Dream Noir Mystery Offers Eye-Opening Anime

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
Whoa. Trippy.
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A lot of Americans (not all of them, but a lot of them) still have hang-ups about comic books and cartoons. “They’re for kids” is the prevailing argument, and no amount of evidence to the contrary seems to sway them. In other countries, however, graphic novels and animation run the gamut from all-ages to adults-only with little problem.

Japan, for example, produces far more animated films than live-action and a great deal more
manga (the Japanese version of comic books) than mainstream literature. Some of it’s for kids, some of it’s for adults. Sadly, only a tiny portion of this stuff finds its way overseas to America. (Most of it in the form of lowest-common-demonimator crap like “Pokémon” and “Yu-Gi-Oh.”)

One of the artists at the forefront of Japan’s animation-for-mature-adults movement is the talented and sophisticated Satoshi Kon. With only a handful of features (the erotic thriller Perfect Blue, the nostalgic faux biopic Millennium Actress, the surreal TV series “Paranoia Agent” and Tokyo Godfathers, a heartbreakingly comic remake of Three Godfathers set amid Japan’s homeless population), Kon has created an impressive résumé. His latest, a dark sci-fi mystery about the haunting power of dreams, only adds to the legend.

Paprika is set in a near-future Tokyo in which a private mental health care institute has developed an electronic device (known as the DC-Mini) capable of sending people into the dreaming minds of others. The film plunges directly into things, eschewing exposition and introducing us to the titular Paprika (Megumi Hayashibara), a sort of dream-powered superheroine who dives into people’s brains to sort out their various neuroses and anxieties.

As we slowly come to infer (Kon’s script doesn’t spell too much out), Paprika is the alter ego/avatar of psychiatrist Dr. Atsuko Chiba (also Hayashibara). She’s been using the DC-Mini (somewhat illegally, as the device has yet to be approved by the government) to enter her patients’ dreams and treat them. She does so anonymously under the guise of “Paprika,” setting up a neat bit of psychological mask-making on the part of our protagonist. Atsuko, you see, is an uptight, emotionless scientist. Paprika, on the other hand, is a free-spirited sprite, uninhibited and ready for action.

Things take a turn for the worse when one of the DC-Mini prototypes goes missing and somebody starts invading the dreams of Dr. Chiba’s colleagues. One by one, they fall under the zombie-like thrall of a single, bizarre dream about a parade of toys marching toward … Well, whatever the parade is marching toward, it’s something menacingly apocalyptic.

To figure out who’s behind all this brain-melting revenge, Atsuko teams up with a determined police detective–who just happens to be one of Paprika’s clients. Detective Konakawa (voiced by Akio Ohtsuka) is haunted by dreams of failed heroism that mirror popular movie genres. (In one, he’s Tarzan. In another, he’s a superspy. In still another, he’s stuck in a madcap romantic comedy.) So absorbed with these exhausting images is Konakawa that he’s unable to go to the cinema and watch a real movie. Points to Kon for finding such a neat psychological corollary between dreams and movies.

As the investigation wears on, the walls between dream and reality begin to break down. Kon piles on the surreal sequences, returning again and again to that eerie, doll-filled, confetti-strewn parade. Visually, this one’s a dazzler, and well worth the price of admission just to ogle the masterful imagery.

Kon’s style is notably warmer than most Japanese
anime . More hand-drawn and less angular, the insanely detailed backgrounds, gorgeous colors and richly rendered characters are a bit easier on the eyes than the jagged spaceships and big-eyed waifs on display in most imported toons.

Like animation? Looking for something mature? Got a taste for the slightly surreal? Feast your peepers on
Paprika . Your Id and your Ego will thank you.
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