Movies share such a deep connection with dreams that we describe our dreams in cinematic terms as often as filmmakers conjure up evocative and memorable dream sequences. Many films have depicted the elusive dimension of our dreams, but few have explored this territory with as much style, nerve, and imagination as Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. In just ninety minutes, Paprika weaves together a hard-boiled noir mystery complete with a world-weary detective, a sci-fi thriller in which a group of scientists race to retrieve a dangerous new technology, and an exhilarating visual expression of the limitless frontiers of dreams. With this remarkable blend of gripping genre narrative and non-linear elements, Kon draws the connection between dreams and films even tighter by melding his dream-focused masterpiece with a love letter to the magic of filmmaking.
The notion that a machine capable of capturing dreams would become a potentially dangerous and extremely valuable device runs through films like Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but Paprika allows this idea to blossom and thrive in a singularly captivating manner. The film’s mind-bending opening sequence establishes the DC Mini, an experimental technology that allows therapists to enter the dreams of their patients. After this introduction, the team of scientists who developed the DC Mini realize that someone has stolen it. With this team, Satoshi Kon creates a dynamic group of idiosyncratic characters who revere the awesome potential of their discovery as much as they fear the consequences of the DC Mini falling into the wrong hands. Just as the film’s characters caution each other about the risks of exploring the dreams of others, Kon demonstrates a similar respect in his depictions of the subconscious mind. Yes, the screen repeatedly fills with psychedelic images of gleefully uninhibited minds running rampant, but the dreams in Paprika aren’t simply gorgeous set pieces. These dreams are not only essential to the film’s tricky plot, but they also offer the audience insight into the motivations, fears, and desires of the main characters. Kon references many films (including his own works) throughout the dream sequences in Paprika and celebrates the dreamer as a creative hero equal to any lauded filmmaker. Early in the film, the character of Paprika establishes this sentiment by declaring, “REM sleep that occurs later during the sleep cycle is longer and easier to analyze. If earlier cycles are, say, artsy film shorts, later cycles are like feature-length blockbuster movies.” With nods to screen icons like Tarzan and James Bond as well as tributes to master filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Walt Disney, Kon draws out the intangible links between the creative domains of dreams and films.
Satoshi Kon’s innovative animation techniques allow for fluid transitions between the characters’ kinetic, stylized reality and the boisterously warped terrain of their subconscious minds. This approach taps into the stunning beauty and uniquely disturbing realms of dreams in a manner nearly unrivaled in modern cinema. Where other filmmakers have resorted to distant, flickering tableaus or stunning, but leaden special effects to portray unconscious visions, Kon explodes our expectations with unbridled flurries of fantastic images that fall into the uncanny rhythm and logic present only in dreams. Sadly, Paprika became Kon’s fourth and final film before his death at the age of 46, but this film endures as an achievement in the artistic investigation into the timeless mysteries and enchantments we encounter when we sleep.
- John Parsell