The late Satoshi Kon may be the only film director who could’ve made a satisfying film of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m not sure whether Kon was familiar with Pynchon. Pynchon’s sensibilities, his fascination with “low” culture and the overlapping spaces of paranoia and erotic fantasy, his love of kaleidoscopic set-pieces, would have meshed perfectly with Kon’s, and animation would’ve allowed for more of the visual lushness in his prose to come through than did in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambitious but visually dull Inherent Vice.
But Kon made Paprika and died soon after. Paprika is his greatest work and what the French would call a testament film. Adapting Yasutaka Tsutsui’s hallucinatory science fiction novel of the same name, Kon comes to the culmination of the themes that ran through his work from his first film Perfect Blue to his thirteen episode anthology anime Paranoia Agent, to which Paprika could be considered a companion piece. The imagination branches out into the world of the tangible; we’re left in the dark as to which actually takes primacy and even more in the dark as to which one should.
The film follows the intrigue surrounding a device being tested for use in psychotherapy called the DC Mini. The DC Mini attaches to the patient’s scalp and allows the therapist to view their dreams on a laptop monitor and to enter and manage them. However, the device soon reveals itself to have mysterious side effects; therapists at the lab start going mad; entering and exiting the dreams becomes more difficult. It’s discovered that one of the prototypes has been stolen by a “dream terrorist”. The chairman of the foundation, the device’s tubby inventor, and a young therapist named Chiba Atsuko who also moonlights as the alluring and mysterious “Paprika” in peoples’ dreams, all attempt to find the culprit who’s tampering with the dreams; meanwhile the dream parade starts marching into the reality.
Political action is so commonly referenced in terms of the presence or absence of sleep-there’s “unrest” among certain elements, political “awakenings”, “restlessness in the streets”, “I have a dream”, “wake up sheeple” (this one counts double due to the conscious or unconscious double entendre of the counted sheep), “the American dream”. Taking this into account, the concept of a dream terrorist seems less like a genre conceit than a literalization of something that was so close to the surface it was perhaps resting on top of it; the opposite of a subtext, a supra-text. Because of this the film doesn’t need a specific political context and accordingly doesn’t provide one.
In fact, it seems to evade a specificity of context. For a film focused on therapists and dreams there’s little to no Freud or Lacan present. As a parable about man’s relationship with technology it takes perhaps a wiser course in evading the gritty particulars but embracing the overwhelming lack of sense in dreams; at times it seems like Inception would have outright plagiarized this film but for Nolan’s boring literalism and general lack of imaginative powers. Inception laid out clear “levels” to dreams, most of which looked like cut screens from action video games; Nolan’s “dream” space makes too much rational sense to convincingly be such and mistakes “cleverness” for insight. Kon makes no such mistakes. Kon lets dreams be nonsense, the unbecome not quite becoming; there are few to no expository scenes of pseudo-scientific explanation or underlining to say “this is what I’m doing here, gee isn’t it cool.”
The DC-Mini is a cinematic device and the film is pretty clear about its being such. It doesn’t really care about creating a coherent internal logic for the machine. It’s positioned it as a poetic metaphor through which to explore the nature of the internet and the cinema. The content of the dreams that run rampant throughout Tokyo look like a bunch of discarded childrens’ toys that had been jammed into a closet.
Before the dreams escape to wreak havoc on Tokyo, when they’re contained in the patients’ mind and projected back on the monitor attached to the DC-mini, they look like the way children watch movies; the bits and pieces of genre frameworks made the fodder of fantastic self-projection feeling itself out. The fantasies have a reality to them; if we exist in a consensus reality, well, a consensus is a thing that can wander pretty far into the fantastic. “Consensus” gets top billing in that phrase for a reason.
The first of these dream sequences, the one that opens the film, is that of a police detective. It ends with a slowed down shot of a person being shot in a hallway. As a viewer trained by years of TV and movies, we expect this to be revealed as a tragic event in the man’s past; a person he wrongfully killed or maybe a partner gunned down during a stakeout. It turns out it’s in fact a scene from a film the man started shooting when he was much younger and in college; this is the stuff of his nightmares, the punctuation that gives form to his regret. The element of the autobiographical in the face of Kon’s end lends a certain poignant quality.