[The latest film from Satoshi Kon, Paprika will be receiving its world premiere next week at the Venice Film Festival before making an appearance in North America at the New York Film Festival in late September. If either of these are in range, GO!]
Perhaps more than any other film maker working today Japan’s Satoshi Kon is an explorer of the subconscious mind. While Tokyo Godfathers stands as an exception to the rule Kon’s work is overwhelmingly concerned with questions of memory, perception and identity. It is territory that Kon works better than anyone else working today and he is in fine form with Paprika, which may very well be his finest work to date.
Adapted from a popular novel of the same name Paprika revolves around a group of experimental scientists who have developed a new psychiatric tool. Known as the DC Mini the device allows a treating doctor to enter directly into their patient’s dream, interacting with them to diagnose and treat any issues that the dream may suggest – a premise quite similar to that at play in The Cell. The project is in danger, however, with the three latest DC Mini devices, just completed and without the proper security protocols installed, stolen from their creator, the absent minded behemoth Dr. Tokita. With security measures removed the thieves can use these devices to force themselves into people’s minds, trapping them in bizarre visions of the criminals’ own choosing and – most disturbing – they are showing an increasing ability to do this even to waking minds. The most likely hope in fighting against this threat is Paprika, the alter ego of Dr. Chiba – the lead treating psychiatrist experimenting with the DC Mini and herself plagued by an extreme split personality quite possibly brought on by early experimentation with the DC Mini technology, though the actual cause of her condition is never made specific. Whatever her origins Paprika is fully at home in the world of dreams and able to easily manipulate the reality found there.
The film finds Kon mining his favorite and most fertile ground, the strange subconscious urges and desires that shape and manipulate our daily lives whether we are consciously aware of them or not. Nobody captures the shifting reality of dream life better than Kon, the peculiar logic that rules there, the unsettling way that dreams can turn from pleasant to terrifying seemingly without warning. The urges that boil beneath the surface are Kon’s playground. The director worked very similar territory to this in his recent television series Paranoia Agent – on which he collaborated with the same screenwriter as on Paprika – but while the show bogged down in abstraction in the middle episodes Kon here strikes a much better balance between ideas and entertainment. Those who want to dig into the meat of his ideas will find plenty of nourishment here but those who wish to skim across the surface and simply be entertained will also find much to love.
In the past – notably with Tokyo Godfathers – Kon’s films have been somewhat limited by his relatively small budgets and the correspondingly simple, even primitive, animation. Though Kon has a loyal and vocal critical following his critical successes have not generally translated into large commercial audiences as of yet and so he lacks the sorts of budgets that his peers – and sometime collaborators – Katsuhiro Otomo and Mamoru Oshii have been granted to explore their unique visions. But while earlier efforts may have been hampered by production values that couldn’t keep up with Otomo’s vision there is no such problem here. With animation produced by the respected Madhouse animation studio Kon here has visuals every bit as lush and detailed as his fertile imagination can produce. Animation buffs will also take note that while there may very well be a CG assist here and there this appears to be a dominantly hand drawn affair, a rarity these days.
Kon’s fascination with the mind coupled with his abundant willingness to challenge his audience – he is a director that flat out refuses to spoon feed easy answers – are his greatest strengths and also, ironically, the very factors that will likely always keep him out of the top tier of commercial animators. Along with the aforementioned Oshii and Otomo Kon is a director that transcends the standard limitations associated with anime, completely disinterested in the fan service and stock scenarios that drive otaku into a tizzy. But while he may never find mass acceptance with the cosplay crowd Kon is a true auteur and a fierce talent that deserves to be more widely discovered.