The obsession we have with dreams can date to as far as human memory. The unconscious manifestations of our minds seem to be a topic of the utmost fascination, especially when it comes to art. Countless artists devote themselves to interpreting or representing dreams in some medium or another. This of course, is especially true with surrealism – originating in the study and representation of dreams, without the conflicting restrictions of cultural logic. The original surrealists would set up offices and invite people in to discuss their dreams and potentially represent them on the page or the screen, in a dedicated, deliberate parallel to Freud’s psychoanalytic techniques. Even as the genre has changed over the past century, dreams (or rather, the subconscious) remain highly significant to the surreal. That’s why I was so interested in watching ‘Paprika’ (2006) an anime film directed by Satoshi Kon (based on the novel of the same name by Yasutaka Tsutsui in 1993) in which a parallel present has resulted in the invention of a device that allows one to see into other’s dreams. We follow Dr. Atsko Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara) who by day uses the machine as a psychotherapist and by night adapts the persona of ‘Paprika’ as a detective in the very same dreams. When one of the devices is stolen, reality and the world of dreams threatens to collide with devastating consequences.
Obviously it’s fantastical, magical even. The very beginning of the film places us in the nightmares of one of the central characters (Detective Konakawa – voiced by Akio Ôtsuka) and delves further into a sequence of bizarre realities. Even the following title sequence which follows Paprika/Chiba traversing the city through posters and mirrors is breathtaking. I suppose the first thing to mention is that the animation is spectacular, but not only that it’s specific. Kon’s camera angles and scene cuts are sharp and the animation is used to immerse the viewer into the incredible sequences through which we follow the characters. Other scenes of note include the parade sequence – a carnival of inanimate objects, samurai, knights, dolls, fridges (you name it, and it’ll appear) clustered together and marching through into the real world. The scenes and the rich colours are detailed enough so that their surreal nature doesn’t confuse, but rather invites. This is crucial in a film where the boundaries of the ordinary are so easily broken, and the film creates a world that seamlessly transitions between the two – presenting an exploration of reality that simply feels like looking from side to side rather than making any monumental leap. The film’s beauty conveys a certain sense of wonder, that as a viewer you can’t help but admire. It reminds me of other highly stylised works such as Baz Lerman’s films, or the studio Ghibli collection.
But what interests me more is the purpose of the film. It never feels distracted from it’s core themes and explores them in satisfying depth. Take Detective Konakawa for example, much of his story arc revolves around (as well as trying to catch the so called ‘dream thief’) trying to uncover the source of his nightmares, delving into a stylistic and at times poignant exploration of his past. This exploration is reminiscent of that same psychoanalytic urge to not only explore dreams as the surrealists did but to also interpret them. It follows the idea that our dreams define us as much as anything, for they are a production of both our experience, and a complex biology. Even the Chiba must deal with the conflict of not knowing whether Paprika is her alias, or whether she in turn is merely a fragment of Paprika. Her desire to be right and control is laid out in the open by the conclusion of the film, and the resulting experience is one of intense proximity to the character.
I think it’s important as well not to ignore the basic human relationships that lay at the centre of the film, deep within the dreams and the fantasy. It speaks to not only a childish wonder in all of us, but also to a distinctly ‘adult’ part too. It speaks to our guilt and fears, as well as our hopes. The Konakawa story line as previously mentioned is particularly effective in this sense – his continual failure to catch the perpetrator of a homicide investigation case as well as the secrets of his past which haunt him – but as are other characters. Take ‘The chairman’ of the company, Dr. Seijiro, who has manipulates himself within dreams to have fully functioning legs again, an incarnation of his desperate desire to escape his real life wheelchair. The inventor of the device, Kosaku Tokita (Toru Furuya) an child at heart genius who must learn to face his psychological rejection of adult life. A particular example includes when Chiba shouts at him for his disregard for precautions surrounding his invention. You feel sorry for him, it’s inevitable. The characters lives are as vital as anything, and that comes across distinctly – all the while proving that surrealism can still covey an emotionally relevant, as well as viscerally experiential work.
And as much as the film feels positive and cathartic due to the psychoanalytical nature of its narrative, there are plenty of parts that I found frightening on a visceral and base scale. A doll appears frequently in the dreams, laughing in an abandoned theme park as Paprika hunts down the thief, and culminating in a giant version of the dolls screaming so loud that she levels a skyscraper. The dream sequences are packed with symbolism, but the depth behind those symbols are explained. It’s a heavily satisfying process as the dots are joined in a co-effort between the viewer and the narrative. I suppose a potential criticism could be that the film doesn’t often leave a stone un-turned and feeds most of the plot to the viewer in quite a conventional sense, but I personally didn’t find this an issue. Instead it felt like learning a new language, one constructed from the dreams and symbols of others; the process of understanding throughout the film only made me love it more and feel a deeper connection to its more surface level magic.
While my one of my favourite scenes is at the end (so I won’t spoil it), my other favourite scene is still the journey through the opening titles which I think reflects my attitude to the film in general. It functions on two levels. At it’s heart is a story about people feeling inadequate in some way, yearning for more within their dreams and expressing that symbolically through reality. The human relationships at he heart of it are immensely satisfying because the viewer feels so emotionally close to them – we are uite literally inside their heads. On a second level, this is all represented through a truly surreal, and utterly breathtaking animated universe which is filled to the brim with the very same symbols and manifestations of our inner realities. It’s simultaneously highly stylised, while becoming a work that is fundamentally concerned with the human mind, and the human soul. This film reinforces the idea that the interpretation of dreams remains a crucial topic in our lives (as proved by the success of films such as ‘Inception’.) For, much like surrealism, they represent the deepest, unstructured part of what forms our identity. Unrestricted, unknown, and undeniably captivating.