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Dreams, usually recalled after waking like smoke diffusing into open air, captivate the conscious human mind on a daily basis. Memorable snippets can endure for years, evoking déjà vu like scenes from a movie watched in early childhood. But why do these night-time visions haunt us so persistently? Like so many deceptively straightforward questions, this one requires only experiential knowledge as its solution. Gliding through the untamed jungles of the subconscious, almost anything can happen, from super-powered battles above technicolor cityscapes to surreal sexual encounters with faces and bodies never before explored in life and possibly never to be seen or felt again. Is it surprising then that these exciting mishmashes of emotions and energy have developed into a favorite theme in storytelling, another of humanity’s most beloved activities?
Of course not; so, naturally, this enigmatic topic has become a regular guest of the silver screen, whether as light captured in crystals on a 35mm filmstrip or the work of a skilled animator’s hand brought to 24 frames-per-second life. Paprika, the latest endeavor from celebrated Japanese anime director Satoshi Kon, examines not only the complex and explosive nature of dreams run amok, but also their ramifications on reality and our perception of it. As you can probably imagine (if you know anything about anime), things get a little … odd. But trust me; it’s the best kind of odd there is.
Chiba Atsuko, an icy scientist / psychologist developing a machine that opens passageways into the dreams of others, shares her body with a dream-invading alter ego named Paprika. This spunky, brightly clothed young woman is Chiba’s polar opposite, but a valuable avatar nonetheless, skilled at diving into patient’s heads to unpack their emotional baggage from within. When one of their remarkable prototypes is stolen, however, Chiba and Paprika must cooperate to stop an unknown thief from invading thoughts and controlling minds before every person on the planet is trapped in the same terrible waking nightmare.
This concept’s potential for mind-blowing visuals is not lost on its producers, and though Paprika’s anime touched up with CGI style isn’t particularly innovative, it is spectacularly well-executed, especially during the numerous experimental segments which blur lines between fantasy and reality. Thankfully, neither the crumbling foundation of the film’s physical world nor the nightmarish parade of assimilated dreams swallowing it piece by piece can upset the flow of Paprika’s plot, which skillfully develops abstract elements without becoming needlessly impenetrable. Jump cuts and bizarre imagery are utilized cautiously but smartly, accentuating plot mechanisms when and as they should.
Unfortunately, such complex thematic and stylistic arrangements inevitably produce a pitfall or two. Paprika’s finale, for example, is philosophically intriguing (if every person on earth is dreaming the same dream simultaneously, does that illusion become reality?), but it rejects the film’s previously established logic, sacrificing conceptual harmony for the sake of an explosive climax. Another fault can be found in Susumu Hirasawa’s (mostly) excellent score, which is shoved off-course slightly by a goofy, synth-heavy j-pop number that has more in common with a Sailor Moon soundtrack than the film’s other more mature electronic tunes. Any damage caused by this misstep, however, is recompensed by the nightmare parade’s bouncy yet ominous theme, which will haunt your nights long after the Paprika’s imaginings have ended.
In the end, it's an anarchic film ruled by a familiar structure, entertaining even while presenting forceful undercurrents ... much like the nocturnal apparitions on which it so compellingly rambles. Dreams, whether pleasant or frightening, empowering or shameful, are an emotional part of life, and Paprika’s fairytale take on these familiar sensations is a potent examination of each. Emphasis, however, is clearly placed on the sickeningly scary aspects; the human subconscious can be an ugly, disturbing place – should strangers, or even close friends, be able to access it and make revisions as they see fit? Paprika’s makers bury this and other surprisingly poignant questions below their movie’s imaginative veneer, and the result is a rare cinematic journey that follows you home, perhaps even pursuing you into sleep, where it shimmers like a phantom against the backdrop of your dreams.