A fascinating psychological puzzle. When the blockbuster Inception (2010) arrived, it was said by some critics that the movie showed a curious resemblance to a lesser-known Japanese animated movie, named Paprika (2006). Nolan acknowledged that Paprika was an inspiration for him, and now this animation is known as “the film that inspired Inception.” It is well worth seeing for itself, though.
Paprika (in Japanese Papurika) tells the story of a young woman named Paprika, a psychologist who uses a machine to enter the dream worlds of her clients. The machine gets stolen, and only she can solve the resultant mess.
The film is generally highly regarded and shows that same mad inventiveness that made Spirited Away (2001) such a success. It has the same crowded animation, full of colours and life, full of strange creatures that march past like little Japanese spirits in disguise. Paprika is a lot darker though than that Miyazaki film. In the first minutes, we are thrown into a madcap chase through someone’s dreams, and those dreams have little whiffs of nightmare in them. It’s a great start for the movie and nicely sets the tone. For a good explanation of director Satoshi Kon’s style, watch Tony Zhou’s presentation in Every Frame a Painting.
Animation seems much more accurate to portray dreams than real life film. The dream sequences here seem much more dream-like than the overly-realistic shots in Inception. Of course, while you are dreaming, it all feels real and life action is therefore a good representation of what it feels like to dream, but what Paprika shows much better is the free association of our subconscious. One strange scene flows into another while our subconscious makes strange analogies and often betrays us by confronting us with fears. Animation is simply the best way to show this flow of thoughts and feelings.
The non-dream world in Paprika is also often grotesque and that makes it hard to figure out whether you are watching a dream or real life, and that is sort of the point. There is a plot going on of people injecting dreams into other people’s subconscious, and you can’t really know whether you are being misdirected by a dream. There is an infectious virus of a dream going round, making everyone lose their minds. Creepy little dolls, little girls and spirit creatures that suddenly intrude into normal life make the whole film an uneasy experience. In the latter half of the movie, it turns into full-blown horror.
Paprika, the girl, the therapist, is set up as this cute, springly, bouncy girl that comes to share your dreams with you, seeing your deepest problems and watching over them as some sort of guardian angel. Her client is of course a troubled, older man. There is definitely a Japanese culture thing going on here, something connected with the real practice of paying for simple company. What I really like is how all the characters have their own psychological quirks and problems. One is always anxious, the other one is cold and distant, another one is overeating, another one depressive. And these are the psychologists who use the dream machine to help others. Even Paprika turns out to be not what we think she is.
The film is wacky, with nice animation and nice music, and sometimes hard to follow. At times it is frustrating because I don’t really understand whether we are in a dream or not, but that’s the point and it also makes the film consistently engaging and surprising. It turns into some kind of psychological puzzle with a logic that is there, but it’s hiding just behind the corner of your vision.