January 06, 2008

PAPRIKA (2006) a dazzling animated fantasy for adults

(2006, Japan)

Director, Satashi Kon - a Miyazaki for grown-ups

The following review also appears on the
24framespersecond website

Paprika has justifiably been gaining glowing reviews after appearing at film festivals around the world. Personally, I think it’s the most internationally accessible anime feature film since Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. It retains a very Japanese identity, but is easily understandable by western audiences. The film is brimful with imagination, attempting to visualise the impossible. While many Japanese anime focus on portraying schoolrooms and street scenes realistically, why not just try and push the narrative medium to the limit?

The eye-boggling portrayal of dreams and dream-logic is a crazy challenge for most directors, but Satoshi Kon has been rehearsing for this in his previous animated projects. Particularly the anime series Paranoia Agent (2004), which also pushed the limits of narrative by presenting puzzling scenes and allowing the viewer time to try and deduce what's going on. The wonderful Millennium Actress (2001) also has a pivotal female character who constantly rushes across the screen in search of an answer.

Paprika is about some (fairly fantastical) technology built to enable psychologists to access the worlds of patients’ dreams. Some unexplained and dangerous incidents then spark an investigation – what is going wrong with this new technology, and where will it end? Luckily, a young woman called Paprika acts like a ‘spirit guide’ within the worlds of the new device.

We then flip between the investigation and the dreams of various characters, fantasy worlds where they envisage themselves as fictional secret agents, or even Tarzan. Kon has a hard time avoiding various copyright issues while trying to show the popular fictional characters that many people's dreams are influenced by. Tarzan isn’t recognisable from any of his screen portrayals, but as a generic figure from the old stories. The secret agent fantasy resembles a fight from an old James Bond film (specifically the train scene in From Russia With Love) – suggesting it without copying it. Another dream/fantasy is of the Asian god Monkey – an ancient legend rather than the specific TV series.

It's quite an achievement that the animators have populated the film with so many characters, and there are an awful lot… the screen eventually overflows with the non-existent, in a barmy parade of the impossible.

This is huge fun, not hard to follow at all, despite having a complicated narrative if you try to think about it too hard! There are certainly extra layers to be explored in the film, examining the relationship between film-maker’s dreams and their films, and how they invade audiences’ fantasies.

Paprika is based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui (whose Girl Who Leapt Through Time has also been animated recently). Interestingly, both the author and the director voice a pair of pivotal characters in the film.

While the story is a fantasy, it’s not really for children. I’d put an age limit of 14 on this at least. Some of the sexual violence may be impossible, but it’s still pretty nasty. Some of the gender-obsessed torture reminded me of the extremes of his first film Perfect Blue (1998), the story of a murderous stalker of young pop stars, which actually made me avoid Satoshi Kon’s work for several years. I'll have to reassess that film to see if I was missing something - as I now really love all his other works.

The animators also ensure we get a peek up Paprika's skirt (a tradition in anime with all female characters, no matter how young). There are also several nude scenes, though the film ducks the issue of exposing male nudity – women’s genitalia can be successfully smoothed off stylistically, but not men’s. Male genitalia is still very much taboo in Japan, even in adult entertainment.

But it’s still the best animated film that I saw last year. I’m annoyed that it didn’t get a release comparable to the recent Miyazaki films. This is just as inventive, and better suited for an adult audience. It's a better film than many recent live-action ones from any country. It’s a film that, like Akira, could help an older, western audience overcome the stigma of watching ‘cartoons’ and enjoy what anime has to offer.

The almost no-frills DVD (well, there’s a commentary track) is out in the US and UK. There is now also a Blu-Ray disc available in the US, with also has numerous featurettes and interviews. It’s good news to see such new Japanese anime titles coming out so promptly – Tekkonkinkreet has also wasted no time in reaching our shores, also from the Sony Entertainment label.

As with Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent and Millennium Actress, composer/performer Susumu Hirasawa has provided the soundtrack for Paprika. The title music is enervating and emotional, perfect for the opening sequence, as she flits between dozens of possible incarnations and media.

Upon first hearing his theme music for the anime series Paranoia Agent I was by a thunderbolt – it was such a different sound. I was compelled to hear more of his music, finding that he’d made over a dozen albums since the eighties. He occasionally wrote soundtracks for anime series, but usually released albums like any other musician. Only recently has he been working with Kon, but their professional relationship continues to be as powerful as it is complementary.

I suspect his music is an acquired taste for most, but I just can't get enough. Some of Hirasawa’s music can easily be heard on the many pop promos on YouTube. Most of his music, including some free downloads, are all available from his website, which has plenty of English text on it.

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1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for this post Mark... I had heard some vague things about this movie but after reading yr review and checking out some clips on youtube, I've ordered the Blu... I'm quite looking forward to seeing this now !