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August, 2008 : Review:

Satoshi Kon's Paprika

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—not only is the project threatened, but so is Paprika herself.

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—exactly the sort of terrorism that the chairman had been talking about.

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—looking over other reviews, it really bugs me that so many say that "a machine" has been stolen, when in crucial fact it is three machines that have been stolen. That seemingly innocuous simplification amounts to obfuscating misinformation.

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.

Works Referenced

Paprika (2006), Sony Pictures Classics. 86 minutes. Rated R (for violent and sexual images). In Japanese, English-dub, French-dub, and Spanish-dub. Subtitles and bonus material, including interviews with director Kon and author Tsutsui. It is available for rental from Netflix.

Copyright © 2008, Michael Andre-Driussi. All Rights Reserved.

About Michael Andre-Driussi

Michael Andre-Driussi has been studying anime for several years. His articles on sf anime in general have appeared in NYRSF. His main claim to fame, however, is Lexicon Urthus, a dictionary for the New Sun, now in its long awaited Second Edition.


Aug 6, 04:48 by IROSF
Comments on the movie or the review should go here.

Review is here.
Aug 6, 15:02 by Scott Benenati
So glad to see Paprika is becoming more well known. It is one of the best anime I've ever seen. The visuals are stunning, as was mentioned in the review, the music and sound effects create intense atmospheres, and the metaphysical speculations are profound. (My only complaint is the lack of realistic facial expressions of the characters, but this pervades anime.) Is there more anime this good?
Aug 6, 15:43 by Michael Andre-Driussi
Is there more anime this good?

That's a tough question! I'll start at the top of what I guess we can call "art house anime."

IMHO, Satoshi Kon's work is at the top with only Hayao Miyazaki's anime. So I recommend Kon's work and Miyazaki's work.

Madhouse is the group that Kon is a part of, and they released another film, "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time," which is Kon-like. Sort of Kon-lite, in a fresh and refreshing way. I don't think it has been exported yet.

I used to be a big fan of Makoto Shinkai, but I was deeply disappointed by his latest film "5 cm per Second." Still, you might try "Voices of a Distant Star," which collects his first and second shorts, "She and Her Cat" and "Voices of a Distant Star." On DVD.

That's a start.

I mean, my list of "True SF" anime includes: Cowboy BeBop, Boogiepop Phantom, Niea Under Seven, Haibane Renmei, Wings of Honneamise, FLCL, Planetes, and others. Some come closer to "art house" than others. (Aside: at least one of the people from Boogiepop has subsequently worked with Kon, adding to his formidable dream team.)
Aug 6, 17:59 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Hmmm, sounds suspiciously like the film The Cell. Then again, I suppose all movies based on the premise of entering other people's dreams would all sound suspiciously the same. Worth a look though.

As for "good" anime, well, that is a matter of taste. There are some I would recommend though (other than the above mentioned Miyazaki). Top of that list is anything with Ghost in the Shell on the cover. To be truthful, I found the T.V. series (GitS: Stand Alone Complex and GitS: Second Gig) to be better than the films, although the original film adaptation of the manga was pretty fantastic. If you like S/F and anime, you cannot miss GitS. Intelligently written, wonderful English dubbing (the voice acting is superb) and stunning visuals.
Aug 7, 17:32 by Scott Benenati
Before I watched Paprika, Miyazaki's films were the only anime that engaged me. I look forward to more. Thanks for the recommendations.
Aug 7, 18:15 by Michael Andre-Driussi
You are welcome, sbenenati! Ah, so you know and like Miyazaki already--excellent.

With this better understanding of your tastes, I think your next Kon film should be "Millennium Actress." After that, perhaps "Tokyo Godfathers" for a palate-cleansing sorbet, and then the big experience of "Paranoia Agent."

"Tokyo Godfathers" might be "too simple" for you after "Paprika," but it is a nice change of pace for Kon and I think it is great.

Kon's first film, "Perfect Blue," can probably wait until later. Its animation is rougher. It is based on a novel, like Paprika is, but most of Kon's work is stuff he makes up himself. It is probably the Kon work that is most like a Hitchcock film. It is a good film, showing the seeds of greatness.

Of course you could also watch them in sequential order, starting with "Perfect Blue," for that type of experience--watching him develop. (Hmm, wait a second--my plan =is= historical after starting with his second film!) But I think "Millennium Actress" is a better bet, since if your interest in Kon ends with that film, you reach satiety on one of his best.
Aug 8, 17:35 by Scott Benenati
I'll take your advice and check out Millennium Actress next, but I doubt I will be sated! Paprika hit me with the same force that Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke did and I yearn for more. There's such potential, but of the little anime I've seen, there doesn't seem to be much more of such quality. Most has cringing dialogue, excessive grunting, and the themes and desired emotional responses are heavy-handed.

One other engaging anime I forgot about is Grave of the Fireflies, which I thought was extremely disturbing and realistically done--though definitely not exhilirating like Paprika and Miyasakis'.

Also, Kon wrote the long-short "Magnetic Rose"--which Koji Morimoto directed--from the anime collection Memories and it is well worth checking out. It has the same theme of spiraling realities and even a similar atmosphere of brooding, deepening psychic corridors.

Aug 8, 19:10 by Michael Andre-Driussi
Wait, you already know "Magnetic Rose"?! That is early Kon, indeed.

What you say is true--"Magnetic Rose" offers a good glimpse into Kon, even when it isn't directed by Kon (he "only" did the story, the layout, and the art direction). In addition, MR has that gritty, "True SF" feel, somewhere between Cowboy BeBop and Planetes, but then of course it gets into the "Kon reality thing" <tm>.

Well all right, if MR is in play, then I should also mention "Roujin Z," a feature that Kon worked on. Again, this is early, non-directorial Kon (art design, key animation), and yet it has several elements that he continues to use, so I don't know if he influenced RZ, or RZ influenced him.

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