Film Review: Paprika
Paprika starts with a gripping introduction scene, and then explains that everything in the first few minutes was a dream. The man who had the dreams, Detective Toshimi Konakawa, and a woman he saw in the dreams, Paprika, talk about his dreams while viewing them on a monitor. They're using a new kind of technology that allows for the imaging and recording of dreams. In the works is a machine that will also enable people to enter other people's dreams. Toshimi is plagued by a recurring nightmare, and Paprika helps him analyze it. The personal trauma behind this nightmare is revealed later in the film.
Over time, the two end up separately battling the world of dreams, trying to figure out who is behind mysterious events, as the boundary between dreams and reality becomes more and more distorted. Paprika is the dream-world alter ego of a woman named Atusko who has a much more strict, serious personality in the waking world. Atsuko's main ally is Doctor Kōsaku Tokita, a fat man-child who helped create a lot of the dream technology. Doctor Toratarō Shima, a short old man, is their boss. The whole thing feels kind of similar to Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, but with less action-movie type violence and more that is just plain weird. Prepare to be dazzled, perplexed, and totally freaked out by Paprika.
Like the “Ghost in the Shell” animes, “Paprika” explores that intersection between the human and the machine, including the lands of enchantment you can travel to when you plug in, boot up and drop out.— Manohla Dargis, "In a Crowded Dreamscape, a Mysterious Pixie", New York Times, May 25, 2007
Novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui
Thriller, Sci-Fi, Action, Psychological, Seinen
Themes, Symbols, and Motifs:
A major theme explored in this movie is film-making. Paprika is explicit in talking about how dreams are similar to movies. Critics have talked about how Inception shows this parallel by having dreams that are very similar to movie action sequences. Paprika keeps its dreams more weird and dream-like than Inception, while still discussing how similar dreams and memories are to films. In the final act, Paprika appears dressed like the princess Nausicaä from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and rides a cloud like Goku in Dragon Ball. There are lots of film references, including a shot of movie posters for Satoshi Kon's other works: Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Tokyo Godfather. The film also shows how the raw chaos of dreams is unlike a movie, trying to play on audience expectations based on the fact that the audience knows they're watching a movie.
Transformation and change are recurring themes. Paprika changes into various supernatural creatures like a mermaid and a fairy, perhaps showing the freedom of the human mind and imagination. It also draws parallels between this movie, which is decidedly kid-unfriendly, and children's stories. It causes us to wonder about what growing up means; what changes, what stays the same.
Like Satoshi Kon's other films Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue, the film deals with the theme of identity. Paprika is an alter-ego, but she seems to take on an independent life of her own. In fact, the film focuses on her more than on the person who is the "original" or "authentic" version of herself.
There's a parade that repeats a few times, and motifs associated with festivals and circuses show up a lot. Perhaps this connects to the idea of dreams and movies as both kinds of fantasy entertainment and escapism. The parade is also reminiscent of the "hundred yokai parade" scene often depicted in Japanese art, based on Japanese folklore (source). Like the stories about people being "spirited away" by the yokai on such occasions, the parade in the film represents the fear of going insane due to mistaking dreams for reality and vice versa.
There's a creepy doll that's sort of a recurring character. In Japanese horror, often things that are haunted are tied to the past. Conflict between the past and modernity is a common recurring trope, such as in The Ring. The doll looks very traditional, embodying this concept. Dolls are often background elements in the dream world, perhaps representing the kind of false humanity it is possible to create in dolls and in dream worlds. Various characters at different times project their personality and emotions onto dolls in the dreams.
When it comes to Satoshi Kon's work, I personally prefer Perfect Blue. Mainly this is because that movie has more narrative focus, whereas Paprika can sometimes feel all over the place. Paprika takes place in the messy intersection of multiple characters' real lives and dreams. But it is a very intelligent, beautifully intricate, and intriguing film.
One thing I love about it is how subtly it shows characters' emotions. Things like insanity, love, guilt, sadness, and anger are shown in a mature, realistic way, not in that melodramatic way you see in anime aimed at teens. It's very much a film for adults, and I like that, because anime as a whole is sometimes tediously youth-obsessed. But that's not to say there is nothing young adults could take from this, either. It's as I said above about transformation, and the power of the mind to create whatever reality one wishes to create. And then it explores the responsibility tied to that creative ability we all have.
I kind of wished the focus would have been more on the woman Paprika is an alter ego for, Atsuko Chiba. It focuses a lot on Paprika, Tokita, Toshimi, and Shima, but it feels like Atsuko herself got short-changed. Maybe it's just that Paprika's lively personality causes her to steal the spotlight a lot. They also don't seem similar enough for it to make sense that Atsuko and Paprika are the same person. However, that could mean the movie is exploring the concept that people can have hidden depths. It is also showing how the way a person is forced to act by the business world is not always their truest self. So what could be the movie's greatest flaw could also be an important part of its message.
It also seems like towards the end they have a stereotypical anime film ending, with an epic battle against a villain bent on destruction. This too is probably part of the film's wider message about the comparison between dreams, films, and reality.
Atsuko and Tokita originally seem at odds with each other, because she's too serious and he doesn't seem serious enough. There's tremendous character development though, and the romantic relationship that develops between them is surprising, thoughtful, deep, and mature.
I would say overall, Paprika is both a really enjoyable and interesting movie and a movie that makes you think. If you like subtlety in storytelling and wish more anime creators would follow the "show, don't tell" rule, this is a movie for you. I would definitely recommend this movie for anyone interested in exploring the more serious side of anime, while still wanting to have a good time.