Satoshi Kon isn't exactly a household name, but he's probably one of the best known Japanese anime directors as far as most Americans are concerned. His first three feature films--Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Tokyo Godfathers--have all gotten a stateside release, and though most anime goes straight to DVD over here, his most recent endeavor, Paprika, is actually doing a limited run in theatres, a rare honor usually reserved for Hayao Miyazaki films and the Ghost in the Shell series. It's a confident move on the part of Sony Pictures Classics. They're even treating Paprika right and putting it out with subtitles rather than the usual awful English dub. Unfortunately, I think they're backing the wrong horse.
Paprika is a pseudo-sci-fi picture about a group of scientists who are developing a special technology that allows them to visually peek in on people's dreams. This has practical uses in the field of therapy, as well as more recreational uses. Its inventor, the grotesquely obese Tokita (voiced by TŰru Furuya), came up with the idea because he thought it would be neat to see what kinds of things bubble up from the subconscious of people he knows. Of course, as with any scientific discovery, there are also going to be those who would like to exploit the advancement for its potential to do harm. In this case, three of the modules have gone missing, and someone is going into other people's heads and fussing about with their subconcious. Their first target is Shima (Katsunosuke Hori), a balding little man who is one of the head researchers. He starts raving like a lunatic, and his mind is filled with visions of a marching parade made up of dolls, frogs, and household appliances.
The scientists, which include Tokita, Shima, and the steely psychiatrist Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara), want to find their lost equipment before it can be abused and force their iron-fisted boss (Toru Emori) to shut the program down. Also, since they believe that the theft was an inside job, they fear Shima won't be the only target among them. To lead the investigation, they enlist Paprika, a sprightly gal who is somehow the dream alter-ego of the sedate Chiba. The division between them is never really explained, nor did I understand what made Paprika so special that she could jump from mindfield to mindfield with apparent ease. She even shows up in the waking world, appearing to Chiba as a reflection when she passes mirrors or windows. Though the ultimate goal is to find a way to use the machines to enter people's dream lives while they are awake, we're kind of lead to believe that this is not a problem the researchers have yet solved.
But, that's just the beginning of the list of things that go unexplained in Paprika. Though Kon and his co-writer Seishi Minakami (a scribe on Kon's Paranoia Agent series) go to great lengths to toss out scientific doublespeak to explain how the machines work, after the second or third nonsensical tangent down this path, these speeches come across as little more than smoke and mirrors to distract us from the internal logic Paprika otherwise lacks.
Kon should have relied heavier on the more literal smoke and mirrors, the visuals from the dreamscape. Paprika regularly transitions into extended sequences inside the subconscious of various characters, and these strings of surreal visions are imaginative and stunningly animated. The villains employ whacked-out, creepy, and sinister toys to drive their victims mad, and scenes blend and jump cut one to the other. They don't really mean much or lay out a breadcrumb trail of clues to the resolution of the mystery, but they sure are dazzling to watch. Likewise, Paprika is trying to help a police detective (Akio ‘tsuka) unravel the nightmares that haunt him, both through side-by-side use of the dream devices and a nightclub website online (this is never adequately explained, either, nor is the involvement of the site's virtual bartenders in later scenes ever fully connected to the story). Here Kon has a lot of fun working with Paprika's love of movies, and the detective's dreams all borrow loosely from famous scenes from classic cinema. Don't worry if you don't spot all the references, because Paprika eventually leads us into an alleyway with billboards for all the films alluded to. Some of them will make you slap your forehead in disbelief that you didn't catch them right away.
On the strength of the sleeping wonderland Kon concocts, he could have gotten away with making Paprika a mind-bending cult film, perfect for midnight shows and endless debates between movie nerds. He probably could have even kept the story he's got if he had just quickened the pace. Instead, even at a short ninety-minutes running time, Paprika moves along laconically, as if the movie itself is struggling to come out of a heavy slumber. This means long dialogue pauses, including those convoluted science lessons, where Kon allows our minds to drift and reflect on just how little substance there is to the script. Likewise, all the characters behave as if this is all happening on a lazy Sunday afternoon, even when they are discussing their own impending doom. If they can't be bothered to care, why should we?
So, again, while it's nice to see a Japanese animated film getting a real push, it's a little upsetting that the movie getting this red-carpet treatment is little more than an empty-headed beauty queen. Paprika aims for the kind of visual delights that should spark the audience's imagination and get us excited about what we're seeing, but the target it hits instead is our sleep center. Instead of blowing your mind with new dreams, it's more likely to make you want to take a nap.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.