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Entry updated 15 November 2021. Tagged: Film.

Film (2006). Sony Pictures Entertainment presents a Madhouse Production. Directed by Satoshi Kon. Written by Satoshi Kon and Seishi Minakami, based on the novel Paprika (1993) by Yasutaka Tsutsui. Cast (voice only) includes Tōru Emori, Tōru Furuya, Megumi Hayashibara, Katsunosuke Hori, Akio Ōtsuka, Daisuke Sakaguchi and Kōichi Yamadera. Music by Susumu Hirasawa. 90 minutes. Colour.

Influential Anime director Kon's final feature film concerns the attempts of research psychologist Doctor Atsuko Chiba (Hayashibara) to reclaim a stolen Dream Hacking device, the "DC Mini", whose unfinished, and therefore insecure, state renders it capable of being used for purposes a good deal less therapeutic than those intended by Chiba and her colleagues at the Foundation for Psychiatric Research. Chiba has been using the unfinished DC Mini to offer dream therapy to patients including Detective Kogawa (Ōtsuka), the investigator assigned to the case; she also enlists the help of Doctors Tokita (Furuya), the man-child inventor of the device, and Shima (Hori), her chief of department, in locating the machine before the mysterious "dream terrorist" can wreak havoc throughout humanity's collective unconscious.

The structural theory of consciousness – id, ego, and super-ego – so clearly charts the dramatic arc of Paprika that its outcome can hardly be of surprise to any student of Psychology. Aficionados of the sf New Wave will recognize its schematic exchanges of Inner Space and outer space: those who also recall the mid-1980s manifestos of Cyberpunk may find in the film's dramatization of fears over informational and biomechanical engineering an echo of a long-standing concern in the SF Megatext over the Metaphysics of science versus fiction. Does the commodification of human discourse create dreams or destroy them?

Doctor Chiba must use the eponymous "Paprika" – the most successful of the Avatars the team has designed for the purposes of dream therapy, and one based on her own (warmer, more insightful) dreaming subconscious – to trace the theft of the DC Mini through an increasingly compromised set of dream-worlds; the trail leads first to Himuro (Sakaguchi), the assistant and former best friend of her ally Tokita, and then to Osanai (Yamadera), another colleague, both of whom turn out to be have been manipulated via their baser impulses by Doctor Seijirō (Emori), the wheelchair-bound chairman of the Psychiatric Foundation, who spends much of the first half of the movie muttering dour pronouncements about "discipline" and "control".

Paprika, shaped like a question mark, fits over the crown of the head of a sleeping recipient and enables, it seems, not only the liberation of those forgotten childhood events and unconscious defence mechanisms than inhibit treatment, but also the super-ego's powerful hunger for containing the very impulses of the id it unleashes by attempting to repress. An increasingly raucous and disorderly "dream parade" of dolls, toys, white goods and other consumer entertainments – even the Statue of Liberty gets a visual namecheck – invade not only the dreams of any and all of the protagonists, but also escape into the "real-world" cityscape they inhabit, clearly relaying some of the doubts commentators in Japan have expressed about the cultural impact of its own economic success. "I wonder where that parade was going to," Chief Shima asks Chiba as he watches the cavalcade gate-crash another cultural divide. "A place of no return, I fear," she replies.

Chairman Seijirō is having none of this. "I shall heal your deficiencies!" he declaims, using the limitless dream-dominated interaction between dreams and bodies first to forcibly take over his minion Osanai and then to use Osanai – they are both "in love" with Chiba – to cut away the shell of the avatar "Paprika" to reveal the naked psychotherapist beneath. Each occupying a single body, they begin to fight over Chiba, id and super-ego tussling for supremacy. This affords Detective Kogawa – struggling nearby in dream-world with the anxiety-inducing implications of an unsolved homicide and its psychic connection to a film he left unfinished while at college – to leap cinematically through various Dimensions to rescue Chiba, en passant shooting the pursuing Osanai with a "real" bullet wound.

Here, the basis of Paprika as inspiration – both visually and conceptually – for Christopher Nolan's sf blockbuster Inception (2010) becomes clear, not only through the latter film's dreams-within-dreams narrative legerdemain and the "real" wounds sustained at the different levels of the dream, but by what happens next: the City which the characters inhabit is in both cases rendered four-dimensionally in two-dimensional filmic space.

This provides exchanges of scale necessary for the personal problems of the protagonists to be deciphered by the world-threatening Chairman Seijirō and, in turn, for that world-sized threat to be solved by the sudden recognition of the protagonists' unresolved feelings for one another: dreams breed epiphanies. This is a plot movement much-used in sf – it underpins a large part of the narrative structure in the output of Philip K Dick, for instance – and the visual facility with which it is applied here is one reason why some critics consider Paprika to be superior to the subsequent, but far more commercially successful, Inception.

The climax approaches. Chiba is forced to acknowledge her attraction to her endangered colleague, Tokita, the obese genius for whom she has expressed nothing but disdain throughout the story, and then, second, to resolve her connection to "Paprika", the missing spice of her life. "You are a part of me," she tells her recalcitrant avatar: "that should be enough." "I don't suppose you've ever considered you're a part of me?" Paprika replies. The chairman, who has by now reached Godzilla-like dimensions, throws the city skyline into shadow and intones further gloomy imprecations, dominating the tinny advertising slogans of the dream parade running amok in the streets below: "Dreams belong to the dreamer, not to the machines!" First merging with Paprika, then with Tokita, Chiba emerges as a fully-individuated child, sucking up everything and growing as she goes, finally hoovering up Chairman Seijirō himself. Here endeth the nightmare.

Paprika was nominated for a Golden Lion (best film) at the 63rd Venice International Film Festival of 2006 and won the Public's Choice Award at the Montreal Festival of New Cinema of the same year. Its soundtrack was the first in a feature film to use a singing voice synthesizer known as a "Vocaloid". A live-action adaptation was in development until "trumped" by the release of Inception in 2010. [MD]


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