Connecting the proverbial dots between dreams and movies, Japanese director Satoshi Kon offers up his psychedelic head trip Paprika as an animated tonic to the monochromatic complacency of everyday life.
Boasting vérité-style animation, this hallucinatory examination of societal madness manages to present a surreal meditation on entertainment in the guise of a blockbuster sci-fi thriller. There's murder, action, eye-popping visuals and even a little sex. There are also creepy Geisha dolls, bizarre echoes of Disney, and marching kitchen appliances.
The basic plot follows Dr. Atsuko Chiba, a buttoned-up research scientist whose devil-may-care alter ego, Paprika, can enter and manipulate people's dreams using a revolutionary new machine that interfaces the human mind with the Internet. When one of the machines is stolen and used to destroy unsuspecting victims' psyches, the doctor and her colleagues attempt to track down and capture the psychic terrorist. To do this, however, Paprika must enter the damaged dreams of friends, colleagues and even a guilt-ridden police detective. The visions she confronts are startling, to say the least, twisting reality into a Möbius strip of beautiful but dangerous nightmares.
What makes Paprika's situation (and the film's plot) so confounding, however, is the villain's ability to send people into a dream state even when they are awake. Without warning, the film's narrative comes unhinged, slipping into (and out of) the dream world, leaving the viewer with the feeling that anything can happen at any time. One minute Atsuko is running across a sky bridge at work, the next she's morphing into Tinkerbell before being pinned like a butterfly by her adversary.
Though its thriller conventions are all in place, the implications of Kon's story, the motivations of his antagonists and Paprika's shifting perspective are purposefully disorienting. Mental delusion and unconscious desire constantly disrupt the plotline, and while there's a temptation to puzzle out the myriad convolutions, it's far better to surrender to the Kon's candy-colored wonderland of unraveling identities.
Kon explodes the screen with astonishingly provocative visuals the kinds created by good narcotics and like an endless hall of mirrors, reality and fantasy reflect back on each other, making it hard to discern what's real, what's imagined, and who's dreaming whom. Iconic imagery from classic movies which Paprika loves infects the minds of her patients, even the detective who claims to hate them. The line between man and machine, the real world and dreamland is constantly in flux.
But there's an underlying point to Paprika. Kon's enthralling contortions suggest that dreams, like movies, can both liberate and corrupt the human mind. When the villains warp reality to reflect and then pollute the collective unconscious of Tokyo, what emerges is a monstrous urban nightmare akin to Godzilla. Even our worst nightmares, it turns out, are little more than bad B-movies.
Both a critique and a celebration of capitalist cinema, Paprika challenges our notions of mindless entertainment while expanding our expectations of animation. It's the perfect rebuttal to this season of big-budget blockbusters.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].