Movie review: Paprika directed by Satoshi Kon

Starring:  Megumi Hayashibara, Akio Ōtsuka, Tōru Furuya, Tōru Emori, Katsunosuke Hori

Music by Susumu Hirasawa


Paprika is a 2006 Japanese animated film co-written and directed by Satoshi Kon, based on Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1993 novel of the same name. It is Kon’s fourth and final feature film before his death in 2010. The story depicts the adventures of a female research psychologist who uses a device that permits to help patients by entering their dreams.

In the near future, a revolutionary new device, called the “DC Mini” (Dream Catcher Mini?) allows a new kind of therapy  in which the user can literary view and enter people’s dreams. The head of the team working on this treatment, Doctor Atsuko Chiba, is very enthusiastic about it – so enthusiastic, in fact, that she starts using the machine illegally to help psychiatric patients outside the research facility in order to avoid tons of red tape. While doing so she hides behind her alter-ego, “Paprika”, a sentient persona with red hair and dark-brown eyes, much younger, nicer and more outgoing than Chiba herself, who, in real life, is as warm as your average block of ice.

An ice princess, a spice-hot girl or both?

The movie opens with Paprika counseling a tough, middle-aged detective, Toshimi Konakawa, who is plagued by a recurring dream full of strange anxiety. At the end of the first session, she gives Konakawa a card with a name of her website where the next meeting can take place. Chiba, her associates and Konakawa must be cautious that word does not leak out to the press. Chiba’s closest ally is Doctor Kōsaku Tokita, a brilliant, obese and immature man-child, the inventor of the DC Mini.  Somebody, most likely their fellow researcher Himura, has stolen the existing devices which still lack access restrictions and the consequences are grave. Soon enough their pet project is suspended and the DC Mini – officially banned by their superior. It seems that some people’s dreams can influence the reality and vice versa. Will Chiba/ Paprika manage to save the project, her colleagues who fell victims to the DC Mini,and even entire world?

My impressions:

Remember how I praised Inception directed by Christopher Nolan in my review? Oh dear, if I only knew…Inception is just a child’s play compared to this cartoon/anime. In fact some of the finest Inception’s moments and ideas seem to be influenced by Paprika exactly and, most probably, they were. So yes, I liked Paprika very much and I’m afraid, I’ll have to gush over it quite a lot. As I am not good at gushing please, forgive me in advance.

Where to start? First of all the characters, even if a bit cartoonish, were surprisingly complex. Atsuko/Paprika was that suppressed, so-cold-you-freeze-instantly, introvert scientist woman who can bloom only while turning into her digital, kittenish self.  Another protagonist is the overweight genius who understands highly advanced engineering and intricacies of human brain without any problems but doesn’t understand such basic notions as responsibility for your actions or moderation in eating.

A prince charming or a charming psycho rapist?

The baddies aren’t that simple either and the movie featured more than one chilling scene during which I asked myself what exactly was going on and who was batting for what team. Overall if you don’t know much about Anime let me warn you – it was hardly a children movie and I completely understand why it was rated R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). In one scene, taking place in a multi-tiered dream or rather a nightmare, Osanai, Atsuko Chiba’s handsome colleague, admits his love for her and literally peels away Paprika’s skin to reveal dormant Chiba underneath; then he proceeds to attempt to rape her. Chiba/Paprika is of course rescued (I don’t want to spoil you so I won’t say by whom and how) but I can hardly imagine anything like that happening to any of Disney or Pixar heroines. Yes,  model cartoon behavior isn’t on the menu in “Paprika,” and neither are dinky songs and fairy tale visuals. Here, when a woman sprouts a pair of wings, she doesn’t only flit about like a cute version of  Tinker Bell; she can also be pinned captive to a table, with a man’s hand slithering literally under her skin.

There’s also something deeply sinister about the dreamscapes in “Paprika,”  rendered in both hand-drawn and 3-D animation, which may seem peculiar for moviegoers used to more benign animated fantasies executed with better, computer-aided fluidity. I admit I sometimes toyed with the question how this movie would look like if it was executed by e.g. Pixar. The film buzzes with a sense of unease about the rapidly changing relationship between our physical selves, our dreams and our machines, a topic that Mr. Kon engages with a lot of sophistication. The movie starts right off with a creepy clown imprisoning  detective Konakawa during a circus performance – although the Japanese Ichimatsu doll, featuring later, gives that phobia a serious run for its yen. The crossover of the bright, vibrant colours of the dream world into the more staid neutral palette of the waking world is sometimes simply shocking to the eye . So is the narration.

To say Paprika can be a little hard to follow is an understatement. Writing the synopsis was a real challenge because the plot whizzes along at a speedy pace and at times you’re required to make a few leaps in logic to accept what is going on. But this is kind of part of the beauty of the film. The leaps in logic are almost dreamlike – you have to accept that in the future people can record your dreams or use the Internet to access them and that everyone can see dreams come to life in the real world. In the end what you get is a film that manages to capture the reality bending physics of dreams on a far more exciting and dynamic scale than the aforementioned Inception did.

Finally the music is definitely worth a mention too. Apparently it was the first film to feature a Vocaloid being used on the soundtrack.  According to Wikipedia it’s a computer program that turns typed words into melody and lyrics. That would explain why the music sounds so unique. There really is no soundtrack quite like it and it’s painfully hard to describe – let’s say it’s an eclectic fusion of traditional Japanese scoring with electronic weirdness and more uses of the word eclectic. It fitted the movie, though.

Final verdict:

I recommend this film wholeheartedly although from time to time it can be a bit weird. Still the care and attention to detail and the sheer beauty of “Paprika” is apparent on every frame. Add to that a plot which, while complicated, is also intelligent and engaging, unusually well-rounded characters and fantastic dreamscapes, full of terror and glory, and I’d easily place it amongst the greatest, most original animated full-length movies I’ve ever seen. To quote Paprika herself, “Encore”. What a pity somebody else will have to continue the good work.

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6 Responses to Movie review: Paprika directed by Satoshi Kon

  1. heidenkind says:

    This sounds fantastic! I love anime and am so going to watch this.

    • Oh you absolutely MUST watch it. I hope you’ll find/borrow it without problems, it is a relatively old movie but if you can’t get it do contact me. I admit that, while writing my review, I was thinking how it would be a perfect movie for you – for more than one reason. Japanese culture, psychology of dreams, those fantastic dreamscapes, cheesy like your ordinary fun arcade or circus but also sinister…I can hardly wait to hear your opinion to tell you the truth!

  2. blodeuedd says:

    It sounds…creepy

  3. rameau says:

    Look at you gush.

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