Anime has come a long way since the days when titles like Akira represented the West's only experience with the genre. While VHS and home video clearly paved the way for the artform's acceptance, it was DVD and the digital revolution that finally bridged the gap between the growing Asian industry and the fledgling American fanbase. With additional help from the Internet and its messageboard makeup, the profile of foreign animation is so high that it tends to dominate the overall 2D discussion. While companies like Pixar and Dreamworks continue to push the envelope (and acceptability) of computer creativity, the Japanese have been successful in merging the two styles into something quite special. Paprika is a perfect example of this collaborative ideal. Using the motherboard to modify and accent traditional hand drawn dimensions, the results are wildly inventive and strangely compelling. They combine to create one of 2007's most satisfying spectacles.
When the highly experimental DC Mini device goes missing from a secret psychological think tank, the individuals in charge panic. You see, the small machine can be used to record, influence, and even invade an individual's dreams. In the wrong hands, the untested tool can be linked to any mental monitoring system, blurring the lines between reality and the subconscious. Doctors Chiba and Shima decide to employ "Paprika", an electronic alter ego that excels at dealing with the nonsensical conditions of the dream realm. She's been working with a dejected detective who's unable to catch a missing murderer. His guilt, along with the ambitions of others in Chiba and Shima's sphere of influence, collide to create a carnival of corrupt, frequently horrifying hallucinations. As the real world and fantasy continue to merge, it will take the influence and imagination of everyone involved to stop the hideous evil that wants to save dreams by destroying reality.
Paprika is a masterpiece of visual flare and vivid imagination. It's a merciless mindf*ck masquerading as a dense dream state fugue. It represents the cutting edge of Japanese animation and the cartooning classicism that made the artform a beloved cinematic staple. It is also an intensely confusing film that requires patience, forbearance, and abject attention to totally appreciate. Director Satoshi Kon, responsible for such cutting edge creations as Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers has once again proved his undeniable talent. While the narrative may be as layered as a remote rainforest, crashing into noir, musical comedy, fantasy, and science fiction, the lush, unrelenting visuals are like a book of Asian cultural iconography come to life. Thematically, the story centers on the battle between modernity and myth, the traditional attacking technology for supremacy. It's a brilliant metaphor for contemporary existence (based, in part, on avant-garde author Yasutaka Tsutsui's 1993 novel) and one that Kon employs optically to instill a sense of wonder mixed with danger. The central image in the film - the mad parade of religious and recreation symbols - suggests a wealth of history and heritage rallying against the sterile social framework. Whenever it arrives onscreen, its emblematic power is undeniable.
Part of the reason for Paprika's initial incomprehensibility stems directly from the way Kon tells the story. Since anime, by its very nature, invokes a sense of otherworldly disconnect and hyperrealism, there is very little differentiation between the two competing states - dreams and the waking world. When the two begin to merge and intersect, the characters are frequently required to make little expositional remarks ("Is this real?") to guide the audience. Granted, the film does feature many repeating riffs (a web-based bar, the detective's death corridor) and definitive characters that let us know where we are, but part of Paprika's elusiveness remains in its desire to keep questions unanswered and ideas incomplete. We never really get a full handle of the DC Mini and how it will help psychotherapy. One just has to assume that, because it uncovers the subconscious, Freudians locked into interpreting such visions would find it viable. But then our villain argues over the purity of dreams, as if infiltrating their ethereal space is a crime against nature. The confusion collects, but luckily never adds up to very much. Thanks to Kon's novel way with the artform, we excuse the occasional cloudiness.
Indeed, taken as a purely sensory experience, Paprika is simply amazing. From the J-Pop puffery of the signature songs to the moment when the title heroine takes on the growing forces of darkness, the movie is unrelenting. It juxtaposes the familiar with the freakish, the classic with the experimental. Many purists may balk at the reliance on CG and other technical tweaks to deliver the traditional hand drawn style, and there are moments in the dialogue where you wonder if the scriptwriters were drunk or just reverting to juvenile ramblings for the sense of surrealism. Yet it all paints a nearly flawless example of sound and vision. Providing a wealth of continuing pleasures that only expand upon additional viewings, Paprika represents the highest order of the frequently overdone genre. It will delight as much as disturb, attacking one's aesthetic with as much humor as horror. This is a movie that's as impressive in its little moments as when it's exploiting spectacle for the sake of nonstop action. In a year of strong animated efforts, Paprika is one of the best. Fans of the format should not miss it. Others unfamiliar with the joys of such creative cartooning should definitely check it out.
Offered by Sony Pictures Classic in a wonderful 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, Paprika simply screams for a Blu-Ray version. The visuals are so intricate and complex, and the use of depth of field and forced perspective so prevalent, you can tell the standard medium just can't capture all the detail. It does look amazing here, colors sharp and vibrant, contrasts controlled without being too profound. Yet Kon and his creative team have managed to make something so sumptuous and optically opulent that missing any of it would be a crime.
There are four separate tracks offered here - a stellar Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, an equally effective English version, a slightly less successful French track, and a standard stereo offering in Dolby Digital Spanish. Anything beyond the original language track is rather pointless. The Western interpretation misses many of the nuances given the characters by the Asian actors. Besides, Anime just plays better in Japanese. The subtitles are excellent - easy to read and rarely intrusive. Overall, the aural package here is premiere. It's not quite reference quality, but it's pretty darn good otherwise.
While much of this material feels ported over from previous Japanese releases of the title (much of it has the appearance of TV EPKs), the added content is uniformly excellent. There are four separate featuretttes. One focuses on the difference between Kon's version of Paprika and Tsutsui's novel. It's a wonderful look at the interpretative process. A Conversation About the Dream features Kon, Tsutsui, along with two actors from the film discussing subconscious logic and fantasy visualization. It's equally insightful. Next up, the main cinematographer and CG supervisor discusses how computers aid in opening up Paprika's scope, while The Art of Fantasy addresses the various ideas and influences that make the speculative genre so special. Finally, Kon, music supervisor Susuma Hirasawa, and associate producer Morishima add a full length audio commentary which is a great deal of fun. In Japanese with English subtitles, the trio dishes dirt about the production, describes the various battles fought during the painstaking animation process, and generally enjoy revisiting the experience. It makes for an insightful and instructional bit of context.
When compared to American animation, with its reliance on anthropomorphized animals and lame pop culture references, Paprika is like a pen and ink 2001. Its experience gets deeper upon reflection and there are numerous moments that will linger in your memory for months to come. More or less mandating a Highly Recommended rating, it misses the coveted DVD Talk Collector Series tag by the smallest of personal preferences. As a measure of one man's talent, Paprika argues for Satoshi Kon's continuing presence as an animation powerhouse to be reckoned with. Once it has had a chance to sink in and fully form in your brain, this movie will end up being a favored flight of fancy. Don't let the daunting narrative dimension (or other critics' inability to handle same) dissuade you from this remarkable effort. It's a truly inspiring entertainment.
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