Sunday, August 9, 2009

"Needs More Spice. How About Some Paprika!"

If you were to ask me for a list of my favorite directors, Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers) is going to be somewhere near the top. Paprika isn’t my favorite of his films, but that is by no means saying that it is not well worth watching. He is on the very short list of people who really seem to view animation as its own medium instead of a genre of film, and he uses the medium in ways I haven’t seen anyone else use it. The stories he chooses to tell with it are unusual to see in animation, and Paprika is by far the most conventional of them in that sense, but it is a film that really would not work as well in live-action because it really requires a seamless blending of reality and dream. Even with CGI effects getting as impressive as they are, there would always be a slight disconnect there that to achieve in animation is simpler because the entire thing is already animated. Your mind doesn’t register that there’s been any change because there hasn’t been one, whereas with CGI, it’s always a shift between live action and animation, and often times the spectacle itself can be distracting from the rest of the action.

All of Kon’s other works involve this theme of blurring the line between reality and fantasy, and in his other works it’s done with a very subtle touch that keeps the story moving along. Paprika is by far the most blatant use of this idea, but the narrative requires it. The story is about Atsuko Chiba, a research psychotherapist working on an experimental project with technology that allows one person to enter another person’s dreams for the sake of psychotherapy. Call it a more “hands on” approach to psychoanalysis. Chiba has a sort of dream or ‘online’ alter ego (in fact, the line between dreams and the internet is one of the more subtle ones blurred in the film) named Paprika, a spritely, red-haired girl who’s mischievous, flirty, and carefree in a way that serious, stoic, responsible Chiba doesn’t allow herself to be. Paprika goes where Chiba cannot, and in the opening scene we see her attempting to help a police detective, Konakawa, with a reoccurring dream he feels is impeding his ability to solve a murder case by becoming active parts of the dream and keeping his consciousness focused while the dream plays out. When Chiba goes to work the next day, she discovers that the technology that allows this, the DC-Mini, has been stolen and one of her colleagues has mysteriously gone missing. The problem is compounded when one of her other colleagues suddenly begins dreaming while awake; the thief has hijacked his consciousness in an act of psycho-terrorism, and it soon becomes clear that this is not an isolated incident. As Chiba and her colleagues race to find the thief and recover their stolen property before more damage is done and their project shut down, she must also contend with the blending of the real world and the dreaming world as her mind is invaded.
So while it probably doesn’t seem much like a fairy tale, I consider it to be for a number of reasons which are difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t seen the film. It very much utilizes Joseph Campbell’s basic outline of the hero’s journey, where a hero is set up for their quest, they journey to the field of adventure, endure trials along the way, and then achieve the ‘freedom to live’ ending by mastering both their external and internal struggles. The world which Chiba enters as Paprika is certainly fantastic and dangerous, and requires cunning, intellect, and creativity to maneuver in. She must also reconcile the two parts of herself she has chosen to express separately as Chiba and as Paprika, and only then is the major conflict allowed to resolve.
There is another element to this film that I love, which is unusual for me as it is typically one of my least favorite part of other films: the romantic sub-plot. Both Chiba and Paprika have a list of male admirers in the film, some more realistic than others, and it’s barely mentioned through most of the story because it isn’t necessary. But it wound up being one of my favorite parts of the entire film; I honestly thought it was wonderful largely because it was hardly mentioned and it was incredibly subtle, but on subsequent viewings, it was most certainly present. I love how Kon chose to handle it, and how he used the cinematic shorthand for the romantic triangle (or in this case, hexagon) to communicate the identity of the destined pair to the audience in unconventional ways. I particularly like what this film underhandedly says about the culture of male sexual entitlement, since not a lot of films really touch on that. (I should also say that this film is rated R for a reason, and there is a scene in particular that is incredibly uncomfortable to watch, which ties directly to the idea I just mentioned. It’s creative and disturbing and thankfully short.)
This brings me to another of my favorite points, the use of cinema in the movie itself as a means of communicating an idea to the audience. As a film, it obviously does this simply by being a film, but the characters within the film also use cinematic images and dialogue to create meaning while communicating with each other. It’s a little thing, but it made my inner film student smile when I saw it, so I wanted to mention it. Also, I love it when a director subtly breaks the fourth wall to remind the audience that they’re watching a movie (hi there, David Lynch!), and there’s a short scene where Paprika and Konakawa have a conversation that does precisely that.
There are a lot more ideas I could get into, and it’s a film that really does welcome repeat viewings because there are a lot of ideas embedded in the subtext that deserve to be talked about. Ideas like collectivism vs. individualism, the ethics of using technology, the nature of mass media and how it relates to dreams and the subconscious, the female identity crisis, duality, etc., etc. There’s a lot going on in the film, especially if you start to look at it as a product of Japanese society. It’s complex and compelling, but still able to be viewed as a simple psychological thriller on the surface, so it’s not just a film for film students. There’s another line Satoshi Kon is fond of blurring, and which I love watching him do.


  1. I need to see this film again. I remember it releasing and noting Satoshi Kon's name on it and it being likened to Perfect Blue, one of my favorite psychological anime films. Sadly when I rented Paprika situations conspired such that I did not have enough time to watch it properly, leading to me watching it at 3am when I was dead tired. I don't even really remember most of it other than feeling vaguely confused and distraught, which I always feel after watching such films, so mission was accomplished.

    Your review however makes me want to watch it again to analyze it. One thing that alluded me the first time I watched it was the meaning of Paprika, which is a type of spice. Or was it that the film taught me that? Now I'm not so sure...

  2. Nojh, if you do watch it again, I will be very curious to read your analysis. This is a film that can be read many different ways and I'm always curious for different perspectives.

    And paprika the spice is delicious.