They are rarer than hens' teeth, but I always look forward to a Satoshi Kon animation. If you want mind bending, thought provoking, character driven adult animation, Satoshi Kon's name is at the top of a very short list, and he's severely underrated in my opinion. He first came to fans' attention with his psychological thriller Perfect Blue, a film that even beats live action films at their own game. He again explored the central themes of paranoia in the television series Paranoia Agent, while he crafted an ode to the golden age of cinema in Millennium Actress. He also found time to get festive in the delightful Tokyo Godfathers. Now he turns his attention to dreams, and crafts a sci-fi thriller in Paprika.
The Foundation for Psychiatric Research is currently experimenting with the DC Mini, a new technology that allows users to enter the dreams of others. It's hoped that it will be a valuable tool for psychiatric treatment, but the head of the Foundation is concerned about its potential for misuse. The development isn't even complete, yet already there is an elfin superhero type figure called Paprika, who is showing up in people's dreams and helping them work out their subconscious issues. Then the worst happens, three prototype DC Minis are stolen. The researchers in charge of the project, Atsuko Chiba and Kohsaku Tokita have to solve the crimes before their project is canned. It may already be too late though, as more and more of the city's population become unhinged, and descend into a horrifying shared dream. But Atsuko's alter ego is Paprika, and she has the help of Toshimi Konakawa, a police detective who she has been helping through his nightmares.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is excellent. If I had to pick a flaw, it's one instance of aliasing during a pan, otherwise the image is sharp and clear, the anime gets a proper film to PAL transfer with no signs of ghosting or judder, and digital artefacts are wholly absent. It's excellent news, as Paprika is a film that really excels and expands what 2D anime can do. You know you're in for a visual treat with the awesome opening sequence, and with the world of dreams to explore, there are no limits to what can be shown on screen.
You have a choice between DD 5.1 English, German and Japanese, and the film makes full use of the surround to envelop you in its elaborate fantasies. Regular Satoshi Kon collaborator Susumu Hirasawa provides what is perhaps his best soundtrack yet, with a score that is by turns whimsical and ominous. Naturally the original language track is the way to go. I sampled the English dub and while it is certainly acceptable, I found Paprika to be a little too perky. It's odd, but there is a difference between Japanese perky and American perky, and American perky just crosses the line into cartoony and unreal. There are so many subtitle tracks that they have to fit on five pages of menu screens.
Does the British DVD buying public have the word 'sucker' tattooed across their foreheads? They must have, given the disc that Sony have lavished upon us in UK Region 2. Go to the US or Australia and you'll get Paprika with over an hour of extra features on the disc. Import from Holland, and you can get a two-disc set, with the features on the second disc, giving the film more room to breathe on the first. If you buy the Bluray disc in the UK, you get the extra features. But not with the DVD. Here, you get the film, the commentary and the trailers. It's harking back to the early days of DVD, where we would get shafted on the extras. My cynical self is whispering that this step backwards is 'audience shaping' for the new HD format, and in the future we'll see more and more Bluray 'exclusive' features in the UK. I suppose we have to take consolation in the fact that the bitrate for the transfer is higher, with the film taking up 8GB of a dual layer disc.
Once you get past the "You wouldn't play nerfball with a minke whale…" anti-piracy trailer, you're taken to the animated menu screens, where the only extras available are trailers for Tokyo Godfathers, Tekkonkinkreet, Memories, and Cowboy Bebop, along with the audio commentary. On it, Satoshi Kon joins composer Susumu Hirasawa and associate producer Morishima to talk about the film. It's a comprehensive and detailed commentary track that covers all aspects of the film and the story, and it's well worth listening to. I suppose we have to be grateful that Sony deigned to give us this much. The commentary is subtitled in English, German and Dutch.
Paprika is an entertaining, visually inventive and fast paced sci-fi thriller. The story is intriguing, that of technology that allows people to share dreams spiralling out of control, and the characters are well written and complex, just as in the other Satoshi Kon films. It's another example of human nature coming into conflict with the utterly bizarre and mind warping, and the result on screen is absolutely fabulous and mesmerising. And it's as close as Satoshi Kon has yet come to a misfire. Of course coming from a director of his calibre, even a misfire is a must see movie, and Paprika is certainly memorable and noteworthy. It just lacks a little something.
The problem is immediately apparent. All his other films are set firmly in the real world, and then he begins to play on our perceptions, and those of the characters, the world slowly drifts out of kilter, things aren't as they are supposed to be, and it's a hell of a ride just trying to figure out what is going on. Paprika strips away that ambiguity by instantly setting the story in a future world where dreams are technologically accessible. From the first moment, we expect the bizarre to occur, it's part of this world and fundamental to the story. We're not seeing the real world knocked out of whack; this is how this future world is supposed to be.
With the bizarre now commonplace, it becomes hard for the film to surprise and shock us. It's also a tad tired in that it uses familiar tropes to signify its dreams. We begin with a circus theme, along with obligatory creepy clown, and then we segue into a montage of movie sequences. It looks absolutely stunning, but they are rather clichéd when it comes to dream sequences. The mystery is intriguing, and I enjoyed the way it had to be solved from within the dreams instead of in the real world, but when the culprit appeared and announced his intention to dissolve the world into his own, personal shared dream, again it all seemed as if it had been done before.
I enjoyed Paprika for the fast paced piece of entertainment that it was. I like the characters, especially the quirky and pixie-like Paprika, along with her staid and severe alter ego Atsuka, and Tokita, the overweight geek was a refreshing change from the usual main male character. The visuals from Madhouse Studios are top-notch and breathtaking, while Susumu Hirasawa's soundtrack is the best he has done. But in the end Paprika offers nothing new. It's all been done before, not least by Satoshi Kon himself. The bottom line is that when you start with a mind-bending unreal premise, it's hard if not impossible to further mess with the heads of your audience. Paprika is still a must buy, even if it isn't up to the standards of the director's other work. Get a second opinion from Matthew Smart's review of the Blu-ray disc.