Paprika (Japan, 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Satoshi Kon
There are animated movies and then there are animated movies.
John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren & Stimpy, frequently posts on his animation blog simple but illuminating analyses of what makes for attractive, eye-popping animation. He's insistent that animation should be expressive but honest, appealing without being cutesy, and in one screenshot-driven critique from last March, demonstrated profoundly why simple cel animation from the 1940's and 50's is infinitely more visually pleasing than any given shot from Shrek. Each moviegoing season cranks out more disposable, computer-animated, would-be-blockbusters with sassy zoo animals, penguins and polar bears, learning obvious life lessons while making anachronistic references to popular culture which become instantly dated. Pixar remains the only studio to consistently produce quality CG animated films, the latest of which, Ratatouille, is genuinely worthy of praise and admiration for both its striking animation and smooth, funny storytelling. (It also helps that its protagonist, the chef rat Remy, is not a character that we have seen in animated film before: he's not a neurotic "everyman" audience stand-in, but a genius who won't compromise with anyone to create his masterpieces.) As the glut of mediocre CG films grows, and studios such as Disney and Dreamworks close down their cel animation departments, a rebellion has been steadily growing from critics and fans alike. This is most clearly seen in the growing adulation for Japanese animators Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon. You know all about Miyazaki, no doubt, but you may not know about Kon, who created the praised feature films Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers, and Millennium Actress. What sets Kon's films apart is their unusually mature subject matter--not mature in the sex and violence department, mind you, but with stories and themes that are genuinely complex. Tokyo Godfathers was a fairly realistic comedy about three homeless men who find an abandoned baby, and become unwilling guardians for the child. Millennium Actress (working out a theme first introduced in his short film, "Magnetic Rose") reenacts the career of an actress, as seen through the eyes of a documentary crew sorting through her biography--and becoming, somehow, entangled in the events of both her life and her movies. The stream-of-consciousness narrative is carefree and breakneck, yet ultimately arrives at a moving and meaningful conclusion. It's hard to imagine the story being told in live action, but on the other hand it's hard to imagine any other director with the imagination to tell such a story in animation.
The same can be said for his latest film, Paprika, which arrives on U.S. shores riding a wave of critical accolades from fed-up film critics who want American animation to grow up already. Like his other works, Paprika uses realistic, not cartoony, animation, in service of a story best appreciated by grown-ups. It has been rightly compared to the novels of Philip K. Dick. Chiba Atsuko is a therapist who uses a device which allows her to interact with a patient's dreams. In dreams, she becomes "Paprika"--sexier, more adventurous, and ever transforming to meet the requirements of each individual dream. A mystery unfolds when someone begins to use the device to blur the barrier between the dream world and the waking, so that a fully conscious, fully sane individual can suddenly become prisoner to an unseen fantasia, happily shouting nonsense phrases and plunging straight out a window. With the assistance of one of her clients--a detective--as well as the creator of the device--a fabulously obese man with the mind of a child--Chiba and her alter ego Paprika rush to prevent the entire world from collapsing into the dimension of dreams.
Plot twists come almost too quickly to process, and at no point in this film is an explanation repeated or delivered slowly: you're expected to be paying attention. But ultimately the plotting proves to be less complicated than it at first appeared, and those who view the film a second time will be rewarded with a clearer understanding of all its clever touches. What's most surprising is that the film elevates the discussion of "dreaming" to other media. The Internet is mentioned as similar to dreaming while awake (the Detective visits a website--Paprika's--which seems to plunge him into a dream), but Kon is even more compellingly drawn to compare the dreaming experience to entering a dark movie theater and plunging into the fictional worlds presented on the screen. At the start of the film, the dreaming detective pursues a criminal through a circus (The Greatest Show on Earth), then swinging through a jungle (Tarzan), then on a speeding train (From Russia With Love), and through a romantic film (Roman Holiday). The sequence of dreams is reenacted a couple times, until the detective comes to the realization that they're all films--and, furthermore, that he had wanted to be a film director, but instead became a cop, a decision which has subconsciously haunted him. The theme of dreams-as-films is woven throughout the film, from this pre-credits sequence, which ends with the sounds of a projector coming to the end of its last reel, through the opening credits, with the titles projected upon the backgrounds and Paprika's face, to the final, poignant, and completely unexpected resolution. But along the way you're served with some of the best surreal-apocalyptic anime imagery since Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira and Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, and action and suspense scenes bursting with imagination: for in dreams, none of the standard rules apply. Paprika becomes Pinnochio, a fairy, and a sphinx, while being pursued by dreams mixed and matched by the collective of dreamers trapped by the dream-device--blue butterflies, a creepy geisha doll, and a parade of appliances and frogs that at one point break out of a projection booth and invade a movie theater, sweeping up Paprika and the detective and carrying them helplessly on. At this point in the film you'd be advised to look over your own shoulder, toward that white, flickering light in the booth. Satoshi Kon knows the truth: we're all prey for his untamed dreams, which have found ultimate expression in the form of animation. Would that other studios take his lead.