Paprika is the final full-length film of the visionary director Satoshi Kon, who passed at the young age of 46. His previous movies like Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress captures the attention and imagination of his home country, but Paprika left a lasting impression that still seems to resonate with a wider audience than he ever reached before. This may partially be due to the emotional complexity and sometimes extremely dark themes of his other films, but even beyond that, Paprika is in a way a culmination and perfection of the visual style he spent so long working towards. Visually, Paprika is a masterpiece. It is brilliantly inventive and playful, doing things with the camera and with the actors that a live-action film never could, and using these things to establish a dream-like atmosphere that is perhaps as close to actual dreaming as I've ever seen in any movie. This film should be required viewing for anyone who believes in the camera's ability to transport an audience to other worlds, and anyone who lacks an understanding of the magic that animation can bring to a film when utilized by a master like Kon.
Let me start off by saying that Paprika is not a perfect movie. In terms of thematic complexity, narrative, character, and several other elements, Perfect Blue is superior. It seems strange and almost inconsiderate to say that Kon's first film may be his best, but I don't consider this an insult to the rest of his movies. Filmmakers aren't always trying to make their "best" movie every time they release something. Kon in particular didn't seem interested in that, as a filmmaker he seemed more interested in exploring the concepts of time and space as they relate to a movie-going experience. In every one of his movies, even including the more straightforward Tokyo Godfathers, he constantly and fluidly switches perspectives, moves through time periods and different spaces, somehow tying it all together in a singular narrative that never wavers. In Perfect Blue, it was the parallels between reality and performance, with scenes somehow switching back and forth sometimes without even a cut, so you could never tell whether what was happening was real or fake. In Millennium Actress, we were taken on a journey through the filmography of an actress, with movie scenes interwoven with scenes from her real life, moving through reality and fiction to the point where you can't tell the difference between the two. Here in Paprika, Kon's obsession with blurring the lines of reality is taken to it's extreme as he tackles the enigmatic realm of dreams. All of his movies have been about not only narratively dealing with this concept of dual-lives, but also visually, and it is here where Paprika shines.
This film above all others has captured the feeling of a dream, the sense of non-reality where everything seems familiar and unfamiliar all at once, where your decision-making slowly strays from the path of logic even though it all feels like it makes sense. Dreams in Paprika are not solely about crazy imagery, though this is present of course, but in the way that reality seems to slowly begin to unravel around our characters at times in ways that are not obvious or superficial. The things they do always make sense, until at a certain point, they don't. It's a descent, it's the feeling of falling asleep, where your brain slowly loses it's grip on reality and logic and you plunge helplessly into a world that mirrors our own, but lacks the rules that govern it. The perfect way Paprika captures this is through some sort of hand-wavy technobabble that essentially means that to our main characters, they can begin dreaming even while awake. There is a device which allows a person to enter another's dreams (this movie came out before Inception did, just FYI), and because of their heavy use of it during research, they have become susceptible to their minds being invaded. This is as I said all a little hand-wavy in terms of setting up a plot, but I'm going to credit that to the film as sort of a good thing, as it contributes in a way to the entire movie feeling like a dream. Things aren't over-explained, you get just enough information that you understand what's happening, and that's all that you need. It makes it easy to enjoy on a surface level because time isn't wasted pretending that this is some serious science fiction piece, it's fantasy through technology. It's a dream of what technology could bring us, both it's ups and downs. It contains fantastical characters, entertaining set pieces, and beautiful animation. Paprika is a film that succeeds both as a refinement of Kon's style, and as a piece of entertainment, meant to excite and dazzle the audience.
But I want to go back to the visual element here, the part which defines Paprika and Kon's entire career. Paprika succeeds in creating a dreamscape by doing two things well: Editing, and visuals. "Visuals" is admittedly a very vague term to use here, but what I mean by it is basically what we see on the screen. Paprika starts inside of a computer screen, then walks out of it into reality. Atsuko jumps over a railing that appears to be on the ground, but then reality crumples under her to reveal that she's jumping over a balcony. As another character ventures down a tunnel, light begins to diffuse in an unrealistic way, signalling that we are wandering from reality to dream. There are many, many moments like these in the film, where through clever use of visual tricks or techniques, the line between reality and dream is blurred not just for the characters, but for the audience themselves. You can attempt to distinguish, but it's intentionally difficult to determine whether what we're seeing is real or not, which serves both to put you into the headspace of the characters, and also to effectively immerse you into this dreamlike world that Kon is setting up. The other supporting pillar of this immersion is the editing, which ironically can come across as perhaps jarring or strange. There are several cuts that transport us from one location to another without much explanation besides a visual match of what's occurring, especially in the dream sequences. There are also numerous cuts which simply don't make logical sense, such as the famous intro sequence where a close-up of a t-shirt is used to cut to the next shot of Paprika standing on a sidewalk. It's difficult for me to describe these things in words, because Kon's technique has gone beyond my ability to dictate to you. Suffice to say that Kon is famous for these interesting and abstract directing techniques, using them in ways that other directors rarely do so consistently. For him, every single piece of the film needed to be used to establish the theme, and to draw the audience further into the mindset he wanted them in. His techniques relied on the fact that he was a director of animation, the ability to convey information quickly, the lack of boundaries on what you can do with your characters, the ease of jumping between reality and fiction, all of these rely so strongly on the fact that he chose animation as his medium, and in fact are the very reason he stuck to animation. It lends itself so strongly towards the types of stories he wanted to tell, and as a medium, it inherently supported his artistic vision for what he wanted these to look like.
Kon has gained a mythological status in his field due both to his insane talent as a filmmaker and his early and tragic death. In a lot of ways, this is completely deserved, and it truly is always a tragedy to see a visionary like him die so early, knowing the potential he had. But Paprika as a final film is satisfying in a way. His filmography of only 4 feature films, is a very complete filmography, filled with obvious growth as a filmmaker and creator. This movie is a culmination of all of what he's learned. It's not a genre-defining masterpiece by any means, it contains no real deeper questions about the human race, it's characters are not especially well-fleshed out, and above all it is meant to entertain. But these things fall by the wayside for me, as I watch this incredibly well crafted piece of entertainment and see the love that went into every moment, and see the talent and vision that went into each cut, each design decision, each twist and turn, I can't help but greatly admire it. Paprika is a waking dream, in a way that so many other movies like it wish they could claim to be.