When discussing the hallucinatory animated thriller Paprika (dir. Satoshi Kon, 2006), it would be remiss of me to exclude its exceptional director Satoshi Kon from the conversation. Blending deep, saturated color palettes with hyper-realistic art, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching an animated film when you watch a Satoshi Kon film. His characters don’t look like stylized cartoons, but like real people with distinct faces and body types. His stories are based in the real world; no Ghibli-esque rolling hills with talking cats and walking castles. This makes the worlds he creates seem indistinguishable from our own, but this is never the case for very long. Inevitably, reality begins to break down, leaving one to wonder what’s real and what isn’t. Satoshi Kon only completed four feature-length films and a television series prior to his untimely death in 2011. As such, it can be difficult to watch Paprika — his final film — without feeling a sense of loss for this remarkable filmmaker, which can make the movie’s already emotionally-affecting scenes hit even harder. As a final film, Paprika is a bittersweet end to a career that was cut tragically short, but not a moment of it feels wasted.
On the surface, Paprika’s story sounds like the stuff of sci-fi flicks. Doctor Atsuko Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara) lives a double life as Paprika, a psychotherapist who uses an experimental headset called the DC Mini to enter the dreams of her patients. As she explains to her newest patient, Detective Toshimi Konakawa (Akio Ōtsuka), the device is a work in progress; when it’s finished, the user will be able to enter dreams even while awake. Unfortunately, before the government can pass a law that approves the DC Mini, three prototypes go missing. Since they’re unfinished designs, they lack the access restrictions, allowing the thieves to invade any person’s dream and implant new ones into the minds of people who are awake. With the help of Konakawa and Kōsaku Tokita (Tōru Furuya), the childish but genius creator of the DC Mini, Chiba/Paprika races to find the perpetrators before they pull the world into one giant dream.
In a premise that was explored in two of his other psychological thrillers, the film Perfect Blue (1997) and 2004 television series Paranoia Agent, Paprika is about the search for one’s identity. It is, however, considerably more lighthearted than either of them. A recurring theme Kon explores with his movies is duality and the conversations between life and fiction: dreams, nightmares, reality, movies. Occasionally, their interactions with technology will feature into the plot’s conflict, showing the self-destructive potential technology has when it’s used as a tool of repression to run from the truth instead of accepting it. Paprika is about one kind of escapism: using technology and dreams to bury our pain so we can forget it. It’s also a movie that examines the nature of our dreams as desires and wishes, what they are and what they mean for us, and what happens when we don’t achieve them. That being said, it’s not a cynical movie with a bitter message. What Paprika does especially well is nail the despair we can feel when confronted with our limitations and the knowledge that we won’t accomplish our childhood dreams, but it also perfectly captures the hope of realizing that those dreams never die — they change with us.
When Toshimi Konakawa was growing up, he wanted to be a filmmaker. He and his best friend loved making movies — and they were good at it, too. But Konakawa doesn’t want to remember those times. If he can’t remember his dreams, he won’t think about them, and if he doesn’t think about them, they won’t hurt him. You can’t ignore your demons forever, and unfortunately for Konakawa, his begin to find their way into their dreams. Burnt out from a homicide case he can’t solve, Konakawa has been experiencing recurring nightmares. Paprika begins with one of them: he’s standing in the middle of a circus ring that looks awfully like the one in Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). A man cloaked in shadows who eerily resembles the suspect from the case is in the ring with Konakawa, but so is his new therapist, Paprika. The two of them chase the mystery man from one dream world to another, each one strangely reminiscent of a different Hollywood film: swinging through the jungle like in Tarzan the Ape Man (dir. W.S. Van Dyke, 1932); fending off a killer on a train like James Bond did in From Russia with Love (dir. Terence Young, 1963); smashing a punk’s face in with a guitar and snapping a photo like a scene in Roman Holiday (dir. William Wyler, 1953). Satoshi Kon makes extensive use of match cuts and other quick editing techniques to mimic the disjointed way real dreams feel. Konakawa and Paprica don’t enter a new dream so much as turn a corner and find themselves walking into it.
Paprika quickly notices the ongoing theme in Konakawa’s nightmares, but every time she tries to get him to talk about it, he stalls, avoiding the subject. At one point, he even explodes at her, screaming that he never wants to see a movie again. It’s only when one of his dreams ends with him killing himself that his walls begin to come down. But even then, Konakawa admits that he doesn’t have any idea what his dreams mean or who the man he’s chasing is.
As the film races to its audaciously surreal climax, reality begins to transform into a large-scale waking dream for Konakawa and Paprika as the thieves continue to wreak havoc with the DC Mini. Fortunately, this allows Konakawa to fully process his nightmares. In an ethereal bar somewhere between reality and the dream world, he opens up to a pair of bartenders who act as Paprika’s Greek chorus. Their gentle prompts to move the discussion forward can be read more like Konakawa’s subconscious trying to ease him into coming to terms with his inadequacies. Through them, we learn that the last movie Konakawa and his friend worked on together was an experimental film about a criminal leading a cop on a never-ending chase. Intimidated by his friend’s filmmaking talent, Konakawa lost faith in his own skills and let his fear of failure stop him from pursuing a career in filmmaking. Ever since, he’s hated himself for feeling like he wasted his life and disappointed his now-dead friend, who was left to finish the film alone.
Again, Konakawa travels through his dream worlds, and again, he finds himself chasing a criminal — but this time, the suspect is a real person and Paprika’s life is in danger. The dreams become a little less fractured, with Konakawa seeming more confident and in control. In the past, he’s always ended up hesitating at the end of the dream, paralyzed with fear, and the suspect always escapes. But this time is different.
The Question the Movie Asks
As his therapist, Paprika is the one who sets things into motion by encouraging Konakawa to think about his problems, but ultimately, Konakawa alone is the one who decides to work through them. Like a real counselor, Paprika doesn’t force him to change or accept the truth — all she does is give him a push in the right direction. In the end, Konakawa chooses to better himself by running towards the truth instead of away from it. In one of the most emotional scenes in the film, he realizes that he didn’t abandon his friend or waste his life by becoming a detective instead of a filmmaker. As a cop, Konakawa is actually bringing their movie to life, living out the story they created: “A reality born from fiction.” The blurring of reality in Paprika’s final scenes makes the message of Satoshi Kon’s final film even more poignant: How can a dream die if you’re living it?