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Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando


This summer, Shrek the Third, Surf's Up and Ratatouille serve up typical American animated fareslick 3D computer generated images with scripts aimed primarily at kids but with a sly wink to adults every now and then. But Satoshi Kons Paprika reveals how Japanese anime continues to push the envelope. It mixes hand drawn and digital animation, and delivers bold fare aimed at adults.


The new Japanese anime Paprika (Sony)


Paprika opens with a mind-bending sequence. A spotlight turns on as a tiny, toy-like trunk drives out in what looks to be an animated opening logo. But then a circus clown emerges from the car and announces: It's the greatest show time. A full circus suddenly appears and fills the screen. Then we meet a cop, Konakawa (voiced by Akio Ohtsuka), who finds himself part of the magic act. He slips out of the real world into a surreal realm in which his surroundings continually morph. He finds himself in what seems to be a series of movie clips first Tarzan , then a Hitchcock thriller, then Roman Holiday and finally he wakes up. We realize it's all been a dream with a mysterious woman named Paprika overseeing his journey.

The film places us sometime in the future. A device called the DC Mini has made it possible for therapists to go inside their patient's dreams and record them. Police detective Konakawa is one such patient. He's been having this same disturbing dream over and over again. The bright, red-headed Paprika (Megumi Hayashibara) is the DC Mini alter ego of straitlaced psychiatrist Dr. Atsuko Chiba (also voiced by Hayashibara). The DC Mini is still in trial mode so when one of the prototypes is stolen, it causes major concern. That concern proves justified when the thief ends up invading the dreams of others and creating havoc on an epic scale. The only recourse is for Atsuko and Paprika to use the remaining DC Mini to enter the dream realm to find the crook. But in this dream world, Paprika starts developing a mind of her own, and that's only one of many fascinating turns this dazzling anime takes.

Paprika's DC Mini calls to mind devices in such other sci-fi films as Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days and David Cronenberg's eXistenZ . And as with those films the line between what's real and what isn't gets increasingly blurred until we feel like we've gone through the looking glass with Alice. But for Satoshi Kon, he's less interested in the sci-fi aspect of this device and more concerned with tackling notions of subjective versus objective perspectives. The idea that he suggests is that whatever a person experiences whether it's a dream, a drugged vision or something else feels real to them. Kon has repeatedly returned to this theme in his work yet each time he's come at it from a slightly different angle.

In Perfect Blue, he created a Hitchcockian thriller in which an actress being stalked plays a character that's being stalked, and the line between the real world and the world of her imagination becomes blurred. In Magnetic Rose (a segment he wrote for Katsuhiro Otomos trilogy Memories ), the blurring occurs between memory and reality. And in Millennium Actress, memory, time periods, and parts played by an actress all blur as a TV crew tries to document an aging stars life. Then most recently his series Paranoia Agent (if David Lynch had made an anime it would be this) employed a different style for each episode in order to reflect the different subjective perspective of each character focused on. Once again, he emphasized the subjective nature of experience and used that to create a creepy and compellingly bizarre mystery.



Are we men dreaming we're butterflies or vice versa? Paprika (Sony)

In creating these blurred realities, Kon favors abrupt scenes changes that lack clear establishing shots. This disorients viewers and makes them take a moment to decide where they are. His love of film comes through in his playful use of movie allusions. After all, movies and dreams share similar qualities movies are like waking dreams and we often describe our dreams in movie terms. Paprika says that dreams during early sleep are like arty shorts while deep REM sleep produces something more akin to a blockbuster movie. So at one point her therapy includes sitting in a movie theater with Konakawa analyzing his dream as it's projected on the big screen. He discusses such cinematic concepts as crossing the 180, and he's even dressed in an outfit reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's favorite on-set garb. There are also jaunty references to other films. Paprika's costumes change from the Monkey King to Tinkerbell to Pinnochio, while everything from Tarzan to Roman Holiday to The Shining gets a passing nod. I saw the film twice, and the second time I found even more references. Kon even makes an inside joke about his own film, Tokyo Godfathers , by having a poster of it up on one of the street signs.

Kon cites George Roy Hill's movie Slaughter House Five (based on Kurt Vonneguts book) as a strong and early influence on him. He has said that he liked the way different places and times would be put together and expressed at the same time for the character. His films frequently play with this notion as well. He also acknowledges the influence of writer Philip K. Dick and the film based on his story, Blade Runner . At the Tokyopop website, Kon expressed approval of a program description of his film as a collision of Hello Kitty and Philip K. Dick. So that makes Paprika both cute and disturbing, in a surprisingly good way.

As with many of Japan's sci-fi anime, Paprika is distrustful of science and meddling with the natural order of things. This distrust comes in part from the fact that Japan knows first hand about the havoc that science can wreak, after all it's the only country to sustain the devastation of two atomic blasts. That fact has colored much of Japan's science fiction whether it's Godzilla (who was created in an atomic blast) or mushroom cloud images that appear in so much anime. In Paprika there's no mushroom cloud but there's massive destruction of a similar scale and it all results from a combination of human ambition and science overstepping the boundaries of whats safe. The film's message is one of caution when dealing with the powerful potential science has to offer.

Kon says that he learned how to direct by drawing mangas (Japanese comics) in which he had to direct the action in the panels that look very much like storyboards for a film. Paprika displays a very different visual style from Perfect Blue (which was noirish, claustrophobic and unsettling) and Millennium Actress (which was very fluid and nostalgic). In Paprika , the experience has a trippier feel, like a psychedelic drug journey during which your mouth keeps dropping open in awe. Kon's film keeps surprising us with its audacious imagery. The end could use a little tightening, but aside from that Kon keeps us riveted to the screen.

While American animation directors tends to revel in their state of the art 3D CGI technology, filmmakers like Kon, Hiyao Miyazaki and Otomo delight in still hand drawing some of the images and then enhancing them with CGI-enhanced camera moves and richly detailed backgrounds. There's something magical about the old school hand drawn style. The difference seems to be that the hand drawn images have more artistry whereas the more realistic CGI/3D animation seems more impressive in its display of technology.

Paprika (rated R for violent and sexual images, and is in Japanese with English subtitles) offers a breathtakingly surreal journey. It's a film that may serve up mass destruction and ponder some nightmarish scenarios, but underneath it has a warm humanity and humor that's utterly endearing. This contrast is apparent from the beginning as Kon follows the nightmarish opening sequence with a delightful montage of Paprika flying over the city, tending to those who have drifted off and taking pleasure in the little things in life.

Companion viewing: Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Paranoia Agent, eXistenZ, Slaughter House Five, Blade Runner