"Paprika"


It's one thing to live your dreams. But live in your dreams?

That's quite a different kettle of fish -- or parade of frogs -- or any other of dozens of dream-into-nightmare images that make "Paprika" such a trippy plunge down the rabbit hole of Japanese animé.

Unlike most American animated features, animé isn't intended for kids -- or even families.

It doesn't always tell a linear, once-upon-a-time tale. And its imagery often reflects the crazy-quilt elements that turn up in the story.

In "Paprika's" case, that includes thriller sequences inspired by shadowy film noir, a pinch of futuristic sci-fi, some mind-blowing fantasy and more than a bit of social commentary.

Among its intriguing themes: inner vs. outer beauty, reality vs. virtual reality, power vs. persuasion, dreams vs. nightmares, humanity vs. technology. And, of course, whether all life's questions are truly answered in the movies.

Director Satoshi Kon ("Tokyo Godfathers," "Millennium Actress") displays dazzling command of the animé medium, mixing and matching different styles (from computer-generated to hand-drawn) to suit the scene in progress. As a result, trying to keep up with "Paprika's" rapid-fire shifts may trigger states of confusion even greater than those suffered by the movie's protagonists.

Based on Yasutaka Tsutsui's 1993 science fiction novel, "Paprika" centers on the blessings -- and considerably more sinister consequences -- of a breakthrough device called the DC Mini.

A headset that allows one person to enter the dreams of another, the DC Mini proves a boon to psychotherapists who can experience dreams along with their patients and record them for later analysis.

But it's also a tempting target for up-to-no-good types hoping to manipulate people by taking over their unconscious minds -- and planting somebody else's dreams in their heads. (Shades of Philip K. Dick, whose stories -- including those that inspired "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall" -- include characters, real and robotic, with falsely implanted memories.)

When someone steals a DC Mini, it's up to starchy dream researcher Atsuko Chiba (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara) -- or, perhaps her impish alter ego, a feisty red-headed sprite known as Paprika -- to track down the culprit(s) before a mass destruction of minds begins.

If you're looking for a straightforward, connect-the-dots mystery, however, you're in the wrong dreamscape. (Especially while trying to read "Paprika's" English subtitles so you can keep up with the Japanese dialogue.)

Instead, the movie unleashes an avalanche of strikingly surrealistic sequences that pile up like disconnected pieces of a psychedelic jigsaw puzzle.

In case you're wondering, that's a good thing.

Several quirky characters join Atsuko in "Paprika's" tangled web of dreams, including a mucho macho cop (voiced by Akio Ohtsuka) who imagines himself the hero of movies from "The Greatest Show on Earth" to "Tarzan the Ape Man." The DC Mini's geeky, supersize inventor (Toru Furuya), his diminutive research boss (Katsunosuke Hori), their nefarious corporate chairman (Toru Emori) and his enigmatic associate (Kouichi Yamadera) also figure in the sometimes sinister doings.

To say nothing of the multiple marching armies of giant dolls, overstuffed refrigerators, musical frogs and dancing umbrellas strutting down "Paprika's" weird street of dreams to the unsettling accompaniment of Susumu Hirasawa's hauntingly jaunty score, as the dividing line between dreams and reality becomes so blurry it threatens to disappear altogether.

It's a dizzying, if sometimes disorienting, mind trip that seldom leads where you expect. That seems peculiarly appropriate for a movie devoted to dreams -- which, after all, function as our own private movies.

Kon's artistry enables him to share his dreams (and his nightmares) with us. And, as "Paprika" reminds us, there's something weirdly compelling about being stuck in a dream we didn't dream up ourselves. As long as we can find a way out, of course, before ... The End.

 

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