The nightmarish technological fantasy that made anime adult

10 years after the release of Paprika, Satoshi Kon's final film, we look back at the anime that playfully stared into the human psyche

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It’s hard to imagine that a novel serialised in the pages of Marie Claire Japan would have the axis-spinning effect that Paprika had on the world of anime, cinema and beyond. Paired with the soulful, intricate eye of Japanese animator Satoshi Kon, Paprika was the 2006 psychological thriller-slash-technological fantasy pushing the envelope of what anime could be and do, navigating the soft dreamy world of Studio Ghibli and skirting the metallic edges of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell.

The film, based on sci-fi writer Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel of the same name, stares straight into the dark enclaves of our vast dreamscapes, pinpointing the disturbing near-reality where technology collides with the human mind. Psychologist Atsuki Chiba uses the DC Mini – an invention that allows people to enter others’ dreams – to get to the bottom of clients’ issues, taking on her ‘dream detective’ alter-ego Paprika in the subconscious. When the device is stolen and harnessed by evil to create a living nightmare populated by freaky toys and animated appliances, from which people cannot escape, she must find and defeat the ‘dream terrorist’.

10 years after its original release, we dissect Kon’s nightmarish tale that decimated and rebuilt the notions of fantasy and reality.

IT WAS THE CLIMAX OF KON’S CINEMATIC OEUVRE

It’s been six years since the loss of Satoshi Kon to pancreatic cancer. Once an apprentice to Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo, Kon’s small but mighty collection of works probe the concept of what reality actually is, getting bigger and more innovative with every instalment. His major mind-bending thriller was Perfect Blue, a 1997 piece that saw a Japanese girlband member lose hold of her own mind as she dodged the threat of a stalker and delved disturbingly deep into her first acting role, while commenting on Japan’s obsession with pop megastars. Millennium Actress (2001) recounts the tale of an elderly former moviestar for two filmmakers, where memories and embellished fantasy swirl together to offer a new perspective on cinema itself. Tokyo Godfathers (2003) was his third time directing: inspired by a western film called 3 Godfathers, Kon transposes the disturbing yet touching Christmas story to Shinjuku, where three homeless friends find a baby abandoned in a dump. In one scene, theatre posters of Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress can be spotted at a bus stop.

Paprika, his final feature, was an amalgamation of Kon’s exploration of the mind. It picks up where Perfect Blue left off with themes of identity. Where Perfect Blue sees legions of fans and a threatening stalker – or possibly snippets of her past self – gaze upon and consume Mima Kirigoe as she moves from music to acting, Paprika zones in on who we are in the depths of our mind’s eye. As Dr Chiba moves from reality to dreamworld, she works to get to the core of patients who can’t figure out the message of their own nightmares.  Kon takes the careful psychology of his previous films and blasts it into the stratosphere with the DC Mini.

PAPRIKA RODE THE WAVE OF ADULT ANIME

Kon was one of the major players leading the charge that thrust anime above the western perception of Japanese animation, which was heavily characterised by the soft – but nevertheless strong – features of the legendary Studio Ghibli and the effervescent girl power of Sailor Moon. Paprika, in exploring more adult themes, was very much at home in a particular strain of anime, and held a pretty complex, detailed narrative. Akira was the cyberpunk thriller set in a Neo-Tokyo, where youth morph and rebel against an imposing authority and mainstream establishment pressure, directly questioning the contemporary post-war Japan bolder than most animes before it. Masterful productions like End of Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell made up the animated contingent of films that explored human nature within sci-fi, as Paprika does this in making sense of dream logic.

While still maintaining elements of playfulness with the array of dream scenes that cast Paprika in a circus, as a centaur and butterfly – and not forgetting the very creepy toy procession – Kon takes on unsettling sexual violence and issues of the male gaze. Like many more ‘adult’ animes, there’s a fixation with smooth female bodies. In reality, Chiba finds her intelligence and skill ignored at times for her body. In the dreamscape, as Paprika, male clients show outward attraction to the young and innocent dream detective. There’s a jarring attempted rape by a nemesis, trying to assert dominance over the woman who moves so freely between worlds and into the minds of men.

IT HARNESSED ‘PHOTOREALISM’

Much of what happens in Paprika, with its swooping shots of huge cityscapes and in-depth conversations between characters, seems like it would play out effectively as a live-action film. In fact, Kon’s style of editing is as swift and detailed as that of big blockbuster movies, if not more so given that animators are in complete control of light and movement. Video essayist Tony Zhou explores this in detail in his clip “Satoshi Kon – Editing Space & Time”, dissecting the filmmaker’s strength in quick transitions. He’s not afraid to rewind shots and use black frames, or use other objects to completely wipe a scene into the next. This is most prevalent in Paprika’s vibrant, seamless 4-minute opening sequence and the parade scenes, populated by technicolour robots, dolls, a Godzilla creature and bopping Buddha.  As Zhou relates, Kon “felt that we each experience space, time, reality and fantasy at the same time as individuals and as a collective society”. For him, this elastic editing style gave the opportunity to create a hyperreal, immersive world that somehow felt totally plausible - even if a man becomes a monstrous whale or a giant robot, or a person becomes consumed by butterflies.

UNDERSTANDING OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH TECHNOLOGY

“Things like imagination and one’s willingness to believe in the abnormal have all but been eliminated from our daily lives” Kon once said. “The end result is a soberingly bland reality, which is pretty much what we live in today. In the film, Paprika is the entity that lets you experience the utterly fantastic and absurd elements of life. I think that type of story is becoming increasingly rare.” Though Kon asks us to fully immerse ourselves in a landscape that’s somehow tangible and otherworldly, there’s also caution. Technology has advanced drastically in this near-future, and the planes between the human mind and inanimate technology are bridged by the sophisticated DC Mini, used secretly by Chiba as the machine awaits its final trialing. She uses the device to help detective Tohimi Konakawa, who’s dealing with a recurring dream, but it’s then misused by others to the point it decimates the walls between dreams and real life. Jumping over a railing becomes a skyscraper ledge, and another parade sees a procession of girls with mobile phones for heads – technology can consume and assimilate as us. Kon shows us that tech can be attractive and world-expanding, but also ominous and violent. 

A KILLER SOUNDTRACK

The soundtrack was composed by Susumu Hirasawa – a perfectly topsy-turvy, dreamy aural parallel to Kon’s visuals. Hirasawa also collaborated with Kon on his works Millennium Actress and Paranoia Agent, and the Paprika soundtrack was the first to ever use Vocaloid, a ‘singing voice synthesizer’, with parts of the vocals to create interesting, otherworldly layers to speakers. As Paprika spans a vast narrative and pace, so does the music. It joyously smashes in with the soaring “A Drop Filled with Memories” for a blinding opening sequence, lays us gently down with “The Tree in the Dark”, announces the terrifying parade with “Welcome to the Circus” and invites goosebumps with the ominous “The Blind Spot in a Corridor”.

PAPRIKA GENRE-HOPPED BEYOND ANIME

Paprika isn’t afraid of experimenting outside of the usual cartoon narrative, as we already know. As playful as it is psychologically thrilling, and at times completely nonsensical, the film flies between the surreal and absurd – the courtship of mobile-phone headed couples, Paprika as a butterfly, and a person pumped up like a hot air balloon – to the comedy of the genius but child-like Tokita and his monstrous eating habits. Detective Konakawa, a tall, greyish character, pulls us into the realms of noir and melodrama, particularly with his dream scuffle on a moving train, before jumping into a Tarzan-like dream sequence. Chiba is a serious heroine, and Paprika is seemingly the spritely manga archetype, who meets elements of horror when her skin is peeled off to reveal Chiba underneath. It’s a brave, flexible form of storytelling.

A GALAXY-BENDING LEGACY

Paprika has, ashamedly, not been credited in the way that it absolutely deserves to have been. Films like Christopher Nolan’s Inception owe a lot to its major themes that existentially meld the darkness and light across our different consciousness together. Both have visually powerful, busy scenes, and share the concept of technology being misused to manipulate human nature. As Alex Denney wrote in his tribute to Kon, without his filmic oeuvre, everything from the Matrix to Requiem for a Dream would have suffered without the Japanese filmmaker’s important stylistic cuts and influential skills. Susan J. Napier, a professor of Japanese studies at Tufts University, wrote in Kon’s obituary that he “combined characteristic social and ethical concerns — including sympathy for outsiders and a belief in the redemptive power of love — with a mischievous and wildly inventive visual style”. Once slated for a live-action remake, we're unsure it would ever do Kon justice. Paprika is a laser-eyed, yet playful stare into the human psyche.

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