3 Stars Movies

Dreams and memory in Satoshi Kon’s Paprika

There’s a huge interest in Japanese manga and anime in the US, but it’s rare for an anime feature film to get a theatrical release. From the name and poster alone (indeed, what caught my own interest), one might not even guess Paprika is foreign-language, let alone anime. Anime is a medium, not a genre, but it does have a certain popular perception in the US: either the apocalyptic sci-fi of Akira or the fairy tale fantasia of Spirited Away. And that’s not even taking into account the expectations of a generation of kids that grew up watching the dubbed Robotech and Star Blazers serials (which would be exemplified by… me).

The popular perception is not wrong; I’m not an anime expert, but Paprika has several of the superficial trappings: cybernetic technology (like Ghost in the Shell), a ghostlike female creature (like director Satoshi Kon’s earlier Millennium Actress), and an exponentially growing world-eating beast (like Akira and America’s own The Blob). But what sets Paprika apart is its psychedelic imagery, adult themes, and sheer weirdness.

Valley of the Dolls

Like Blade Runner, it’s equal parts detective story and science fiction, with a splash of horror. The mystery genre provides a structure for the nominal plot: Paprika is the dream alter ego of Dr. Atsuko Chiba, a dream researcher building a machine for use in psychoanalytic dream analysis. The device they’re building is called the “DC Mini”, a name which, every single time, made me think of DC Comics’ miniseries. Chiba’s Blade Runner-esque mission is to track down three missing DC Mini devices, and their co-creator.

I hate it when that happens

Paprika even shares a theme with Blade Runner: the moral repercussions of new technologies. If dreams are a kind of “place”, and can be a shared reality (like the world of The Dreaming in Neil Gamain’s Sandman comic book series), what is the difference between it and real life? The potential of one world bleeding into another is very literally dangerous. One of the film’s villains uses the dream reality to commit a very disturbing form of rape, and another goes so far as to label the technology a potential form of terrorism: “Implanting dreams into other people’s heads is terrorism.” This is not hyperbole in the film’s universe: the city is almost destroyed by dreams.

Two final little things:

  • What’s the deal with the name? Is it a translation issue, or something about Japanese culture (or cuisine) I’m not aware of? A metaphor of spices and recipes is used at one point, but it still seems oddly random.
  • A key character is movie-obsessed cop, an amateur filmmaker in his youth. His noirish dreams only further expand the Blade Runner parallels. Paprika explicitly equates movie watching with dreams and memory.
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