By Adam Tatelman, Staff Writer
There are those who consider Paprika to be the Japanese version of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. However, the anime predates the film by a good four years, and the novel began its release in 1991. Paprika also proves one of my most deeply held beliefs about animation: if you want to portray a story about the mad logic of surreal dreams, there’s no better medium for it than good old pen and paper.
Paprika’s plot is similar to Inception’s. In the near future, a scanner called the DC Mini allows people to share dreams. Dr. Chiba, a therapist, uses this device to help her patients. While navigating their nonsensical mind-worlds, she takes on the kinetic and unpredictable persona of Paprika. While she’s working with Konakawa, a detective suffering from recurring nightmares, a DC Mini goes missing. One by one, Chiba’s colleagues are pulled into an ever-maddening dream from which there is no escape.
As plots go, it’s pretty vague, even when the action takes place in the real world. There’s some typical science-gone-wrong debate about the ethical limits of scientific experimentation. Unlike creepy dream-anime Paranoia Agent, Paprika is a vibrant and high-energy affair, especially when the title character is on screen throwing herself into the pantomime roles within the dream. The dreams themselves are bustling parades of colourful surreal imagery, interconnected yet entirely unique from one another. Often the film is dreamlike, and sometimes the dreams are like films.
Paprika’s visual creativity always serves the character development. Each character has two faces: the one they show in public and the one they keep to themselves. Chiba/Paprika is the most literal example of this theme, but every detail in every dream tells us something about the other characters, be it Detective Konakawa’s love of movies changing the images of his dreams, or the introverted genius Tokita revealing his childish-yet-innocent inner self.
As the film goes on, the transition between reality and dreams becomes more subtle—it’s a perfect way to show the worlds merging without telling us that the lines are becoming blurred. The upbeat tone is accentuated by the Vocaloid synthesizer soundtrack, and the fairly realistic character designs help lend emotional weight to what might otherwise be just another crazy dream cartoon. There is a little disturbing content within the dreams, but it feels built up to rather than thrown in for shock value. It is merely the natural progression from dream to nightmare.
Although it has an admittedly thin story, I give Paprika a perfect score. This is a film that embraces the ideas and themes of dreams in a wholehearted way, creating a distinctive visual identity in the process. In reducing the complexities of the plot, the film allows itself to create and follow the expressionistic logic of the dream to a natural resolution. The characters all reach satisfying resolutions as well, so it’s not that the story is lacking. It just took a more experimental and imaginative path.
Paprika is not the Japanese version of Inception. It is the film Inception wishes it could be.