(Catch my previous Satoshi Kon film review out here: Tokyo Godfathers)
Satoshi Kon’s fourth film, released in 2006, was also his last as four years later, at the age of 46, he would die of pancreatic cancer before completing Dreaming Machines: the projected film that would have become his fifth feature. Despite this tragic course of events, Kon’s actual final film, Paprika, would later become his most well-known work and the one for which he is most often praised (at least in Western media).
The film is an adaptation of a 1993 sci-fi novel by Japanese author Yasutaka Tsutsui and is unique in that regard as very few of this author’s works had ever before been adapted into the medium of animation. More interesting still is the fact that not just the one, but two of Tsutsui’s works were adapted as animated features in the same year by rising auteurs in the field: the other being Mamoru Hosoda’s breakout 2006 film The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (adapted from Tsutsui’s 1967 novel of the same name).
In addition to Tsutsui’s connection to the work are the inclusion of many greats on the production end of Kon’s film. Studio Madhouse once again provided funds for the creation and marketing of the film and Susumu Hirasawa provided one of his tautest musical scores hitherto to the production by pilfering through the best material from his previous band P-Model, his solo work and past film scores to craft a complex, rich, and often unsettling sound design. And if that weren’t enough, famed editor Takeshi Seyama provided editing on the picture. Seyama’s influence here cannot be understated as his work can and often has elevated good work to greatness and great work to legendary status. His extensive filmography includes such works as Akira, Venus Wars, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, Memories, Serial Experiments Lain, Texhnolyze, Steamboy, Tetsujin 28, Elfen Lied, the previous Kon works’ Tokyo Godfathers and Paranoia Agent, as well as many pre-Ghibli Miyazaki and Takahata works and most films in the Studio Ghibli canon.
So what’s the film about you ask? The film is a sci-fi in which advances in depth psychology and cognitive science are at the centre. Scientists have developed a new field of study called Dream Therapy wherein the therapist enters the dreams of a sleeping patient in order to help guide them through the traumas and anxieties preventing them from living life to its fullest. The technology associated with such a process is called the DC Mini and when worn by a patient, it records the memories of patients and allows them to later be analyzed or even revisited by the patient or the psychologist present. Furthermore, when the psychologist wears a DC Mini along with the patient and both simultaneously fall asleep, the DC allows the psychologist to enter the dreams of the patient and thereby provide more hands-on therapy to better lead the patient toward recovery.
However, Dream Therapy is still highly controversial and any experimental psychologists planning to test it out must do so surreptitiously and without being caught by the government, lest they lose all funding for engaging in a therapy whose safety has not yet been assessed. Nonetheless, a doctor named Atsuko Chiba is a close colleague of the creator of the DC Mini: Kosaku Tokita. As such, Chiba has made it her duty as a scientist and a friend (and quite more as we will later learn )of Tokita to test the DC Mini on patients who experience debilitating anxiety or trauma and respond to no other therapy options.
The story from here is that a detective named Torataro Shima is one of Chiba’s clients. He has grown enamored with Chiba’s DC Mini alter ego Paprika and rather enjoys his therapy sessions. But in the background, a luddite force is trying to prevent the DC Mini from passing safety inspections to allow the free domain of dreams to remain thus. Although the goal is noble enough, it is a regressive step in the face of technology and one that could prevent many a person from overcoming their psychological problems to consequently live a better life. After the director of the program begins to experience dreams in waking life and act erratically and dangerously thereby, the detective’s dreams are slowly taken over by an outside force. It is up to Paprika-Chiba to dig deep within herself to unlock the power necessary to dispel all of the insidious forces at play and restore normalcy to the world before the realms of dream and of reality merge indefinitely.
Paprika is a heartfelt film that calls on its viewers to never forget or forego their goals (their ‘dreams’) in life and to accept their feelings in order to find happiness. It is a narrative of eventual success of the progressive spirit over against the reactionary forces in society. It is an exercise in meta-cinema (as are most Kon films). And it is an arthouse film with more imagination and visual splendor than anything live-action or CG cinema could even aspire to in that time or today. And I earnestly hope that in the coming years, this and all the works of Satoshi Kon continue to grow in cultural relevance and push filmmakers to press onward creatively into new meta-cinematic and hyper-visual territories.