Dizzying 'Paprika' a sight to behold
Someone walking cold into a movie theater showing "Paprika " might be excused for thinking the screen was having a Technicolor seizure. Fans of Japanese anime and filmmaker Satoshi Kon will simply feel dazzlingly at home.
As he has proved with previous works "Millennium Actress " (2001) and "Tokyo Godfathers" (2003), Kon is a master of the visual and conceptual sensory splurge. If your only Japanimation reference point is Hayao Miyazaki , think of "Paprika" as the grown-up version of "Howl's Moving Castle " -- harder-edged and less forgiving but still seeking beauty in magnificently drawn chaos.
Set sometime in the near future, "Paprika" is a meta-thriller whose McGuffin is the DC-Mini , a portable device that allows users to record their dreams for playback and even enter into those of others. Three prototypes have been stolen, and the thief has begun implanting psychosis-inducing visions in the scientists responsible for the invention.
It takes a while to winkle out even that much plot, since Kon drops us in media s dream: the scary, untethered night-fantasies of police detective Konakawa (voice of Akio Ohtsuka ). These begin with a demon circus before swooshing through several cinematic genres; the film draws a heavy parallel throughout between dreaming and watching movies. Kon's larger concern is the way technology promises to bring people together only to isolate them further. There's a sadness at the heart of the movie that's never fully soothed.
The detective is guided through his own nightmare by an ethereal sprite named Paprika (Megumi Hayashibara ), who turns out to be the therapeutic in-dream avatar of Dr. Atsuko Chiba (also Hayashibara), a tightly wound lady scientist. Other key figures include a comic-relief old-fud scientist Dr. Shima (Katsunosuke Hori ) and the project's creative genius, a grossly overweight innocent named Tokita (Toru Furuya ).
The wall between dreaming and reality breaks down early and often in "Paprika," and as the mysterious villains extend their power over waking life, the movie becomes a startling, occasionally numbing profusion of richly bonkers imagery. Every so often a surreal parade erupts, of flute-playing frogs, dancing kitchen appliances, and an evil doll -- it's as if the film's collective unconscious had staged a coup against the narrative.
The dialogue can be impenetrable in that earnest anime way ("The anaphylaxis of the DC-Mini is expanding exponentially!"), but the movie's real through-line is emotional, as Dr. Chiba slowly discovers her heart's true allegiance (it isn't who you think) and the detective lays his past to rest.
First, though, Tokyo has to be laid to waste in a series of ravishing apocalypses that suggest kitsch Hieronymus Bosch set to twinkly J-Pop. "Paprika" isn't for kids -- or even for tweeners addicted to manga like "Fruits Basket " and "Ranma " -- not because of the stray violence and nudity but because it's so relentlessly disturbing on levels that can't be easily articulated. One scene of metaphorical dream-rape is almost more upsetting than if it had been played for real.
The title character, chirpy and metaphysically omnipotent, tells us at one point that early REM cycles produce dreams that are like artsy short films, while later cycles result in epic blockbusters. "Paprika" is a wondrous, overloaded fusion of the two. Kon knows only one way to tell a story -- at full throttle -- and you stagger out of this one both grateful and ready for a deep and dreamless nap.