Director: Satoshi Kon (Japan). Year of Release: 2006
A circus tent. The ringmaster counts to 3 in English. A man in the crowd chats to someone with a clown’s face about someone he’s chasing. Suddenly, a spotlight hits the audience, focussing on the chasing man. Almost immediately, he is in a cage onstage. He surges upwards and is caught by a trapeze artist. He swings with her, until he is suddenly Tarzan. After a few changes of setting, he is in a hotel corridor, where a man is running away. He lifts his pistol, pondering whether to shoot.
And then he wakes up and it was all a dream. Well, sort of.
The man is Detective Konakawa. Konakawa is hard-boiled, as fictional detectives are contractually obliged to be. He is visiting a dream therapist, Paprika, who is currently sitting by his bedside but we also recognise from his dream. She is using the latest technology – a DC Mini which allows psychiatrists to record and view their patients’ dreams. Konakawa asks Paprika if he’ll see her again – it’s unclear whether he’s asking for a doctor’s appointment or a date. She gives him her card.
Paprika is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with particular emphasis on the third term. She is deeply cute, and enters the subconscious of her patients, becoming what they want her to be. We gradually learn that Paprika is the alter ego of Dr. Chiba, head of research in the DC Mini project. While both women are voiced by the same actor, Paprika is what happens when Dr. Chiba does the equivalent of removing her glasses and letting her hair flow. They are the same person, but different.
Meanwhile, back on earth, Dr. Chiba is helping her assistant Tokita into a lift. Tokita is obese, and the subject to a number of fattist jokes – at a restaurant, each time a waitress comes with another order, it is always for him. Chiba and Tokita have a problem. Someone has stolen 3 DC Minis, and Tokita has not yet implemented password control. This means that the devices can be used for evil means – to infiltrate people’s dreams and to somehow control their behaviour.
Tension develops between Chiba and Tokita on one hand, and the Megacorp for whom they work. The stolen DC Minis have already been abused for – one doctor has already tried to kill himself after they took over his mind. Chiba and Tokita want to help their friends, but also to overcome the problems to create technology which could really help psychiatry. Their bosses see try to cut down production immediately. Head doctor Inui will later turn into a megalomaniac robot.
Konakawa visits the website listed on Paprika’s card. After a few clicks, he finds himself in a bar tended by old time waiters. He drinks vigorously, but, as he says, this is all imaginary, so he can’t really get drunk. In the bar he eventually meets Paprika, who offers to take him to the movies. As they pass through an avenue of cinemas showing classic films, Konawaka insists that he hates film and wants nothing to do with cinema.
Amid all the hectic, a little back story emerges. We learn that Konowaka used to by at film school. With a friend, he developed a film about a cop and his friend who ended up on the wrong side of the law. The film was never finished, because Konokawa’s friend died. The dream of Konokawa deliberating whether to shoot a fleeing villain is taken from an unresolved scene in the unfinished film. All this is probably what made him join the police. Truth comes from fiction,
The dreams in Paprika often have a nightmareish quality. A repeated scene shows various household appliances, sinister cuddly toys, and the Statue of Liberty advancing down a road, led by half-open fridge. We often see an evil-looking doll, its arm raised in a sort of Hitler salute. A lift threatens to take Konakawa to floor 17, a number for which he has an irrational fear. Suddenly all floors light up as number 17. There is a lot of chasing and falling, and falling, and falling.
I must say, that this sort of detail often turns me against a film. Some films spend way too much time painstakingly patronisingly telling us what each scene is meant to represent. Speaking of which, many reviews compare Paprika to Inception, a much inferior film which appears to have borrowed (stolen) several of its main scenes. But where Inception continuously tries to tell us how clever it is (while not being remotely clever), Paprika lacks any of that self-regard.
Instead, Paprika moves at such a high-octane pace that we don’t get the chance to think about the bones of ideas that it is throwing at us. At various times, we are told that dreams are like films, but never have the time to think this through (this is probably just as well, as I’m worried that the argument won’t really hold up). Instead of being told why a particularly scene should be scary, we see a group of unrelated obvious which are so disconcerting that they scare us to fuck.
Paprika is the sort of film which makes reviews redundant (so what are you doing here? I know). Ultimately, it is not trying to interpret dreams, it is showing us what dreams look like in all their mad irrationality. If we start trying to explain what is happening, we diminish what the film is doing. I can well understand viewers getting very irritated by Paprika – if you don’t go with it, it makes no sense at all. I went with it, and had a much better evening because of this.