A Hint of Paprika

by eternal on May 31, 2012

Director Satoshi Kon is known for his illusions; there’s even a book about it. But he’s also known as the Hitchcock of anime given his work in the psychological drama genre, which is only partly true, not unlike comparisons between Miyazaki and Walt Disney. Paprika is a tricky film because the mind-bending plot and use of (basically) multiple personalities begets comparisons to Perfect Blue, but its tone is altogether different. It’s the antithesis to Kon’s first movie and a reminder that his illusions aren’t as haunting as Paranoia Agent and Perfect Blue urge us to assume. What’s more, there’s an undercurrent of metafiction in the director’s final film and I get the feeling that it can be described in terms other than illusion vs. reality and dream world vs. waking world.

(There may be spoilers for everything).

I won’t dwell on Kon’s status as an illusionist because most of that is self-evident. Rather, Paprika works because of its playful illusions. It’s a child’s dream, not a nightmare. We see this in Paprika’s prancing through the streets in the intro, in the absurdity of the dream parade’s dialogue. It’s the opposite of Perfect Blue’s dreams and illusions, in which Mima’s deteriorating mental state is expressed with jarring cuts that confuse chronology. Perfect Blue goes as far as to feign a plot twist painting Mima as a mental patient whose dream world is her idol persona, and whose reality is the rape scene she acts in the movie. The film consciously tries to disorient the viewer with false twists and misleading edits.

But I think the key difference between the two films is not only Paprika’s playfulness but its optimism. Perfect Blue’s split personalities reveal a beautiful dream disguising an ugly reality. This juxtaposition is terrifying, as seen in shots like this. Paprika’s equivalent is two sides of the same coin, two personalities that complement one another. The villain isn’t defeated until Atsuko and her dream persona Paprika fuse together. The alternate self is accepted, not rejected. Dreams aren’t all that bad in Paprika–they’re brighter, more colourful, more creative than reality. The parade is disconcerting, I suppose, but only for its weirdness. It’s not half as haunting as the twisted illusions of Paranoia Agent and Magnetic Rose. And let’s not forget that the DC Mini is a tool of psychotherapy: dreams are viewed as a window to the heart, not false realities to be feared and shunned.

(As an aside, it’s interesting that the main villain’s initial motives are to protect nature from science–the exact opposite of most sci-fi villains. I don’t think it counts as genre subversion but it’s certainly an optimistic view of the role of technology in society).

The movie begins in the circus with the work of a magician; an illusionist.

But these are surface observations. I noticed something a bit more interesting, though it doesn’t fit neatly into a thesis: Kon seems to deliberately connect illusion with fiction (or media in the case of Paranoia Agent). Despite the assumption that illusions = dreams, most of Perfect Blue’s false realities are from the fictive movie that Mima acts in. (Mima’s public image as an idol is also comparable to a work of fiction).

Paprika uses dreams as a major plot device, yes, but Konakawa’s arc–one of the film’s main arcs–is based entirely on movies. This wouldn’t be notable on its own, but the fact is that the movie opens with Konakawa’s dream, showcasing the common genres of cinema, and Paprika gliding gracefully through screens and billboards, melding fiction and reality. The very first illusion we’re treated to is not the twisted dream of the psychologically unsound; it is the illusion of cinema, of fiction, of actors playing their role (and we see these illusions before learning about the setting and characters). Paprika even views Konakawa’s dream in a cinema. The billboards of the intro are all bright and inviting and not at all dystopian. Illusions in the film aren’t only the subconscious explorations of dreams; they’re movies, ads, media we engage with. And that’s not a bad thing.

Oddly, I don’t think Paprika is explicitly about anything, although themes can be easily assigned. But moviemaking is a running motif, and it’s given the honour of gracing the film’s closing scene in which Konakawa buys a ticket to Kon’s yet-to-be-released flick. This is less surprising when you remember that Millennium Actress is (apparently) largely a tribute to cinema as well (I have yet to rewatch it). I don’t think there’s an explicit thematic purpose to Kon’s metafiction, but it’s there, and he seems to enjoy connecting the fantasy of dreams with the fantasy of fiction.

Paprika slips playfully between fiction and reality, screens/billboards and the 3d realm. And…

…She changes outfits depending on the nature of her adventure, almost as if to fit different movie genres.

So Kon is certainly an illusionist, but he doesn’t work exclusively with dreams and psychosis and horror. His illusions branch off to not only new genres (Millenium Actress’s romance) but also to new forms of illusion: movies, idols, mascots in the media. He suggests that we consume illusions in our daily lives, and, in Paprika at least, those illusions can be an exquisite accompaniment to reality. Paprika sums it up in the end:

Paprika: Light and dark. Reality and dreams. Life and death. Man and…?
Konakawa/Shima: Woman?
Paprika: Then you add the missing spice.
Konakawa/Shima: Paprika?
Paprika: Bingo.

Binaries aren’t to be feared. They aren’t about right and wrong, truth and lie. Add a little spice for balance and you can keep a superhuman from destroying Tokyo. Everything in moderation.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

lapsarianalyst June 1, 2012 at 1:20 am

It’s a child’s dream, not a nightmare.

Man, even this scene?

And children do have nightmares, don’t they?

The prominence of movie-like scenarios in Konakawa’s dreams reflects the fact that the anxiety causing those dreams is related to a film project in Konakawa’s actual life. That much is clear. But doesn’t that mean that these scenarios, though they seem amusing and inoffensive to us, are probably more strongly associated with anxiety for Konakawa himself? If our main impression of his dreams is that they’re “bright and inviting and not at all dystopian,” that seems to distance us from his character, whose challenge in the course of the movie is to overcome the way those dreams disturb him.

I think you are right that the movie promotes integrating the “bad” sides of dichotomies with their good sides rather than rejecting them (giving dreams a place in one’s life, absorbing the Chairman rather than destroying him, etc.), but in order to make this point, it needs to acknowledge why one might find such a solution frightening. I thought the movie succeeded at making the “bad stuff” seem credibly bad (through disorienting changes in tone and disturbing scenes like the one I linked above). Kon is using not suppressing his ability to disturb, but using it to make his point.

One of the many reasons I love this movie is that it is a very accurate portrayal of dreams. The rapidly changes in tone, the sudden intrusions of absurd humor and sexuality, and the integration of popular entertainment cliches are all common properties of real dreams. The movie, like a real dream, is certainly playful — but like a real dream, it is in its playfulness always in danger of becoming either terrifying, incomprehensible, or both. One can see why Konakawa is so wary of illusions.


eternal June 28, 2012 at 3:31 am

(Incredibly late reply, sorry. Went on holiday and then got caught up with stuff.)

The thing is, it’s not just Konakawa’s dreams that are bright and inviting. The parade gives that same impression, as does the intro. You’re right about the jarring changes in tone though. I mean, the movie puts a positive spin on dreams and illusions by and large, but there are exceptions.

I was thinking about the use of absurdity–it’s effective for realism, for sure, and it highlights the eeriness of the film. The absurdity is both funny and creepy, which I guess is your point. The movie is like a black comedy in that it makes you think twice before you laugh (and it certainly validates that unconscious fear later on).


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