If anime was completely taken over by director Satoshi Kon I wouldn’t mind a lick. His resume is short but Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers and his bizzaro 13-episode Paranoia Agent series proves he’s a visionary powerhouse. Interesting, fun and often maddening, he’s Hayao Miyazaki by way of David Lynch, dabbling in animation with clean, attractive designs while his narratives are dark and cynical, both critical and celebratory of the society and medium he works in. Paranoia Agent, for example, is a harsh indictment of Japanese society, particularly reality-dodging otaku anime fans who prefer to lose themselves in the superflat worlds of cartoons, while reality rots and decays outside.
Found in all his work, the loss of distinction between reality and fantasy is by far Kon’s favorite subject, and it comes to a fever pitch in his latest confection, Paprika.
It’s one of my favorite subjects as well. I mean, c’mon, who honestly prefers reality to fantasy? Would you rather work at your boring job, ache over a recent heartbreak or death, or would you dive into the whimsical fantasy realm of your dreams?
In Paprika, you can, or rather, you’d be able to if you had a DC Mini, a revolutionary headband-like device used to enter dreams. One of the researchers behind it, psychiatrist Atsuko Chiba, uses the DC Mini to help Detective Konakawa with his cases. By entering his dreams as the titular avatar Paprika, Chiba can help make sense of things and look cute as hell while doing it. However, prototypes of the device get stolen and soon enough the border between real world and dream world dissolves faster than ice cream in July.
Paprika won’t win many awards for originality. If you thought of The Matrix, The Cell or Michel Gondry’s stuff while reading that, then the story isn’t exactly innovative but it’s a thematically rich 90-minute package with fun, endearing characters. The animation may not be all that different from the colorful carnival aesthetics of Spirited Away – several parade sequences recall that movie’s Procession of Spirits scenes – but Paprika’s bright silkscreen pastels and adult character designs shy away from the kid-friendly mascots of Miyazaki. You will see a nipple or two, and they’re not of the Radish God variety.
Of course, one should expect sexuality and desire to play major parts in a movie about dreams. Paprika herself is the ideal anime female. Sexy, thin and enthusiastic, she’s the otaku dream queen, even sporting a haircut similar to Evangelion ingenue Rei Ayanami, the ultimate otaku object of desire. It can’t be coincedence voice acting vet Megumi Hayashibara, who voiced Rei, plays Paprika as well. With dozens of anime and song credits to her name, she’s a natural. Everytime Paprika wasn’t onscreen I desired for to her return, to see what new situation or transformation she would take next. Also, to see her bounce around. Seriously, I’ve never seen a more sexily animated clavicle.
The movie looks like candy. Setting it in a series of dreams allows a medley of fantastic imagery, of morphing, twisting and liquefying, flying and diving. No explanations are necessary and interpretations of each strange new character and item are left wide open. Just as dreams are a pastiche of reality, Paprika is a delectable smorgasbord of rampant references and in-jokes. Spritely Paprika traverses Konokawa’s dreamscapes skipping from homage to homage, from From Russia With Love to Tarzan to film noir thrillers. She gushes to the gruff detective “I love movies!”
And so does Kon, who clearly equates dreams with film. If all this sounds a little postmodern the casting of Akio Otsuka as Konokawa, who voices Batou and Solid Snake in cyberpunk adventures Ghost in the Shell and Metal Gear Solid, clinches it. What starts out as a sci-fi adventure about dream tampering ends up a marvelous love letter to the movies and the “dream” of filmmaking. Kon’s love for film is abundant – all of his previous work gets nods and references, some subtle, some in your face. There’s some of Kon’s trademark social commentary, again, some subtle, some in your face. Japanese politics get jabbed, not that I know much about them. Kon’s contempt for salarymen thankfully returns. Dreams are also likened to the praiseworthy, wish-fulfilling Internet but the ah, major exaltation goes to the indomitable, frightening and powerful female form and spirit (More shades of Miyazaki and Lynch). Paprika is an anime anima.
The music by Hirasawa Susumu, who scored Paranoia Agent, is a moderate success, considering most of his discography is forgettable, or monotonous at best. The best track is definitely the music used in the trailer, used prominently each time Papripa appears. It gave me a Katamari Damacy vibe, perfect for the flick’s colorful, candy-like visuals. It fits the film’s wacky, whimsical tone to a tee, otherwordly yet distinctly Japanese. The rest is typical Susumu. The suspenseful beats of Paranoia Agent and Perfect Blue reappear, fitting several of the film’s quieter investigation scenes and the goofy dream parade scenes get playful, circus-y music.
Although a swift 90 minutes, it doesn’t always feel that way. The pacing hiccups at points, with scenes of long explanations and pontificating, because it just wouldn’t be an anime without babble about how science can be used for good or bad. The movie drags a bit when it happens but it never amounts to the interminable “SCIENCE THIS, SCIENCE THAT!” speeches in Steamboy and Fullmetal Alchemist. In fact, Kon seems to thumb his nose at that annoying anime conceit, giving most of the rhetoric to one old fogey of a character, whose warnings are so deathly serious that it clashes with the rest of the intensely self-aware goings-on, and comes off hilarious most of the time.
It’s a goddamn shame Paprika is only playing in New York and L.A. The crowd I saw it with loved it. They applauded and laughed at all the right spots. The fact that there was applause was astounding. I had never been in a public audience that receptive for an anime movie before. A lot of people stayed after the credits for the theme music!
But, yeah, that’s New York. We’re all homosexual Jew pedophiles, but trust us. The rest of the country gets Shrek the Fucking Third. If you’re sick of that bullshit I urge you to make the exodus to check it out.