Movie Review
Director: Satoshi Kon
Cast: Toru Emori, Megumi Hayashibara, Katsunosuke Hori

animation is a bit of a double-edged sword. Perhaps its most exciting property is its capacity to articulate literally anything. An artist can create within this medium as far as his imagination can grasp, as long as he possesses the technical competence to execute his vision. In feature-length anime deemed worthy of wide theatrical distribution by an entertainment conglomerate like The Sony Corp., technical competency, or a supposed lack thereof, is probably not an issue. So let it be known that filmmaker Satoshi Kon’s execution of craft is staggering in his latest venture, Paprika.

Let it also be known that Paprika gets slashed by the other side of the sword, for, as liberating as animation is, infinite possibilities can also shackle the artist. The premise of Kon’s film is inundated with possibility; he seems tempted to grasp at as many ideas as possible, without ever really grabbing firm hold of one and spending ample time with it. This is the major disappointment of a movie about hyper-educated, techno-savvy doctors who assume warrior-like alter-egos, enter the heads of sleeping patients, and fight evil on the battlefield of their slumbering mindscapes.

Dr. Atsuko Chiba is a brilliant, if frustratingly aloof, crossbreed of a computer scientist and psychotherapist. She is supervisor on the cutting-edge PT Project, which will hopefully pave the way for a new and more effective means of psychoanalysis. One piece of technology vital to the project, called a DC-Mini, can record a patient’s dreams. Technicians log the dream-recordings in a massive database and upload them onto monitors, so doctors can watch, analyze, diagnose, and prescribe.

The problem with the DC-Mini is that it’s a new piece of technology, and, you see, it’s a bit glitchy. Glitchy, like, the machine has a tendency to fry a patient’s brain. As the docs and scientists scramble to tweak the malfunctioning piece of hardware, the inevitable happens: a terrorist gets one. The idea of a psychopathic global terrorist wielding a malfunctioning dream-recorder as a WMD is a really fucking exciting one, and the movie fulfills expectations once the bad guy starts draining peoples heads, but prior to that, i.e. the first 50 minutes, Paprika is inaccessible.

It is in the aforementioned first half when we are introduced to the dreamworld and to Dr. Chiba’s alter-ego, named Paprika. Paprika is a sort of protector of the subconscious. Whenever a sleeper straps on a DC-Mini, they inevitably encounter precarious and terrifying figments of a transient situation. It’s Paprika who navigates the world of illogic and, like a reliable trip-sitter, guides the sleepers to a waking safety.

Paprika is strong enough to handle one misdirected stream of unconscious at a time, but when the terrorist unleashes the DC-Mini, she encounters some trouble. It is the terrorist’s intention to usurp the dreams from as many dreamers as possible and to combine them into an amalgamated alternate reality wherein the dreamers are imprisoned and the terrorist is God. Paprika sees it her patriotic duty to destroy the alternate reality and restore the freedom of an objective reality by returning the dreamers their dreams.

Paprika is one of those movies that seem so cool on paper you can’t even believe how sweet it will be on film. Well, it’s weird because the exact elements that sell the idea actually work against the movie. For one, the story is difficult to follow. It is initially obscure, but not in a tantalizing, foreshadowing kind of way. The bits of plot buried in purposeless exposition are so abstracted that they are difficult to string together into a coherent narrative.

This is not to say a narrative is vital to a film like Paprika. In some of the coolest anime, the story takes a back seat to the insanity of cartoons. And that’s great, but still I argue that there must be some semblance of aesthetic coherence and continuity weaving its way throughout the entirety of the film. If the images are meant to communicate a particular something to an audience, even if this something is non-verbal, then they must do so within the parameters of a specific context. There has to be some degree of consistent visual fluency, some kind of animated touchstone or etymology from which the images can sprout.

In Paprika, the images are derived from the etymology of the dream world, but because dreams are inconsistent and random, so are its derivatives. A phalanx of outrageous and incongruent subconscious images is really cool in theory, but when trying to marry such a visual flagrance with a narrative through-line, mixed messages are sent. It becomes difficult to reconcile the random and the arbitrary with the filmmaker’s desire for storytelling and emotional consistency. The approach prohibits fluency. Paprika suffers.

Still though, you should see Satoshi Kon’s latest. He is undoubtedly a dutiful and arduous master of anime, and there are more than a few pictures and insights scattered throughout the torturous film worth experiencing. The last twenty minutes of Paprika may alone be worth the price of admission. The only problem is, you’ll have to sit through the first seventy to get there.

Paprika is currently playing in New York. It will open June 1st in LA.

By: Frank Rinaldi
Published on: 2007-05-23
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