Paprika Review

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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[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.

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More about Paprika

TiGrBaLmAugust 27, 2006 12:46 PM

I've loved all his work, can't wait to see this. Thanks for the review Todd.

Eight RooksAugust 27, 2006 10:37 PM

I found Tokyo Godfathers artistically okay, and technically pretty good, I guess - it was just disappointing in that in the end it chose to forego any kind of really pointed digs at society in favour of just playing out as a pretty undistinguished Hollywood-esque action comedy. It was fun, but rarely showed me anything visually captivating, and ultimately I've got no real desire to watch it again.

I really should watch Perfect Blue again, but eh... though I always doubt my own memories of things I haven't watched in a while, no matter how many people go "Why, I don't know what you're talking about", all I remember seeing was an empty, puffed-up gratuitous bit of nonsense that could have passed - live-action - for any "late-night thriller" in the small hours of the morning. Vacuous, offensive and full of its own self-importance. Gorgeous score, though, I'll give it that.

SpikeAugust 28, 2006 4:30 AM

Can't wait to see this. I've always been a fan of Satoshi Kon, especially Millenium Actress. Love that movie.

Todd BrownAugust 28, 2006 8:50 AM

This had the same budget as Godfathers? Damn ... they've certainly spent it a lot better.

NoahAugust 28, 2006 2:00 PM

Oh boy Todd,

What a sweet reviewer you can be. I too enjoy Satoshi Kon. Even the with fastest of editing his work like Paranoi Agent and Perfect Blue emote so much space and time. His environments are so meticulus. No area is ever wasted. I wonder how long it will be till he leaps into the live action foray. I think its only a matter of time before someone will give him the insane budget he needs to appropriate his ideas to live-action. Mind you his films work perfectly as animation.I would just think it would be a grand switch for a master to stretch his hand a bit. You know ... kinda like Wes Anderson doing stop motion. The switch is almost to easy to believe. In a live action Kon piece could his character express there emotions without lookin goofy or forced. Id love to find out.

logboyAugust 28, 2006 9:52 PM

no need to go live action - animation is about expressing ideas live action couldnt quite manage, and doing so at little comparative cost... this is key to japans animation industry being so strong, and cheap film making thats creativity-led is much more important that fulfilling fantasies of a bloated over-expensive film that doesnt need to be done in quite that way. kon should stay where he is, theres always progression there with little money being spent.

Jason GrayAugust 28, 2006 9:56 PM

I actually asked him if he'd ever make a live action film (adding that I'd really like to see him try). Alas, he has Zero interest in that arena. He's in animation for the long haul. He did, however, say that live action films have of course influenced his style. He seemed concerned that his rapid-fire, time-jumping editing wouldn't transfer well to that format because a cel of animation has less visual information than a live action frame and can be cut a lot closer to the bone.

Patrick DrazenAugust 31, 2006 2:38 AM

Millennium Actress is still my favorite Kon film, followed by Tokyo Godfathers. They have pleasant, compassionate characters one can care about. No matter how brilliantly Perfect Blue and Paranoia Agent were executed, there's a distance imposed by the social decadence in those works. They're fascinating to watch, but for me I can go a while before a second viewing.

MortanseSeptember 14, 2006 6:43 AM

I disagree with the notion that Kon is somehow opposed in his maturity and psychological insight to other simplistic anime—Japanese anime as a whole is obsessed with fractured and/or artificial consciousnesses interacting and seeking self-identity through equally arbitrary world-systems ( like the artificial reality created by the criminals in Paprika. ) Both Otomo and Miyazaki mine the same territory, the "what-is-real" territory as Paprika and Millenium Agent.

The key difference is the same that bedevilled Kurosawa: Kon's approach is markedly WESTERN, in that he tips the scales ever so slightly from pure myth to, not reality, but reality INVADED by myth, like in John Ford's Westerns. Instead of myth being a parallel universe to reality ( as in Miyazaki's numerous Oz variations ) Kon's films show how myth disrupts our everyday reality which then must form again around it in a new way like the protoplasmic substance at the end of Paranoia Agent.

In Perfect Blue this "disruption" is the fantasy of Mima's manager to be like Mima ( who doesn't really exist except as a media construct ), in Millenium Actress it is the famous Japanese film genres, while in Kon's masterpiece and most overtly Western film, Tokyo Godfathers, it is the foundling baby who, though entirely ordinary, is imbued with the transformative power of the Christ-child because of the manger play the three hoboes saw in the first scene—which activated fantasies of being "blessed by God" which then had REAL results, with all the families ending up reunited. ( Tokyo Godfathers is one of the greatest Christian films because it doesn't avoid any of the new evolutionary or psychological ideas that most people take as refuting Christianity—it simply conquers them. )

The locus of transformative fantasy is rather subtle in these films but in Paranoia Agent it is front and center—the small dog that one girl feels remorse over losing changes the entire fabric of reality to an apocalyptic Godzilla film. Frankly, I am not convinced at all by the too-cute concept of Paranoia Agent. This film to me is too Japanese with its smug, dramatically-inert notion of an endlessly repeating circular reality, a Buddhist cliche. It's a grotesque step back from the salvation drama of Tokyo Godfathers into eternal chaos.

Paprika sounds like a new wrinkle in Kon's filmography because here for the first time he's showing human perception as directly manipulated by criminals—New World Order-style—instead of being a result of a gap in an otherwise well-ordered psychology. This is way closer to the truth than Paranoia Agent and explodes the whole concept of reality altogether, but unfortunately it also brings Kon too close to The Matrix and to other Japanese anime, without what really makes him such a startlingly original director ( his recreation of the minutiae of everyday reality as the background for his fantastical intrusions. )

We'll see. I'm excited.

Jim KitchnenOctober 24, 2006 12:32 PM

Oh, and Mortanse, anime "as a whole" is not preoccupied with anything in particular. I would agree that a lot of anime focus on alternate "world-systems," as you put it, but that's merely a certain percentage, probably less than 10% even. I admit that you would have to be knowledgeable about TV anime, rather than just anime films, in order to understand this, but it's the truth regardless.

flyboy_livesNovember 12, 2006 12:14 AM

I caught this last night at the Leeds Film Festival, here in the UK.

It was the first Anime feature I've been able to see on the big screen, I think most felt extremely privileged to be seeing it so early (Or at least the guy who introduced the film made me feel this way). And trying to side-step that excitement, I can safely say that I was highly impressed by Paprika and I really enjoyed watching every minute of it. The animation was great, the soundtrack was great, it was thick with imagination. A lot of direct film and television references find their way in. It deals with dreams and fantasy based within pop culture, so it has license to. At one point you'll notice Paprika dressed as a character from a very famous Japanese TV show ;)

Although, at times, I saw similar traits to a handful of Studio Gibli productions, which is always bound to be influential, nothing really deterred me from falling in love with this flick.

I now need to catch up with Millennium Actress and the last few Paranoia Agent episodes and I will be KONplete. (Pun intended)

AmorimMarch 6, 2007 4:48 AM

Such an AMAZING MOVIE!!!!!