Film Review: ‘Paprika’ is a Dizzily Exhilarating Psychological Thriller with Hypnotising Visuals
When a machine that allows therapists to enter their patients’ dreams is stolen, all Hell breaks loose. Only a young female therapist, Paprika, can stop it.
Director: Satoshi Kon
Cast: Megumi Hayabashira, Toru Emori, Katsunosuke Hori, Toru Furuya
Runtime: 90 minutes
Four years before Christopher Nolan’s Inception came out, there was Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. The similarities between both films had not escaped film critics or film buffs, not least because they explore almost the same issues – the blurring of dreamscape with reality, the dangers of tampering with dreams, and the unreliability of reality.
The way I see it, however, is that the two cannot be any more different. If you’re into something more unsettling, that explores the duality of human nature and the uncanny nature of dreams, all while jam-packed with action sequences, then Paprika is the film for you. Unless you’re afraid of dolls – lifelike dolls with humanlike eyes – then steer clear of this film.
The title of the animated film is taken from the eponymous character, Paprika, a chirpy and seductive red-haired lady who is actually Dr. Atsuko Chiba’s (Megumi Hayashibara) alter-ego in the dreamscape. Chiba is the stoic and austere head therapist of a research team that uses the unfinished and unauthorised DC Mini device to treat her patients by entering their dreams. Accompanying her are the chief of the team, Dr. Torataro Shima (Katsunosuke Hori), and the genius inventor of DC Mini, Dr. Kosaku Tokita (Toru Furuya). When three of the DC Mini prototypes got stolen, the trio immediately tries to track down the thief.
But they soon realise that it’s not as easy as it seems. The thief is clearly adept at using the DC Mini to lead the trio into mind-bending and life-threatening situations. As a result, second-guessing is, well, second nature in this film, because Kon knew exactly how to toy with the characters’ and the viewers’ perceptions by making reality and dreamscape indifferentiable. You’ll be just like the characters, gripped with anxiety, uneasiness, and apprehension, as they interact with their surroundings, unsure whether they’re in a dream or not.
That’s not all there is to the uneasiness, however. Central to the film is the uncanny and surreal nature of dreams, with Kon leveraging on outlandish images to make viewers squirm in discomfort – in an enjoyable way, of course. Characters, when unknowingly hijacked by the DC Mini, launch into non-sequiturs and nonsensical dialogue that make you question their sanity. The recurring dream of the parade of random objects, from refrigerators to streetlamps to mannequins, is as bizarre as it is unsettling.
Given the complexity of the themes explored in this film, it does get a bit confusing and chaotic at times, especially when loaded technological terms get thrown around. But with Kon having established himself as a master of psychological thriller and horror, with each scene and beat dished out perfectly, you can be assured of a followable and gratifying watching experience, all while pondering over complicated questions about dreams, psychology, and identity.
Of course, none of this is possible without Kon’s intricate and immersive animation. The visuals are a beauty to behold, with Kon bringing to life every scene, frame, and background with the smallest details.
Take some time to pause and admire all the details spent, for instance, on Tokita’s workroom, the endless piles of research files on his shelves, each machine, pen, even a Coca Cola can rendered so intricately. Look at how giddily imaginative and wild the backgrounds for the dreamscapes are as Paprika tries to escape from the clutches of the thief, segueing from a hotel room to a Greek mythology painting, then to the vast blue sea.
Paprika is Kon at his finest, with multiple awards and nominations racked up for this film. Personally, I preferred his Perfect Blue, which was just as mind-bending and trippy as Paprika, but more horrifying.
Even so, both films are absolutely incredible, and it makes me wonder why Kon is not as famous as Hayao Miyazaki. Perhaps because Kon engaged with such dark, often uncomfortable themes that are not suited for everybody. But Kon’s films have their own irresistible allure, and Paprika is a testament to that, traversing mature themes and images without sacrificing top-notch animation quality.
Paprika is now streaming on Netflix.