Monday, September 16, 2013

Paprika - 2006

Back when Inception came out in theaters audiences were thrilled by the concept of dream warriors diving into other people’s dreams and obtaining secret information. But anime fans felt like they had seen this story only a few years earlier. Where director Christopher Nolan kept a tight rein on the rules and dark visuals of his dreamscapes for Inception, director Satoshi Kon used the chaos and surreal nature of dreams to create a dynamic and colorful world where anything can happen. While the two films share many elements in common, Paprika is just as spicy as it name hints, and way more unhinged.

Dr. Chiba (Cindy Robinson) and her colleagues have created the ultimate dream machine – the DC Mini. Put this little device on your head and you can experience another person’s dreams (as long as they have a DC mini on their heads). Not only is this a fun party favor, but it can also be used to help people with psychological problems and stress relief.

Then someone steals the prototype and begins messing around with it. Not all the controls were in place yet, and anyone who’s already used the DC Mini is now susceptible to experiencing a full-blown waking dream. Chiba and her team must find out who stole the DC Mini and stop them before they break down all the barriers between the dream consciousness and the real world, as we perceive it. Luckily there is a dream warrior named Paprika (Cindy Robinson again) who has a little experience in these matters. But is she in over her head?

Good Points:
  • Amazing animation makes the dream world come to life
  • Balances humor and action very well
  • Has some great creepy moments

Bad Points:
  • A few too many characters weakens some of the storylines
  • Some of the English voice acting is not up to the task
  • The ending is anticlimactic

Kon takes many of the themes and concepts he explored in Paranoia Agent  and refines them down to a tighter story. The result is more coherent and streamlined, and yet still a bit clunky. Visually the movie is amazing, with Kon flexing his surreal muscles to great effect. But the ending falls a little flat. Still this is one of my favorites by the director and well worth seeking out.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
There is a riddle to be solved, but Paprika doesn't
have the answer.
In many ways, Paprika is the culmination of the imagery and themes that fascinated director Satoshi Kon. It deals with perception of reality and the way dreams fit into that reality. It deals with questions of identity, is the real person the one in the dream or the one that is awake? It deals with our ideas of the future and how it can twist into something we didn’t expect or want. And it does all this while moving at a breakneck speed, exploding with creative visuals and delivering thrills, chills and laughs.

Of all the films by Kon, this appears to have the largest budget, and that makes the visuals some of the most impressive in his cannon. His character design remains familiar, and you’ll see faces you recognize from Millennium Actress or Paranoia Agent playing different roles here. But there is a cleanness to the design that was lacking in the earlier works.

Sure people talking on cell phones in a movie theater
are annoying, but this dream parade is something else!
But my favorite moments are the dream sequences, where Kon always excels. The movie opens with a dream circus, as the police inspector Konakawa (George C. Cole) finds himself searching the big top for a criminal. As he cases the area we start to notice little things are off. An obvious male clown speaks with a woman’s voice, a mask on the back of a child’s head suddenly has eyes and watches him. Then the ring master points at Konakawa and he is bathed in a spotlight. He blinks in the glare of the light and then finds himself in a cage in the center ring, like a circus lion. Before he can react the crowd rushes him, and in a scene inspired by Being John Malkovich all the onlookers have his face – including women and children. They start to paw at him through the cage and the ground suddenly becomes soft, as he sinks into it amid the roaring crowd we can see the terror on his face.

So yeah, Kon captures the nightmare feeling perfectly. His visuals continue in the same vein, often mixing subtle surreal moments with over the top explosions of colorful animation and bizarre imagery. He maintains his technique of keeping the viewer off balance by shifting sequences, often in mid-line or as the camera turns. Because we are often in the dream world (or in the real world as the dreams start to leak in) it all makes some kind of sense. I marvel at his ability to perform these visual slights of hand and yet never lose the audience, and we’ve seen his skill at doing this from the beginning with Perfect Blue.

The deeper Paprika delves into dreams, the darker
they can become.
Perfect Blue got pretty twisted visually, but Kon’s films have never delved into the darkness too much since then. Well Paprika changes that. Nightmare images abound and there are some great creepy moments: the worst being when Paprika is captured and abused by one of the villains. The man is essentially reaching into Paprika and pulling out the naked and helpless woman inside. It is basically a rape of the consciousness playing out In front of us.

But contrast that to some of the scenes where you can tell Kon and the animators are just unleashing the creativity. The dream parade is one of those sequences that will probably stick in your mind whenever you think of the film, because it is so strange, colorful and unique that you can’t help but be impressed with it. Hundreds of fantastical characters dancing, cavorting and flying around down the center of Tokyo is not something you see in any movie very often. There are also scenes where the character revel in the freedom of the dream world, like when Paprika flies into Tokyo for the final confrontation, or when she jumps from sign, to computer screen, to truck artwork to t-shirt during the opening credits. There’s a playfulness in these scenes that invites the viewer to sit back and enjoy the ride.

To go along with the surreal images, Kon’s sound team goes into overdrive to combine the real world sounds with warped, altered and synthesized sounds to put everything off kilter. It’s really a masterful job and it adds quite a bit to the feeling that you are witnessing some bizarre dreams playing out in front of you.

Dr. Chiba explores an abandoned amusement park.
But is she awake, or deep in a dream?
But one of the big heroes of Paprika is composer Susumu Hirasawa. He sticks to his typical style of using electronics and synths to create a series of musical vignettes. Kon then used these to build into his film, taking pieces here and there to flesh out the whole film. Hirasawa does some interesting work with human voices (his own in many cases) editing, warping and layering them in various tracks over the orchestral samples and pure electronics. It’s an eclectic mix, but it works wonders in the film and it unique to the film. Because of the nature of the film, some of the material gets very atmospheric and dark. But the parade tracks, and the theme for Paprika herself are gems. I think found Kon perfect musical collaborator in Hirasawa and it’s a shame we won’t get any more collaborations.

In many ways Paprika is like a summary of Paranoia Agent in a thematic sense. It takes many of the same elements and ideas and concentrates them down into a single slick story. Without all the characters fighting for attention and different side roads that Kon went down in the television series, Paprika is both more focused and dynamic than the television series. Dr. Chiba and Paprika are the main characters, but the way they interact with Dr. Tokita (Yuri Lowenthal) and Dr. Osanai (Doug Erholtz) affect perceptions by all three characters.

Konakawa literally finds no footing as the dream world
warps around him.
The first couple of times I had a problem with the character of Inspector Konakawa, who seemed to be added into the film as a kind of heroic figure to swoop in at the end and save Paprika. And while that does seem to be the case, there is more going on. Much like Tokyo Godfathers, Konakawa explores the concept of dreams in the sense of aspirations. As a young man Konakawa dreamed of becoming a famous film director (Akira Kurosawa is directly referenced in the film). But life’s path lead him to police work. However his job is causing him serious anxiety issues, which is why he is working with Paprika using the DC Mini and dream therapy. And while Konakawa’s journey seems to be running along side the main story, instead of intersecting it, the final moments of the film deal with him. I love the nod to Kon’s previous films appearing as posters in the movie theater Konakawa visits at the end.

Always remember, in a dream, the difference between
falling and flying is a matter of perspective.
Aside from that there is also the issue of the finale. I’ve never been a big fan of the ending. From a thematic and conceptual point of view it should work, but the execution seems a little too easy in the end. It feels anticlimactic, and a bit of a letdown after all the different things we’ve seen up to that point. In fact Paprika’s amazing escape from the main villain seems to promise something a bit more. But then again, there is a giant naked woman on the screen, so that will be a great finale for some viewers.

These two elements keep the film from really nailing a top-notch grade. Paprika ends up being a bit uneven in the final analysis. I really enjoy it each time I watch it, and I love how Kon really got down to the center of the themes he’d been working on since Perfect Blue. But in the end I think Millennium Actress had a bit more heart to it. Still for a swan song, Paprika shows the animator developing his abilities and heading toward something more interesting. It’s a shame we didn’t get any more work after this.

Dr. Chiba chats with Paprika. But which is real
and which is the dream?
Let’s return to the original question, was Paprika better than Inception? I firmly vote for a big “Yes!” Nolan’s films always feel distanced and a bit cold to me. The fact that such strict rules were imposed on dreams in Inception took away from the very fact that they were dreams. It is the unpredictability of dreams that makes them so appealing and horrifying. It is something that Kon grasps very well and indulges in his film. Nolan did explore how choices can affect the subconscious and create serious mental problems. In Paprika we have a similar situation with Inspector Konakawa. And in this aspect, I think Nolan’s use of the character is better integrated into the story and works better with the ending. With that said, I enjoyed Inception. I still think it is Nolan’s best film. But compared to the wonderful world created by Satoshi Kon, well let’s just say I’d rather have Paprika visit my dreams instead of Leonardo Di Caprio. I think she’d be more fun.


  1. A Hungarian grandmother accustomed me to paprika on almost every imaginable food. It'll probably suit my movie palate too

    1. Now you make me want to ask if paprika works on pineapple or Spam. ;) If you're up for some surreal adventure, check out this flick.

  2. Good review---I still need to see this movie. I didn't care much for Inception, and I think one of the faults for me was one you caught as well--it was too rigid in the dream sequences. I did enjoy somewhat the dreams with in dreams concept however.

    I can't remember, didn't they did have certain people that they used to control the dream imagery? It seems like I remember them referring to them as an architect, but even then wouldn't something odd creep into the sequences similar to how we experience dreams in real life? Actually, it's been so long that I've seen Inception, that I forget some of the plot ideas. If you died in the dream, did they die in real life? I forget. At any rate, I just remember at the time, it was a little too complex for the enjoyment I got out of it. But yeah, good post.

    1. I don't remember if they had separate people controlling the dreams, but all the other players in the dream (that weren't living dreamers) were part of the subconscious. If these supporting players realized they were manipulated, they would become hostile.

      Nearly all the dream locations and manipulations were part of the dreamers mind. It just seemed that in Nolan's world, everyone's mind was very orderly and structured. :)

      If you died in the dream, then your unconscious mind would be lost. The implication was that you would end up in a coma state. I don't know if we see that happen in the movie. I've seen it a couple times, but even that second viewing was a couple years ago.