Paprika is a story to be lost in. There is a form of film-universe that never makes its logic plain, not even in a Jodorowsky style which fills every frame with overt symbols. I am aware now (because in Paprika I have seen its absence) that most films - even without direct exposition - ensure the audience is given a rationalised world. Here we make space through the construction of distance between stages. Here we delineate between what is real and what isn't. Here is the fantasy, and here are its rules. Here, in effect, is the pause in which we set the scene. That easing-in is a fundamental part of how my culture builds its stories, but Paprika is no longer content to play with building blocks. The result wrongfooted me. Suddenly bereft of expected ease my awareness had to start the film at a scramble, and I don't think I ever caught up. Any awareness of what the film was even doing was something assembled from fragments, grabbed at as I fell through the frames. But shit man, afterwards, when had the stillness to piece it all together...damn.
Paprika is doing two things, but they occupy such divorced levels of scale that the very fact that the movie not only attempts both but also pulls them off actually feels dissonant. See on one level Paprika is the most mundane of modern tales - a story of people troubled by their own minds. The police chief Konakawa (Akio Otsuka), stuck on a murder case, experiences a recurring nightmare and seeks treatment that might make sense of it. His doctor is Paprika, an ebullient, light-hearted woman who also happens to be the dream-self of hard-edged scientist Chiba Atsuko (Megumi Hayashibara). So here we have a character dealing with unknown mental blockage, joined by one internally free yet externally repressed: two conflicts that feel very familiar. Their stories are mundane, and because they happen at the level of individuals, small. Which means that the fact that Paprika is also the tale of an attempt by a maniac to take control of the dreams of humanity and thereby reduce to conformity the great space of human free expression, comes as something of a shock. In Paprika the smallest mundane takes place on the stage of the largest fantastic.
Said fantastic is something only anime could properly convey. The pranksterish play Paprika (the character) makes with space and image could probably be replicated (with effort) in captured image. Paprika is a dream and as a dream screens and images are her playground. Through the film she bounds from 3D space into one end of a camera lens and out the other, onto a video-billboard and into an image on a t-shirt. These are not feats beyond the capacity of captured image to mimic – hell, Inception directly quotes one particular bit of Paprika's reality-shattering. No, the value of anime does not lie in capability but in flow and texture. As Tony Zhou points out anime (and writer/director Satoshi Kon in particular) literally uses fewer frames to convey a movement than live action, which has the effect of making motions pass more smoothly. This gives animated reality a grace in transition that allows dream and ‘reality’ to mix together in Paprika so fluidly that the two feel like one even before they actually are. And then there’s the texture of anime. If you’ve watched Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle you will be familiar with the black goo-monster – an antagonist with a form that is like rubber – stretchy, bearing internal tension – and yet also like clay – malleable but solid – and yet again like thick liquid that flows lumpily as if melting. That synthesis of multiple textures is a thing I’m not sure I’ve seen beyond anime, and in Paprika that texture is not limited to antagonist design. Here it is a quality of dream, giving the unreal image an unreal tactility to match. And then there’s the thematic relevance of the freedom anime affords.
The notion that films are dreams has quite a presence in my culture, but for Satoshi Kon that notion is not a conclusion (as in Inception) but a beginning. This is literal: the dream of Konakawa that kicks the story off is shaped by film images from a selection of genres. But it is also thematic, because while dreams start as films, as the film progresses I realised I was not watching dream-as-film but film-as-facet-of-dream. Because dreams are not a medium. They are expression. Dreams are like film in Paprika for the same reason they are likened to the internet – because dreams are a space of freedom, and in terms of what you can put on screen, few media have as little constraint as anime. In anime you are limited to what you can draw, and without specifying (and spoiling the visual feast that awaits any audience for this film) I can safely say that that was no limit here. Paprika uses the abilities of its medium to make the film embody what its protagonists are fighting for. Nor is this effort limited to visuals. Meditational Field, one of the two great themes composed for the film by Susumu Hirasawa is a triumphant swell of a tune that conveys the glory of lack of limitation. This is a film with the culminating image of a giant old man whose presence saps the colour from the world, being devoured and erased by a woman made of light. It is an image that summarises the endless struggle of art - to never be set, to never be restricted, to reach always for the truest expression.
I was lost in Paprika, and I loved it. It's beautiful even when it's gross. The things it does with space are amazing. Its music is, according to need, subtle and supportive and barnstorming fun. Its characters are...well, if not quite the most interesting people, they definitely feel substantial. But above all other aspects, this is a film with beautiful motion. Paprika never stops moving and never stops inventing. It is more than a statement for freedom of expression. Paprika is free.