With the rise of modern civilization, dreams have lost some of their mystique and taken on a more clinical feel. Sleep imagery is no longer recorded for posterity, but instead dissected and examined in an effort to better understand the individual.

Doctor Atsuko Chiba is a research psychologist. Her team of scientists at the Institute for Psychiatric Research have developed a device called the DC mini which allows her to enter a patient’s mind and interact with their unconscious to help discover the source of an anxiety or neurosis. Paprika is the alluring 18 year old alter-ego of Atsuko; She’s the projection of Atsuko that people see in their dreams, the girl who takes troubled minds out for drinks at an Internet cafe and then to a movie.

In his 2006 movie Paprika, Director Satoshi Kon takes psychoanalysis to a new level, one in which therapists no longer interpret a patient’s dreams through second hand account, but instead witness a person’s unconscious struggle first hand. Although the DC mini has not yet been approved by the government, the chief of Atsuko’s lab asks her to begin using it to treat one of his old schoolmates. The patient is Detective Toshimi Konakawa, a man that is plagued by a recurring dream of being trapped in a cage at the circus, surrounded by a mob of angry people, all wearing Toshimi’s own face.

Not long after Paprika begins her treatment of the detective, one of the DC mini prototypes is stolen by what is presumed to be a terrorist, and that’s when the cop and shrink team up to try and solve a potentially nightmarish crime (pun intended). One of the dangers of the DC mini, and perhaps why the government has been dragging their heals on approval, is its ability to wirelessly broadcast dreams into a person’s mind (whether the recipient is asleep or awake). None of this bodes well for Atsuko’s boss, who goes on a nonsensical tirade, jumping out of a second story window after someone shoehorns a crazed parade full of trumpeting frogs and walking toasters into his brain using the stolen device.

Over the course of the film, Paprika’s storyline gradually degrades from concrete to abstract. Not unlike the interpretation of a dream, the film’s second half is hard to decipher and it is often unclear whether we’re viewing the character’s unconscious thoughts or the waking world. I’ve watched the movie twice, once dubbed in English and once in Japanese with subtitles, but still don’t understand all of the surreal imagery. Perhaps not every frame of this anime has a purpose, or perhaps Paprika’s murkiness is a reason to see it more than once.

After a nightmare, we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that it was all “just a dream”. But what is life if not a dream we all share, one that everyone eventually awakens from.

The story is based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2007
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese w/English subtitles
Genre: Animation, mystery, sci-fi