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Startlingly Original Anime

Over the course of a decade, Japanese filmmaker Satoshi Kon has put together a uniquely ambitious body of work that explores the tensions and connections between technology, celebrity culture, class, identity, mental illness, the corporate media, and the nature of reality. Beginning with Perfect Blue through Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers and Paranoia Agent, Kon has pushed anime into difficult, challenging territory. His latest film, Paprika, a futuristic mind-tripping mystery thriller based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, is no less adventurous and provocative than his previous efforts.

Paprika centers on Atsuko Chiba (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara), a psychotherapist who’s just begun using the DC Mini, a new therapy tool, to treat her patients. It allows Atsuko to enter her patient’s dreams, uncover their obsessions and neuroses to better understand and treat them in the real world.

When Atsuko enters a patient’s dream, she takes on a confident, powerful alter ego, “Paprika”. Eager to test the DC Mini, Atsuko uses it on Kogawa Toshimi (Akio Ôtsuka), a homicide detective obsessed with finding a killer. Atsuko/Paprika’s journey through Toshimi’s mind reveals his unexpected fascination with the cinema (e.g., Tarzan, James Bond) and a circus. The dream ends with Toshimi unable to unmask the killer, but Atsuko is confident that dream therapy will eventually help the detective.

Returning to the research facility, Atsuko runs into the DC Mini’s inventor, Tokita Kohsaku (Tôru Furuya), a morbidly obese, genius-level man-child. Tokita informs Atsuko that three unlocked DC Mini prototypes have been stolen. With the help of Tokita, Osanai Morio (Kôichi Yamadera), another researcher/therapist, and Atsuko’s boss, Dr. Shima Tora-taroh (Katsunosuke Hori), suspicion falls on Tokita’s missing assistant, Himuro Kei (Daisuke Sakaguchi). The research facility’s elderly chairman, Inui Sei-jiroh (Toru Emori), repeatedly warns against the misuse of technology and the invasion of privacy that new technology makes possible. When Shima becomes “infected” with a delusional dream and attempts to commit suicide, Atsuko, her friends, and detective Toshimi race to find the missing DC Minis before they’re used again.

Paprika follows a seemingly straightforward mystery/thriller storyline, e.g., identifying the thief, locating the missing DC Minis, stopping the thief’s plan, but “seemingly” turns out to be the operative word. As Atsuko searches for the DC Minis, dreams collide with the real world. What makes sense one second, for example searching through the missing assistant’s bedroom quickly slips into the unreal when an ambulatory doll disappears down a hidden ladder (the proverbial rabbit’s hole). As Atsuko and, later, Toshimi, attempt to keep the dream world separate from the real one, the DC Minis are used to bring everyone into a delusional world where frogs and household appliances dance, and dolls and robots come to life. The constant slippage between two ordinarily separate worlds, culminates with an apocalyptic finale that clearly echoes Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s Akira and Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke.

To some, the apocalyptic finale might seem disappointing, if mostly because we’ve seen it too times before in anime. What saves Paprika from the “derivative, unoriginal” claim, though, is Kon and his co-writer, Seishi Minakami’s, willingness to keep the audience guessing (i.e., are the characters in the “real” world or the “dream” world?), something a more commercially oriented, director might be unwilling to do.

But if the storyline with ideas familiar to anyone who’s seen the Matrix trilogy or 1982’s Dreamscape, and the themes about the misuse of technology and the steady erosion of privacy rights due to technological breakthroughs aren’t exactly the most original or, ultimately, the most profound, Kon packs Paprika with idiosyncratic detail, especially when we’re inside a character’s dream world, that will repay repeat viewings. And if that’s not reason enough to give the movie a chance, it’s hard to know what is.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars