The Japanese animated film Paprika loves a parade. Specifically, it loves a raucous, recurring pageant with marching refrigerators and appliances leading frogs playing musical instruments, floats crawling with kimono-wearing dolls and whirlwinds of confetti.
Anyone with even a minimal exposure to anime will expect bizarre, baroque imagery, frequently involving high-tech weaponry, super-powered teens and tentacled fiends. In Paprika, director Satoshi Kon strives to push the surreal possibilities of animation to their absolute limit: Characters inflate like hot-air balloons, shed their skin like snakes and change shape in every imaginable way. The trippy head games can leave you so perplexed you feel like your eyeballs are spinning in their sockets, but Paprika doesn't lose sight of its likable characters and real-world themes amid the eye candy.
Tokyo dream researchers invent a little headset called a "DC Mini" that allows people to monitor and even co-experience the dream lives of others, a little bit like the psychic abilities from 1984's snappy sci-fi flick Dreamscape. The scientists intend the DC Minis to be a tool for psychotherapy, and in an early scene Detective Kogawa (voiced by Akio Otsuka) experiences an ever-changing nightmare that's observed by a perky young woman called Paprika (Megumi Hayashibara).
It's an intimate experience involving a shared bed, but Paprika comes across less like a call girl than a free-spirited masseuse of the mind.
Assuming she even exists. During the opening credits, Paprika dances through traffic and onto billboard images, off monitor screens and into offices, like a postmodern Tinkerbell overtly patterned after Audrey Hepburn. She turns out to be the alter ego of businesslike Dr. Atsuko, but Paprika proves to be more than the subconscious equivalent of an online avatar, and may even have a life of her own.
One of the scientists steals the DC Minis and begins working mischief, using dreams, particularly the inanimate-object parade, to invade the minds of others and drive them mad as hatters. In one particularly dislocating moment, the paraders gradually infiltrate the background of someone's dream, unnoticed until the last minute. In an observation worthy of American novelist Don DeLillo, a character observes, "Implanting dreams into other people's heads is terrorism!"
Kon seems particularly fired by metaphorical possibilities of dreams, with one scientist calling the DC Mini project the collective dream of the team. When Detective Kogawa uses a website to reconnect with Paprika after their first meeting, she observes that the Internet and dreams are both places where the unconscious mind vents its repressed feelings. Not surprisingly, Paprika at least footnotes a variety of Japanese pop obsessions, from schoolgirls to one character's fantasy of being a massive toy robot.
Kon clearly wants to equate movies with dreams and online fantasies as well. The director frequently reveals an overt fondness for Hollywood films, with his previous feature, Tokyo Godfathers, transplanting plot elements of the 1948 John Wayne/John Ford Western, 3 Godfathers, to the homeless in modern-day Tokyo. Detective Kogawa's enigmatic dream reveals roots in cinema and continually switches, like channel surfing, from Tarzan-style adventure to romantic comedy to spectacle set at the circus.
Almost from the very beginning, characters begin to slip in and out of dream states without realizing it or the DC Minis even being involved. Akin to such David Cronenberg movies as Videodrome, Paprika blurs the boundaries of reality and illusion to the point where neither the characters nor the audience can tell what's really happening. Even when the rules seem to have been eaten by giant spirit babies, though, Paprika pays attention to the arcs of its characters, such as the guilt complex of Detective Kogawa or the loneliness of obese, sweaty genius Tokita (Toru Furuya), memorably rendered as being both realistic and awkwardly oversized.
In "our" world, there's a popular TV ad campaign with the slogan "Your dreams miss you," in which an insomniac chats with Abraham Lincoln, a talking beaver and a deep-sea diver. Paprika suggests that your dreams can come hunting for you, or even other people, and that it's safer to focus on the conscious, tangible world – even when waking up is hard to do.