “exhilarating” is a peculiar word to apply, but I can’t think of a better one. Paprika‘s style is something that I am a total sucker for: it’s wildly, floridly psychedelic, but at the same time somehow harsh and astringent.
The SF plot centers on a machine that allows one person (a therapist, ideally) to enter another person’s dreams; the device is stolen, and someone is using it to mess with people’s dreams (which become nightmarish black holes that the people cannot awaken from), to combine the dreams — and thereby the psyches — of different people, and finally to altogether break down the walls between dream, waking life, and the movies, fusing them into a single stream of experience, a marvelous and scary fantasmagoria. Paprika continually teeters between hard-edged realism and the menacing flux of delirious schizophrenization.
Kon’s visual style is almost photorealist, at least for the backgrounds. Tokyo streets and corporate offices are rendered with clarity and precision. But this painstaking accuracy only makes the film’s frequent metamorphoses all the more disconcerting. Photorealism tends to rupture when it is applied to sites like circuses and amusement parks, and to objects such as children’s wind-up toys that have suddenly expanded to human-size, and taken on an autonomous life of their own, all rendered in bright primary colors. At moments of transition, when characters pass from “reality” into dreams, or (within a dream sequence) when a psychological breaking point is reached, the backgrounds start to ripple and flow, a bit like the ground moving in waves during an earthquake, before they dissolve and transform altogether, or simply close up.
The film’s repeated motif is a joyous parade down a large street, consisting of broken toys and other miscellaneous junk come alive: empty refrigerators and other household appliances, gaudy and ominously smiling dolls, a whole marching band’s worth of mechanical frogs, a wobbling, de-pedestaled Statue of Liberty, and lots more — basically, it consists of everything that Western hipsters and fanboys (and fangirls?) love about Japanese pop culture. This parade reappears every time the plot moves to a point of maximum breakdown, or maximum permeability between the dreams of psychotics and the clarity of the everyday world. The music accompanying this parade is a sort of cheerfully cacophonous technopop, suggesting the joy of just letting yourself go and being transformed into a cartoon — and underlyingly scary on that account.
When the film’s human characters enter into dreamworld, they are transformed into playing cards, or lumbering robots, or hollow dolls. When they are safely in the real world — a condition that becomes less and less possible as the film goes on — the characters are rendered more realistically than is often the case in anime; but they still stand out as iconically simplified in contrast to the realism of the backgrounds. (I don’t know what technology is being used here, but it certainly isn’t as computer-intensive as Toy Story and other recent American animations that try to make the characters look as “naturalistic” and “identifiable-with” as possible). I think it is by design that the characters come off as less real than the settings — since the whole film seems to be about breaking down conventional subjectivities, and suggesting both the fluidity and the generic, objectified, commodified conformity that lies behind and empowers our very assertions of distinctness and singularity.
The film’s heroine is Dr. Atrsuko Chiba, a psycholgist/researcher whose alter ego in the dream world is Paprika, one of those overly cheerly, bright-eyed teenage girls one sees a lot of in manga and anime. Yet the two become dissociated, to the point where they both appear together, both in the real world and in the dreamworld. There’s also Detective Konakawa, a quintessential noir detective, tough as nails but also gloomy and depressed, whose dreams move in and out of various movie genres (Tarzan, noir, melodrama, etc). He is phobic about the movies, and this turns out to have something to do with his past as a failed filmmaker. And then there’s the inventor of the dream device, the grotesquely obese, ultra-nerdy, child-like genuis/savant Dr. Tokita. None of these characters have real “interiority” (again, this is not a flaw, but a feature of the film, by design); what they do have instead is an unconscious that seems to have been colonized by all the 20th century’s forms of mass entertainment (though “colonized” is not the right word, to the extent that it implies some pre-existing content before colonization — nothing of the sort seems to exist in the world of Paprika.
There are some extraordinary surrealist scenes in Paprika, but one gets the sense that surrealism here is not an underlying content or even form (as it might be, for instance, in David Lynch’s movies), but just another pop genre, alongside hard-boiled detective fiction, Godzilla-type horror, and all the rest. In one sequence, Paprika grows wings in order to escape from her pursuers — she turns into something like a Disney-movie fairy. But she is captured anyway: we next see her pinned down to a table, like a specimen in a butterfly collection. One of the villains, after menacing her for a while, reaches his hand and arm through her clothes, into her crotch, and through her innards up to her face (we see, from outside, how the body bulges from this intrusion), until, finally, he pushes from within, and Paprika’s face splits and peels off like a sloughed skin, to reveal the face of Dr. Chiba underneath. The scene doesn’t really register quite as traumatically as my description might imply: it’s all cartoony enough that it doesn’t feel as if Paprika/Chiba is really being hurt. That is to say, it’s scary disconcertingness comes less from any sense of a unique personality being violated, than from a sense of the generic impersonality and interchangeability even of the most extreme experiences. The film is as affectively reflexive as it is conceptually and narratively reflexive: a lot of it involves the feeling of observing one’s feelings from a distance, the feeling of seeing all one’s feelings as being marketed and manipulated, and not unique to oneself; the feeling of simultaneous intense closeness and vicariousness that we get from the movies; and so on.
I won’t try to work through the convoluted plot of Paprika in any detail. I will just note that, as we get closer to the end of the narrative, there’s a kind of shift from the proliferation of a vast, fun-house delirium to the more familiar paranoid vision of urban apocalypse, the Tokyo cityscape ravaged by wartime destruction or ecological catastrophe. We’ve moved from process to endpoint, from manic flux to depressive fixity. After scaring us yet again with this vision, the film does finally move back to the genre comfort of a happy ending, with the villains defeated and the protagonists returned to the “real” world — but with a broader sense than we had at the beginning, of the way that “reality” is already imbued with fantasy (in the psychoanalytic sense). Even when “order” is restored, we will never be free of the uncanny doubles, and stereotypical moldings, of that “reality” that we find in dreams, and in the movies. In the vision of Paprika, I do not think that there is anything like a “cure,” or like “traversing the fantasy.” The best we can do is to pull back, and be more aware of the way we are alway standing on the brink. And maybe go see a film like Paprika, which gives us a kind of intensity, if not (again, by design) a catharsis.