If Paprika were a live-action movie in English, it could have potentially been one of the year's biggest blockbusters—an effects-heavy science-fiction movie starring an impulsive, 18-year-old hottie, culminating in the oddest variation on the giant-monster-battle theme you've ever seen. That it's a subtitled cartoon from Japan undoubtedly hampers such prospects among less-sophisticated viewers, but don't let it stop you. Whether one considers it a 2006 entry, having been silently dumped onto screens for one short week to qualify for the Best Animated Feature Oscar it had no hope of winning, or a 2007 film, as its forthcoming wide release would have it, Paprika is one of the best movies of either year, and you can see it first at the Newport Beach Film Festival. As Valentines to the power of cinema, big dreams and the inner child go, it doesn't get much more exhilarating than this.

As cool as the Matrix movies were, did you ever wonder why, given the power to hack into the virtual reality and reshape it at will, all Keanu ever did was fly, wear black trench coats and shoot off a bunch of guns? Leave it to a man to have tunnel vision. Unleash a repressed woman's id in a pliable world, however, and you get Paprika, the spunky redheaded teen avatar of the older and more "sensible" scientist Dr. Atsuko Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara, deftly switching vocal cadences between aliases), who has harnessed the power of a device called the DC-Mini to jump in and out of other people's dreams.

Able to manipulate such surroundings at will, we first see her go from riding a motor scooter to jumping into a cartoon painted on the side of a truck, making said 'toon 3-D and blasting off on a rocket ship into a billboard, where she promptly shifts to another billboard, then travels into the desktop computer of a colleague, moves along the office walls as a 2-D projection, reflects four different expressions in mirrors of varying angles, then hitches a ride within the design on a boy's T-shirt. The sheer joy of absolute creative freedom with the world is conveyed not just in the deftness of the animation, but also the exhilarating electronica score by Susumu Hirasawa that'll be in your head for days—anime tends to have a reputation even among hardcore fans as having terrible pop songs on the soundtrack, but just as director Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers) refuses to remain bound by past conventions, so too does his score break free as easily as his heroine from one medium to another.

It's hardly an unusual cinematic device nowadays to open on a surreal scenario, then have the main character suddenly bolt upright in bed for a far-too-predictable "all a dream" cop-out. You see it coming here, as an insecure cop named Konakawa (Akio Otsuka) encounters a reality-bending circus before plowing through a Tarzan movie and a spy movie, ending up in a slow-motion shootout; but none of this can be so easily dismissed as "just" a dream—by the time we're done, subconscious and reality will be firmly intertwined, and the sights we take in at the start will return to haunt both Konakawa and us.

Konakawa is secretly undergoing experimental dream therapy via the DC-Mini, which has yet to be formally approved, especially since a prototype was recently stolen. Making matters worse, the safeguards have not yet been fully enabled, allowing whoever possesses the DC-Mini to invade the consciousnesses of others even while they're awake. Soon it becomes clear that whoever stole the device is not exactly benevolent; people everywhere are starting to lose their minds, enter a permanent waking-dream state, and hurl themselves out of windows. Excessive exposure to the device seems to place people at a higher risk, but if that's the case, how is Atsuko/Paprika able to stay in control of herself?

"Implanting dreams into other people's heads is terrorism!" exclaims Dr. Tokita (Toru Furuya), the grossly overweight childlike genius who invented the DC-Mini. But if he's right, can we therefore levy such an accusation at director Satoshi Kon? For what are movies if not collective dreams—a point made repeatedly throughout this and other Satoshi films. A character in Konakawa's dreams criticizes the dreamer for having "crossed the line of action" and using the wrong kind of focus, two film-school/cinematography gripes that are later explained in detail. And Konakawa suffers from a pathological fear of movies, which is depicted as one of the worst possible mental illnesses a fellow could have.

In fact, it isn't the implantation of dreams that turns out to be the problem, but rather the inability to distinguish dreams from realities—and a deficiency of either one. Atsuko maintains a strict line of distinction between her real-world superego and the id that is Paprika, but meanwhile, she berates Tokita for being a child in a man's body. Ultimately, this is still his most appealing characteristic, but his inability to compartmentalize the two sides of his personality is a weakness waiting to be exploited by a madman who cares little for balancing or harmonizing any personal duality.

Satoshi has long been interested in the different ways people can perceive reality—though all his movies are set in the "real" world, the intrusion of fantasy elements via altered states of consciousness is a recurring theme, and animation allows him to unapologetically switch between the real and the unreal often without clear boundaries. Millennium Actress, the closest antecedent to Paprika, featured characters jumping in and out of movies that represented the entire history of Japan, and now the movies have become dreams that can even intrude into the waking mind. In fact, it was Millennium Actress that inspired author Yasutaka Tsutsui to approach Satoshi about adapting his popular Paprika story to the big screen . . . a project, it turned out, that Satoshi had wanted to do for years. Tsutsui nails dream dialogue perhaps better than anyone since David Lynch in Twin Peaks—lines like "They need to fully realize the liver of the triangle rulers!" seem absurd, but then we get to enter the dream where the words can become almost absurdly literalized. (Satoshi and Yasutaka both make vocal cameos as dream-world bartenders.)

When Satoshi's first film, Perfect Blue, hit these shores, it was accompanied by a rather obtuse quote from Roger Corman, who enthused that it was like Alfred Hitchcock meets Walt Disney. Though there are a couple of visual nods to the Mouse House in Paprika's climax, Satoshi has a distinctive style all his own that might better be described as Hayao Miyazaki meets Roman Polanski. He never loses a childlike sense of wonder, but there's a maturity and sexuality to his work that can feel quite dangerous. How many animated features have you seen lately that feature throwaway bits about how one of the characters is probably a pedophile?

Like many anime films with complicated plots, Paprika can be too much to take in on a single viewing—so many visuals, so many plot complications. I'm still not entirely clear what the villain's master plan is; at first, he seems anti-technology, anti-dream intrusion, but later, he seems to want to collectivize all dreams by himself. The finale relies perhaps more on dream logic than actual logic, and viewers who accept surrealist reality dislocation in their art-house movies but not so much in cartoons might have trouble rolling with it. But to those who can give themselves over to Satoshi's fever dream and allow both the inner child and the adult to come out and play, rest assured—you're in the playground of a master.


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