November 2, 2023
By Andrew Osmond.
If you want a soundbite that describes Paprika fairly well, an obvious one would be “Spirited Away for adults.” Okay, that’s patronising, as Spirited Away was perfectly able to appeal to adults too. A better tag for this similarly dazzling dream-fantasy would be “Spirited Away with adults.” That’s true both in that Paprika’s charactersare grown up, and also because the film has a markedly more mature sensibility than Miyazaki’s fable for kids of all ages. But there’s one big thing Paprika and Spirited Away have in common; they’re both tremendous fun.
There’s smart stuff going on beneath, but on top Paprika is a ride through dreamland in the welcome company of the title character, a sexy red-haired “dream detective” who dances, soars and shimmies through other people’s fantasies like an alluring guardian angel. She’s been created by a hi-tech plot McGuffin, a “DC Mini” that unlocks the unconscious and allows mental health practitioners to explore clients’ dreams. It’s hardly new – 1980s SF films like Brainstorm and Dreamscape had similar premises, and the rug-pulling “It’s still a dream, sucker!” trick was a staple of Nightmare on Elm Street. But in the hands of savant director Satoshi Kon, the clichés feel fresh.
If you don’t know Kon’s work, then Paprika is a splendid introduction. It’s a film where different viewers can laugh in delighted recognition at different things. In the opening minutes, Kon sends a discombobulated dreamer stumbling through a nightmare circus and into a film-fan montage of scenes from Tarzan, Roman Holiday and the James Bond flick From Russia with Love. At the same time, Kon fans can chuckle at how Paprika’s floaty hop-skip-bounce in the title sequence mimics the moves of the female phantom in Kon’s debut Perfect Blue, and ponder a new incarnation of Kon’s Male Geek character – this time it’s a loveable obese scientist with the intellect of Stephen Hawking, the dimensions of Mr Creosote and the voice of Toru Furuya, Amuro Ray in Gundam.
But this is the puckish Paprika’s show, especially when she cuts loose in fantasy scenes, transforming in a blink from a cloud-riding Monkey into a sultry Tinker Bell or being chased by a whale as Pinocchio. She also has an engaging rivalry with her alter ego, a coldly efficient real-world woman scientist called Atsuko who regards Paprika as her irritating soul-sister. Although Atsuko is strait-laced, she’s no cardboard ice queen – there’s a terrific confrontation scene where she goads the fat scientist, and it should speak to any women viewers frustrated by useless men. There’s also a highly sympathetic hero, a weary middle-aged detective (similar to the one in Paranoia Agent) who realises his macho fantasies in a joyful and hilarious film-in-a-film ending.
Although the plot is clearer than many anime movies, not everything makes sense on a literal level. There are touches, especially in Paprika’s scene-to-scene transitions, of what’s more magic realism than conventional fantasy. At one point, the detective logs onto a website and is suddenly seen walking round inside it without a Virtual Reality appliance in sight. It’s not all enchantment; there’s a queasy quasi-Silence of the Lambs moment later involving Paprika and a male villain who violates her in a body-horror erotic dream, but the moment is quick. Everything ends triumphantly, though, with an apocalyptic battle that’s given a vibrantly feminist slant to rival anything in Miyazaki, and a humdinger of a sweet romantic twist.
Criticisms? Some early scenes are slow and talky in Ghost in the Shell mode while we’re waiting for more Paprika; perhaps budget limits caused the film-makers to ration her full-on scenes to enhance their effect. The film, though, looks gorgeous both in its cleanly-designed real world scenes and its wild fantasy fancies, including a bric-a-brac army of toys and dolls which should give viewers plenty of good bad dreams.
If you’re new to Kon, you’re in a similar happy position to the viewers who found Miyazaki with Spirited Away, as Kon was (a) incapable of making a bad anime and (b) all his work is available on Blu-ray. If you like the darker aspects of Paprika, go for his psycho-horror film Perfect Blue. If you liked the romance and magic realism, try Kon’s wonderful Millennium Actress. If you enjoyed the sheer madness, start with Paranoia Agent. And if you want to see how he can apply himself to a non-fantasy subject, check out his sharp-edged but warm-hearted Christmas comedy Tokyo Godfathers.
Paprika is screening at this year’s Scotland Loves Anime.