Anime Reviews: Paprika
Some Basic Information About the Film
Production: Studio Madhouse
Film Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: 11/25/2006
Age Rating: 15+ (mild violence and disturbing imagery, brief nudity, some suggestive content)
Summary: Dr. Atsuko Chiba and her team of neurologists and psychiatrists have developed a new technology called the DC Mini, which is capable to translating the brain waves of dreaming patients into full virtual stimuli and allowing Chiba, operating under an alias avatar known as Paprika, to provide psychiatric care directly in the patient's dream state. While working with new patient Detective Konakawa--who is haunted by both an unsolved murder case and a recurring dream that combines his old, suppressed passion for films with the trappings of that homicide--a series of bizarre accidents occur involving a malignant shared dream. Dr. Tokita, the naively optimistic and extremely obese scientist who conceptualized and invented the DC Mini, believes his former assistant, Himuro, could be behind the strange happenings. When more victims emerge, including Dr. Shima and other fellow researchers, Chiba and Tokita work tirelessly to solve the strange case and prevent these mind-jackings from spreading to and affecting the public.
The Good: Wild, creative visuals; Susumu Hirasawa's surreal soundtrack and Satoshi Kon's idiosyncratic direction work wonders to set an unnerving tone; twisting, turning plot keeps the action fresh
The Bad: Flat characters don't offer us any real reason to get invested
The Ugly: If I ever had a dream like that, I, too, might just jump out a window
So, what took me so long to cover Paprika?
This really has been a long time comin', considering I've had my eyes on this movie when it first came out. At first I just couldn't easily find a copy, but once Satoshi Kon passed away, I felt hesitant to give Paprika (as well as his TV series, Paranoia Agent) a watch. The only explanation I can think of is that I didn't want to consume the man's final works so quickly, because then I'll have no more of his stuff to look forward to. Millennium Actress is an important film to my adolescence, and Perfect Blue is a landmark psychological horror film, and even Tokyo Godfathers is just a nice, heartwarming story with lovable characters that stands tall in its field. But I figure enough is enough--12 years is plenty of time to let Paprika sit on the back burner, it's time to get it over with and give it a watch.
Which aspects of Paprika made the wait worthwhile?
The first thing anyone's gonna notice while watching Paprika is the richness of its visuals. From the manic anarchy of the plague-dream to the quiet, haunting hallway of Konakawa's nightmares, the lush colors and stark lighting used throughout make the film feel like it's about to pop out of your screen and envelop you in its world. All kinds of landscapes and dream creatures and whooshing camera angles and effects supplement the visuals in a manner that makes the film at once jarring and immersive. Some of the crazy stuff you'll see here, you probably won't see it anywhere else, I can tell ya that.
And because Satoshi Kon is a lover of the craft of filmmaking, it's only natural that he includes a bunch of homages to his favorite legendary films (including Roman Holiday and Tarzan) and includes many aspects of filmmaking within the film's own universe, on top of his already-demanding job of just making an interesting movie. Everything Kon's done thus far has revolved around the blending of reality with fiction, and Paprika is no different--as the action intensifies in the final third of the film, it gets harder and harder to determine which scenes take place inside the dream and which are actually occurring in the real world, and eventually the two become indistinguishable. It really does boggle the mind, trying to separate the two, and Kon masterfully executes this ambiguity to the point where you start to question your own grasp on reality--can it possibly be manipulated in a similar way, and could I, too, fall prey to such an obvious delusion?
Not helping with regards to keeping reality and fiction straight (but helping immensely in allowing that uncanny union to take shape) is Susumu Hirasawa's otherworldly, off-kilter soundtrack. With his unique mixture of ritualistic chanting, orchestral bombast, and electronic beats, Hirasawa's music really sells the unreality of the dream world and makes it all the more unsettling when it starts leeching into what we thought was the film's reality. You really can never know what to expect next, when the soundtrack is constantly subverting your expectations like this.
When the visuals, the directing style, and the soundtrack all work towards blending the real with the surreal, you can count on the story lurking underneath to be just as slippery and just as sly. Because of the nature of such a story, an antagonist using a dream to plague his victims with madness, deception and limitations both come and go as the boundaries of reality are torn to shreds and scenes unfold in very strange and unusual ways. From start to finish, something new and bizarre is always occurring, and though I must remain vague lest I spoil the whole thing, suffice it to say that this is a thoroughly entertaining yarn and a wild spectacle for the eyes and ears.
Where does Paprika fall flat (off a building)?
Two words: the characters. With the exception of Detective Konakawa, who has a nice little arc in which he discovers the source of his anxiety and learns how to move forward with his life, everyone else in the film is basically a cardboard cutout with very little time given to humanizing them. Dr. Chiba is cold and businesslike (making it hard for us to believe she's also the bouncy and extremely personable Paprika) and such an off-putting personality should have been equalized with some scenes to make the transition between her two selves more believable. Dr. Tokita is quite affable, but only in a very surface-level way in that he's very friendly and optimistic, enough to counteract his distasteful appearance, but there's no depth to him--his entire character arc is going from being an irresponsible slob to embarking on a single act of responsibility, which is an incredibly weak arc.
Likewise, Dr. Shima is likable only because he doesn't behave in any disagreeable manner, and we only dislike Chairman Inui because he's a mean old stick-in-the-mud who puts our heroes down because he's stuffy and old-fashioned and he just doesn't understand our heroes' righteous goals because he's a meanie poopy-head. And then Osanai just has no personality until the two-thirds mark, where he...still has no real personality. Yawn.
The fact that most of the characters in Paprika are so flat and tasteless is a real shame. I mean, every one of Satoshi Kon's other works has had magnificent and memorable main characters, so the shortage in this film feels jarringly out-of-place. Trust me, I don't want to have to rag on the cast like this--I wanted more than anything to get invested in these characters and enjoy another whirlwind adventure with unforgettable companions, but that's not what I got, and it makes me truly sad to say so.
So, was Paprika worth the wait after all?
Truth be told, I'm torn. On the one hand, Paprika is a wild film bursting with creativity and surreality that made it a joy to behold, but on the other hand, the lack of relatable and interesting characters soured the experience and left me feeling let down and empty in the end--an engrossing and immersive film that gave me no reason to invest myself further than surface-level appreciation of its themes and spectacle. And so to you, who may be considering a viewing, I offer this recommendation: If you are looking for a character-driven story or for an examination of unique and interesting personalities, you're not going to find that here. Rather, what you'll find is visual splendor and a celebration of the medium of film and how it can be used to blur the lines between what is real and what is imagined, and if that's what you're looking for, then you'll find precious few titles that can surpass this one.
Also yes, this is totally Inception before Inception was a thing. Just putting that out there. If you liked one, you'll like the other.
Final Score: 7 out of 10. Satoshi Kon's final film may not have had the superb human element of his previous works, but Paprika remains standing purely by the strength of its trippy visuals, uncanny soundtrack, and mind-bending narrative that seeks to tear down the walls separating reality and fiction, as well as filmmaker and audience.