Using a high-tech device called the “DC Mini”, renowned scientist Doctor Atsuko Chiba (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara) is able to enter people’s subconscious minds and explore their dreams in the guise of her vivacious alter-ego, Paprika. Her latest patient is Toshimi Konokawa (Akio Otsuka), a police detective troubled by a reoccurring nightmare that is keeping him from cracking an important murder case. With the government close to sanctioning Atsuko’s technology for widespread use, her corporate sponsor worries the machines could be used by terrorists. His worst fears seem confirmed when Atsuko’s mentor, Doctor Shima (Katsunosuke Hori) takes a near-fatal leap off a high-rise building after psychotic dreams are implanted in his mind. Atsuko suspects the culprit is a rogue member of her research team, but soon afterwards she and her fellow scientists, grossly obese Dr. Tokita (Koichi Yamadera) and lovelorn Dr. Osanai (Koichi Yamadera), find the man in a dream-induced coma. Once again, Atsuko entrusts her dream-self Paprika to probe the dream world and discover who is really out to undermine her invention and possibly warp the collective human subconscious.
Often cited as a key influence on Christopher Nolan’s cerebral blockbuster Inception (2010), this ingenious anime is arguably the most sublime example of the many dream themed movies spawned throughout the last twenty years. Alongside its genre cousin, the “virtual reality” story, such films are often either cold and clinical (e.g. Existenz (1999)) or overplay the “is it reality or a dream” gambit (Total Recall (1990)). However, Paprika is warm and witty and gallops through its plot complexities with an ebullient lightness of touch shared with its titular heroine. The film features a career-best performance from the most popular voice actress in anime: Megumi Hayashibara. As Dr. Chiba she is a terse, no-nonsense, vaguely spinsterish team leader. As Paprika she is bubbly and playful.
Interestingly, Paprika functions both as Chiba’s alter-ego and an entity in her own right. Throughout the story she reappears to warn Chiba of approaching danger and takes an active hand during the eye-catching apocalyptic climax. In keeping with other major works by Satoshi Kon, notably Perfect Blue (1998) and Millennium Actress (2001), the heroine is able to take control of the fantasies projected onto her as she morphs into characters like the Monkey King, Tinkerbelle and the Little Mermaid. As her name suggests, Paprika is the spice of life, the embodiment of the collective kindness and empathy that are the threads binding humanity together. She poses an intriguing question, whether humans were spawned by their subconscious rather than the other way round.
As in Inception, Satoshi Kon employs an architectural metaphor for delving into the labyrinthine recesses of the human mind. Characters constantly travel down elevators, through corridors or explore dense forests. The imagery evokes Lewis Carroll but is rife with Asian pop culture references and a series of split-second movie parodies. Detective Konokawa’s opening dream alone recreates famous scenes from From Russia with Love (1963), Roman Holiday (1953), and Tarzan the Ape Man. While the plot requires concentration it never flutters too far into the abstract, although the romantic subplot arrives from leftfield and the revelation of the villain may make you wonder (spoiler warning!) why he bankrolled the project in the first place. Nonetheless, this was an admirable swansong for Satoshi Kon, an exceptional anime talent who never pandered to fan-boys and told human stories with strong social commentary.
Japanese director of intelligent, innovative anime. A former comic book artist, Kon worked as a background artist on a variety of anime projects before directing hs first feature, the psychological thriller Perfect Blue. His subsequent work met with equal acclaim - Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, the complex TV series Paranoia Agent and Paprika. Sadly, he died while working on his final film, The Dreaming Machine.