If Satoshi Kon worked in live action, he would have a reputation as a director who confidently blends genres and seems happy to work in any of them. His oeuvre includes the films Perfect Blue (a Hitchcockian or rather De Palma-esque thriller about stalking) and Millenium Actress (a tale of ageing and lost love) plus the terrific TV series Paranoia Agent, about a creature from the collective subconscious who kills those overwhelmed by guilt and lost opportunities. Paprika combines all these themes but is somehow less than the sum of its parts. This might be because Paranoia Agent at its best is one of the finest animés ever produced while Perfect Blue (though overrated) has won such great reknown that audiences are waiting for a perfect follow-up.
This is not to say that Paprika isn’t entertaining or beguiling; there are plenty of scenes that will stay with the viewer long after the film has ended. This is a film that offers extraordinary spectacle, so it is a shame the first UK release comes on DVD. The visuals are crafted with great subtlety and photographic skill, and the film boasts the most exemplary handling of dappled and reflected light ever seen in a cartoon. This is not simply a technical accomplishment, but is used to infer that a person’s subconscious is a skewed reflection of the real world and that their dreams are realms of shadows and ethereal light.
The opening sequence depicting a cop’s nightmares, ranging from the big top to film noir, is startling and arresting. The idea of a dream virus that reduces people to babbling idiots in the conscious world and sees them trapped in a parade of junk imagery from late twentieth-century zeitgeist (showing the pollution of the collective subconscious with adverts and jingles, to use one of Alan Moore’s metaphors) is a powerful one. The film utilises a melange of imagery from not only the Western world but across Asia, and sees our heroine Paprika take on the identity of Monkey from the seminal 1970s TV series (itself based on a sixteenth-century Chinese folk tale) to fight giant frogs and good luck charms, a mishmash of international symbols. This may leave casual viewers bewildered, and as we near the end of the film, the narrative becomes as hard to grasp as the final monster of smoke and shadows. Add to that that the plot feels over-familiar and you have a film that is overall something of a mixed bag.
But if it’s spectacle you’re looking for, Paprika delivers in spades: Roll up! Roll up! Come see the amazing flying redhead on her magic cloud! Gasp as the fattest man on earth creates brain-scanning devices that bring your wildest fantasies to life! Paprika certainly has enough attractions to hook potential new fans, and will hopefully lead them towards the director’s more esoteric and challenging work.