Now available on DVD in North America, Satoshi Kon's latest film, Paprika (2006), is his most challenging work to date. It is about the DC-Mini, an experimental "dream machine" that allows a therapist to enter the dreams of her patient, and the potential for it to be misused as a weapon. Imagine an animated feature that is a reality-bending blend of Hitchcock's psychoanalytical thriller Spellbound (1945) and the cyberpunk movie Strange Days (1995), then crank it up. Because the film is so challenging, the following review will contain a lot of details that might seem like spoilers but in fact are merely enough to give readers the background and context to enjoy the movie in one viewing.
Paprika starts in the middle of a dream, where a detective is searching for a criminal at a circus. His partner seems to be a young female clown. Suddenly the circus magician performing in the center ring teleports the detective into a cage. Then the spectators in the bleachers all rush the cage, but they all have the detective's face. The ground gives way and the detective is falling through the air, but the young woman catches him while swinging by on a Tarzan vine. The pair race through several more movie scenes, chasing the fleeing criminal, before the detective wakes up in a panic.
He is in bed in a hotel room. In the other bed is the young woman with light brown hair. She is Paprika, his new therapist. Both patient and therapist wear on their respective heads a thing that looks like a cross between a hair comb and an earpiece: the DC-Mini.
They review the dream recorded on her laptop computer. Paprika is warm, playful, and coquettish, but when the session time is up she heads for the door. He is eager to see her again because she is literally the girl of his dreams. She leaves an appointment card for him.
She exits the building and rides away on a scooter, but as she rides through the opening credits she begins to change into a different woman, a cold adult with straight black hair. This is Dr. Atsuko Chiba.
Here is the background information. Dr. Chiba, 29 years old, is a highly placed research scientist at the Foundation for Psychiatric Research. A few years earlier, her colleague, the enormously fat Dr. Tokita, invented the DC-Mini. The Foundation created a new department to deal with the device, with Tokita to handle the hardware side and Chiba to oversee the clinical trials, which were limited to simply recording the dreams of mental patients.
However, Dr. Chiba could see that Dr. Tokita was having mental troubles of his own, and so they secretly experimented, breaking protocol by sharing a dream actively as a form of therapy. This experiment was where Chiba first adopted the persona of Paprika, the 18 year old girl, while sharing the dream space of another.
Tokita quickly got over his mental trouble, making the unauthorized experiment a success. Later on, their immediate boss Dr. Shima, a dwarfish man, began suffering from depression. Paprika helped him, too, again resulting in rapid and successful healing. The third patient of this clandestine therapy is the detective, a friend of Dr. Shima from their college days. The detective is suffering from a recurring dream and the stress of a difficult murder case.
Got all that? Good. Because when Dr. Chiba gets back to her lab at the Foundation, fat Dr. Tokita tells her they have a crisis on their hands: three DC-Minis have been stolen from his office. Drs. Chiba, Tokita, and dwarfish Shima have an immediate meeting to figure out what to do in order to protect their project, but the Foundation's chairman, an elderly man in a wheelchair, interrupts them.
The chairman says he already knows about the security breach. He wants to shut down the DC-Mini project. He thinks the theft they have already suffered will lead to psychic terrorism and he wonders if the rumored person "Paprika" is behind it. The pressure is on—
Suddenly dwarfish Dr. Shima starts spouting nonsense, and he works himself into an enthusiasm that leads him to jump out the nearest window, high up in their multi-storied building. Luckily Shima survives his fall. They put him under observation, hooking him up to a DC-Mini, with the realization that they had witnessed the first "weaponized" use of the device—
Watching the dream on the computer monitor, Dr. Chiba quickly sees that Shima has the dream of a mental patient planted in his brain. Tokita's theory is that Shima was monitoring a patient's dream during clinical trials when the terrorist used another DC-Mini to intrude, at which point the dream was projected into Shima's unconscious, where it was left like a remote-controlled bomb, waiting for the detonation signal to come. The sudden pressure of the crisis then triggered the unstable dream into taking over his waking consciousness.
Then the dream they are watching on the computer gives another clue, the appearance of fat Tokita's pudgy assistant Himuro, who spouts more of the same crazy talk that Shima had being saying during his episode. It turns out that Himuro hasn't been at the lab for a few days. He becomes the prime suspect of stealing the DC-Minis, and they go to his apartment to investigate.
There. That's the first fifteen minutes, with later details filled in for greater context. I've been careful not to ruin anything, but I'll go no further.
Fans of Kon's work know that he usually works with the breakdown of reality. In his films Perfect Blue (1997) and Millennium Actress (2001), the tension is between the everyday world and the world of film, and how they start to blend into each other. In his TV series Paranoia Agent (2004) the tension is between social reality and the social unreality expressed by such things as urban legends. Kon's Tokyo Godfathers (2003) is softer and more subtle, ultimately showing a tension between the mundane and the miraculous, which makes it the best introduction to Kon's work.
With that said, Paprika presents the aforementioned breakdown taken to an even higher level, to the stage where dreams and reality blend and blur. This is the heady stuff of New Wave science fiction in its heyday, from A to Z: novels like Brian Aldiss's Barefoot in the Head (1969), where an LSD War has left the wounded walking in a stream-of-consciousness landscape, and especially Roger Zelazny's Dream Master (1966), about a therapist who uses a computer to enter/experience/shape the dreams of his patients. Although it seems to come straight from the New Wave, in fact Paprika is based upon a Japanese science fiction novel of the same name, published in 1993 (not yet translated). Its author is Yasutaka Tsutsui, who has a long reputation as a "New Wave" writer in Japan (with a career spanning 1965 to the present), analogous to a Kurt Vonnegut or a Philip K. Dick, but he is virtually unknown elsewhere.
Given Kon's work, Paprika seems like a natural for him. It is, but in a far more complicated way than just that. For starters, Kon is a long-time fan of the novel Paprika and admits that most of his earlier work was inspired by it. Meanwhile, Tsutsui, having seen Kon's work, decided that Kon was the one to make a movie of Paprika. So this is one of those rare cases where the author starts the ball rolling, participates in a small role on screen (as a bartender), and sees it through to the end.
Fans of Kon's work will find much to love in Paprika, a movie that starts with a bang and never lets up. Newcomers will be better prepared after reading this background information—
While not for everyone, Kon's signature style of reality-breakdown is dizzying, dazzling, and delightful. Cinephiles especially are urged to give him a try.