Film Archive: Animated Japanese thriller Paprika is a strange, surreal and unforgettable experience

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – a group of people are tasked with uncovering a sinister conspiracy unfolding within the shifting landscape of dreams, and recurring themes involve references to detective and heist thrillers. If you immediately thought of Inception at the exact moment you heard mention of the word “dreams” in that synopsis, don’t blame yourself.

From today’s perspective, one would be forgiven for jumping to conclusions – when faced with a surrealist sci-fi action movie about being able to explore dreams, a comparison to Christopher Nolan’s notoriously convoluted 2010 smash hit thriller is inevitable. At first, such comparisons are rendered invalid considering that Paprika was released four years before Inception, but further confusion arises when you consider that Nolan came up with the concept for Inception back in the 90s, long before Paprika was even transferred to film. Indeed, Nolan himself said that this film served as a huge piece of inspiration while Inception was but a mere idea. Further adding to the discussion is the fact that Paprika is based on a novel, but things might get rather muddled from here.

Confusion seems to be the name of the game, with a contrived mystery plot surrounding a bizarre viral madman’s dream entering the conscious minds of users of a special machine called the DC Mini. This is all packaged with several naturally surreal dream sequences showing off some fantastic Japanese animation, and truly showing the creative wisdom of the late Satoshi Kon. Right from the creative ways that the title character wanders through a seemingly ordinary world during the opening credits, you are absolutely sure that the animation team really went all out to impress the viewer with a rich, creative experience.

Obviously, the immediate sights and sounds do a lot to further the tone and storytelling (particularly with the incredible electronic soundtrack by Susumu Hirasawa), but some of the more subtle moments make the experience worth coming back to, be it a simple in-joke such as a Tokyo Godfathers poster in the background, or a thematic deconstruction such as an extremely frantic and wild moment in the dream world being immediately interrupted by a jump cut into the next scene to complete silence, as if waking up from a dream. Moments like this really help to draw the viewer into the experience. Sometimes the experience can get genuinely unnerving, with the typical Japanese Ringu-esque suspense, tensing up the audience with more subtle approaches than just simply locking the characters in a darkened room or having monsters jump out of nowhere.

Paprika is an experience like no other. Its overly-surreal tone may not be for everyone, even with the justification of a dream world, but give it a chance and there will no doubt be at least something fantastic in the experience that will stay with the viewer for weeks and months to come.

Paprika (2006), directed by Satoshi Kon, is distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, certificate 15.

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