paprikaFor the better part of a decade, Satoshi Kon has sketched in the space between reality and dreams; between perception (filmic presentations, lies) and truth. His themes explore the gaps and connections between hope and truth. Ascribing one specific thesis statement to his work is hard, beyond the solemn knowledge that what we have is rarely good enough, but what we want is much worse.

Perfect Blue ran this idea in the form of a murderous revenant following a pop star who isn’t that popular and killing everyone who tries to advance her career. Only when Mima accepts reality can she fight against the revenant. Thematically, acceptance of harsh, self-deprecating truth is central to Kon’s bizarre TV series, Paranoia Agent. In Paprika, it is salvation.

With a straightforward narrative that, like a lucid dream, carries enough odd detail to hint at surreal depths, Paprika teases. The titular character is a dream psychologist who is also a dream: she taps into patients’ minds, finding centers to their labyrinths. By day Paprika is Atsuko, clinical psychologist and genius (so proclaimed by a jealous coworker) who, along with Tokita, a ginormous, childlike engineer, perfects the DC-Mini, a device which allows direct access to dreams.

Paprika is special. She doesn’t need the device to be in people’s dreams. Maybe she’s just the prototype for a skill set. Maybe dreams are connected already, and she just rides the wave. She uses her power as therapy to gain insight into the meanings of her patients’ recurring nightmares.

However, a stolen DC-Mini prototype is being used for a different purpose: to spread an insanity sickness, which causes near-suicidal delusions in the form of waking dreams. Before they can rescue the world from a collective nightmare which threatens all mankind, Paprika, Atsuko, fat Tokita, and Detective Kogima must come to terms with their desires, and with the meanings of shared dreams.

Kon’s characters keep secrets from themselves (except Tokita, who likes robots and dreams of becoming a giant mecha). Only when they reconcile their secret identities do they function well for others. In his dreams, Detective Kogima is stuck on a murder case; Atsuko is thwarted by her boss, the chairman of the board. Atsuko’s subconscious, Paprika, is diametrically opposed to her personality. Acting on impulse, she’s witty and vivacious. She’s also grounded enough to know what her impulses mean.

Here, Kon’s technique apotheosizes the style of his last three films. Informed by the narrative in Millenium Actress, dreams follow an editing-by-emotional logic. Without sinking to grostequery (as in Perfect Blue), dreams perform a deft balancing act between surrealistic subjectivity in a naturalist environment (e.g., Mima’s vision of a fleeting, ghostly pop star in P.B.). The disturbing imagery is distressing, but it doesn’t reach Perfect Blue‘s gory level of grand guignol.

To say Paprika is about Japanese repression is condescending and reductive. The film has a more general idea up its sleeve: It doesn’t matter who you are or how easy it is to lie to yourself. The ur-self bears witness to the deception, and, more comfortingly, such deception is normal. In fact, the only character honest with himself is the villain… And he’s a jerk.

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