But You're So Much Fun - Thoughts on Satoshi Kon's Paprika

It probably helps you if you can go outside and walk for a while after seeing a good picture like Paprika. You'll need the time to sort everything out and figure out just where your loyalties lie. You'll certainly need to think your way through its mindbender of a story.

I saw Satoshi Kon's latest feature at the Lagoon Theatre in Uptown Minneapolis, which is the only independent theatre chain in the Twin Cities. Apart from Lagoon, Lagoon Edina, and Uptown theatres, it's all multiplex. This is our sole source for any independent or foreign movie to protect ourselves against the never-ending assault of stupidity and crass swill we now call American Popular Culture.

I'm pointing all this out as a reminder to myself not to get too critical, and also to remind everyone just how difficult it is when you're not living in a major city. You're at the mercy of big studios' summer cartoons: Shrek 3, Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Fantastic Four 2, Surf's Up (aka Penguin Movie 3), Hostel 2, yadda yadda. The idea of an animation film that's intelligent, provocative, and visually inventive - instead of sensory overload - is completely foreign to Americans. How did things ever get so bad?

Satoshi Kon is one of the smartest filmmakers around today. His are the kind of psychologically-driven character tales that great American directors once tackled. We used to make these sort of movies, albeit live-action. A whole generation of Americans are accustomed to expect movies to be little more than toy commercials, videogame demos, and wall-to-wall explosions. And fart jokes. I'm afraid that Mike Judge's Idiocracy would one day be seen as prophesy, the way we look back on Sidney Lumet's Network. Yuck! Help!

The last Satoshi Kon movie was Tokyo Godfathers, and it was a spellbinding, poignant, and endlessly funny adaptation of John Ford's Three Godfathers. It was one of the year's best. And yet it was only shown in Minneapolis for one weekend, at the U of M Film Society, after being suddenly bumped from the Lagoon. When I attended, there were only three or four others in the seats. And then we wonder why anime remains such a niche product, and why animation in this country will never grow up.

There's a reason you see nothing but junk food on the shelves, folks. Junk food is all that you consume. It's as simple as that. No corporatist conspiracy theories, no nightmare scenarios of Dick Cheney peering into your brain for unpure thoughts, no Ned Beatty howling about the primal forces of nature. You're stuck with Shrek the Third because you shelled out good money for Shrek the Second. And you didn't show up for Tokyo Godfathers. Or Innocence. Or Triplets of Bellville. Or Metropolis. Or Howl's Moving Castle. Okay, that last one really wasn't your fault.

I have this thought in the back of my head that I could make a short movie about fray boys farting on a couch and make a fortune. It's got all the ingredients for a hit - frat boys, lots of farting, lots of different sound effects for farting, and an old, beat-up couch. Heck, set the story at a college party, just to see how all the hot chicks freak out. It'll be the biggest thing since Scary Movie, Part 6. Which is a hell of a lot worse than Leonard, Part 6. And for that, gentle readers, we should all be ashamed.

Pauline Kael often extolled the virtues of trolling through the movie trash. What the heck would she say about the state of things today? I sincerely hope that, if her soul still lives somewhere in Creation, she's far enough away so she can't see us.

All of which brings us back to Paprika. This movie arrived in town last week, and I didn't attend on the opening night as I usually do with foreign animated features, so I can't comment on how folks have seen it. But when I walked into the theatre this afternoon, I was the only one there. Only three or four others arrived at all.

The movie has, to date, grossed a little over $340,000. Shrek the Third has hit $300 million. Remember what John Lennon once said, folks. War is over, if you want it.


Now here's my favorite moment in Paprika. It's not one of the dazzling effects pieces, or any of the surreal dream sequences. It's just a short confessional between two main characters. One is a computer geek, a comically overweight man who invents things with the mind of a child. The other is a woman who's the head of her department, all work and all business. Alright, she's the main character in the movie. The one in that screenshot up there. Like any of you will be able to see it in a theatre.

Anyway, the good doctor Chiba Atsuko has pulled the dreamy, chubby inventor, Tokita Kohsaku, out of an elevator, a dream-world reenactment of an earlier scene in the waking life. She's always known of his affection for her, and she's remained friendly yet at a distance. But here she has finally let her guard down and chosen sides.

With her arms around him, she recounts all of her stock refusals, her excuses for resisting him. You're a slob. You eat everything. Looks aren't everything, but there is a limit. And through all this he nods and sheepishly agrees. Yes, yes, I know.

She exhausts her lines, then leans in closer, and with a faint smile, whispers out to him, "But you're so much fun."

It's a sublime moment, the best damn line in the whole movie. If Charles Chaplin were still alive, bless him, he'd be leaving the theatre with tears in his eyes.

Paprika deals with a lot of characters dealing with their own inner impulses and urges and repressed desires, and it's driven by an internal action that's only accentuated by the action on screen. This may surprise folks saw the trailer, and expected another action thriller, something on par with The Matrix or Mamoro Oshii's movies. That's not really the case, which is to say that you're not completely off the mark. This is a deeply visual film, deeply surreal and stylized. But I don't think we're seeing another animated roller coaster ride. I think Kon's interest is in the psychology and emotions of the characters.

In that sense, Kon really is the successor to Isao Takahata, that greatest of all animation directors. I came away from Tokyo Godfathers with that strong suspicion, and Paprika, while a completely different kind of film, still confirms it. It's a psychological thriller in the purest sense, a mind-bender that really understands the mind.


A bit about the plot, if just for formality's sake. A psychology institute develops a futuristic machine, the DC Mini, which enables one with the power to enter another's dream. The device is intended for therapy sessions, as doctor and patient travel through the REM landscapes, while other doctors watch all on their computer screens. Pass the popcorn, wait for the trailers. Have I mentioned that this dream has a sequel?

Things become complicated. DC Minis are used unofficially, for recreational purposes. One or more devices may be stolen, an act immediately blamed on "terrorism," but admitted to be an inside job. Dreams are invaded, stolen, and inserted into unwilling people. The lines between the dream state and the waking state becomes blurred, then completely shattered. And a growing collective dream threatens to overwhelm everything.

At this point, it's easy to say that most viewers - certainly in the case of the movie critics - will become lost on the story, and just enjoy the highly surreal animation. Take it all in as a post-millenium LSD trip, loaded up on paranoia, conspiracy, and suppressed dreams. And I'm not one to be critical of that, if you enjoy yourself and have a good time. This is a spectacularly visual movie, after all; certainly at the peak of Japanese animation.

But I think you'll miss out on a lot of deeper ideas if you just expect pretty pictures. Paprika is about as surrealist as any movie gets these days, but it's an honest surrealism, fueled by the ideas of Freud and Yung, one eye on the days of legal LSD experiments, the other on our modern obsession with escapism and fantasy. Wouldn't it be wonderful to share another person's dream, Tokita asks. Well, Kon responds, we already have that little miracle. It's called the movies.

What makes Paprika work as an idea film is the way all these common motifs, of movies as a dream factory, the internet as a virtual world, dreams as a window into the soul, the realization of archetypes, and the inner selves that we never reveal to others in the waking world. It's extremely smart. Too smart? Eh, maybe, maybe not. I'd rather have too smart than too stupid.

One major subplot involves a middle-aged detective, himself something of a movie archetype. He's haunted by terrible nightmares, a fusion of Fellini and Kurosawa, brought upon by an unsolvable case, and his own repressed past. His whole life is wrapped in movies; when the dream and waking worlds melt together, he's the one who's most able to adapt, because he's been playing the role his whole life.

I'm reminded of the Howard Beale speech in Network - you people have been watching the tube so long, you're beginning to think the tube is real, and your own lives are fiction.

The title character is, likewise, an archetype avatar for the dream world, but she's also the idealized version the repressed Dr. Atsuko has of herself. Both are roles she plays to the hilt, and like everything else in this movie, you can't tell which one is real, and which one is the illusion.

Which one gave birth to the other? That's one of the central questions Kon poses, right up to the end. We should probably figure that answer out, before our fantasy worlds overwhelm us completely and we find ourselves turned into empty shells.


And now, finally, dear readers, the things I didn't like about Paprika. I'm still telling myself to go easy, and overlook the flaws, but we need some way to end this thing before it really gets out of hand. I haven't even gone into all the ways the movie mines Japanese culture, from the modern pop obsession with giant robots and monster attacks, to their traditional, ancient mythology - which is pretty damned surrealist, too, if you think of it. And why am I reminded so much of Takahata's Pom Poko?

Whatever. Here's my big beef. The last 20 minutes or so dissolve into a series of big-budged action scenes. Chases, loud music, big villain, lots of explosions. What's the deal with this? Practically every movie nowadays finds itself stuck in the end, and can't find any way to resolve it without resorting to that other movie archetype, the Death Star Battle. Let's just end it all on a big action scene, and all is fine.

Except it's not. The original Matrix (Paprika's spiritual cousin) had this problem. The Incredibles was saddled with it. You can't have an idea movie that ends on a Death Star Battle. Big huge chase, end everything with a bang, everyone is happy and back to normal at the end. Every movie turns into Rambo in the final 20 minutes, and frankly, it sucks. I'm tired of it.

That said, the image of a girl devouring an old man, and growing in his place, is a really great image.

And I don't like the cheap melodrama of the bad guy. Why is there a "bad guy" in a movie like this? What was his whole point for causing trouble in the first place? Why couldn't he be treated as another screwed up human being, like the others? Shouldn't a movie that calls attention to the mechanisms of the movies not rely on those mechanisms as well?

Ah, Paprika. You're so complicated. Hardly anybody understands you. You're stuck between being an idea film and an action film. Nobody really buys into that villain. And that plot framework really was just an excuse to set everything in motion. If I try to think rationally, try to think critically, I could really spell out all of your flaws.

But you're so much fun.


Michael said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head. The problem with the film is that it's caught between being "an idea film and an action film."

I would also have liked for there to have been more of the real world to give us more of an anchor to work against the dream world. I think Kon was more interested in his surrealist dream world, but I'm not sure you can really comment on humanity - in any deep and meaningful way - if you're primarily talking in dreams.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

You've probably read part of what I think at michaelsporn, but here's how I feel about the Death Star sequence.

To me, most of the action fit. Don't forget that that favorite scene of yours happens DURING the big ending action sequence. It's the conflict that makes them learn about themselves, become more true to themselves. The first part of the action is where the collegue LOSES himself in the dreamworld, while the detective FINDS himself, by once again reliving those dreams, but making other choices. And in the second part of it, the big one, well... The conflict of dreams and reality grew and grew naturally, Tokita then becomes victim, and during the big action sequence, that's where Atsuko gets confronted with that. Not so coincidentally, that's the exact moment where Paprika says "She's become true to herself, hasn't she?"

Now, I was originally going to say that the big fight between the giants did feel a bit slapped on, and I did feel that way at first... but now that I think of it, it works really well. Once again we've got somebody who's found herself and somebody who's lost himself. She's realized things about herself, and instead of living her good side as a dream (Paprika) she's now realized she can be true to herself in real life too. Which is the exact opposite of him. In real life, he's old, distant, without passion, and even stuck in a wheelchair. But because he can be so powerful and do anything he wants in the dreamworld, he loses himself in it. So someone who's grounded in reality, who makes it happen in reality, wins over someone who wishes to live in a dreamworld, rather than getting the best out of life.

Let's just break the last half hour of action down... then you'll realize this isn't just a Michael Bay chase sequence, but every part is the way it's supposed to be, and really, not that much time is spent in real action.

1. Paprika gets chased and captured by the "bad guys" (because she found out)
2. The detective has a revelation at the bar, and rescues Paprika/Chiba, by confronting his dreams and finding himself, while the collegue loses himself in the dream.
3. They're exposed to what's happening outside.
4. She's confronted with Tokita (and we have your favorite scene inbetween)
5. Her new self fights against the bad guy, real happiness wins over imagined.

There's hardly any moment inbetween that's just action for action. Yes, it's epic and climactic, but I wouldn't just put it off as a "Death Star" sequence. (though I can't honestly say I really remember how the Death Star sequence played out)


The GagaMan(n) said...

Be grateful your getting a cinema release for Paprika at all. Who wants to bet the film will gt screened in a maximum or 5 cinemas in the whole of the UK? I almost missed my chance on even seeing Spirited Away on the big screen because every screening near me was a one off. Like most foreign animated movies, I'll probably have to wait for the direct-to-DVD release =(

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Well, Gaga, that's part of my frustration. Perhaps I'm speaking more at those of us who live in major cities, and have an opportunity to support these movies, in the first part of my Paprika essay. It really is our responsibilty; success in the few larger markets will result in the movie being shown in more and smaller venues.

If it were up to me, all foreign and independent pictures would be put up on 2,000 screens. Unfortunately, I'm not in any position to do anything about that. But I can buy tickets and get myself into a seat, and so can others who are fortunate. It's simply our responsibility. After all, we're the big cinephiles who complain about all this drivel at the multiplex, right?

Then why aren't we making any kind of an impact? I hear a lot of talk from so-called anime fans. Where's the action?

Klaus said...

oh boy, this is going to be a long one...

@ Anime not being shown in theaters

reading your post and the other commens, i get the feeling I'm quite lucky here in Germany. The Ghibli movies and other anime are shown every now and then in (small) cinemas and I saw Paprika just recently at a festival (aolthough i don't know if there is going to be a general release). just the other day i wrote in my blog about how US-studios don't dare going beyond the established comedy-genre in animation and thus "remain stuck in the kiddy sandbox". I mainly blamed conservatism among the executives, because I truly believe that there is a market for intelligent, innovative anime - someone just has to have to courage to put the money in a movie and the marketing. so i find it really interesting that you are blaming the (american) audience... especially when you consider that both japanese and american movie-goers are largely Teens. Also, intelligent real-life movies like Matrix and X-Men who borrowed massively from comics and anime have been hugely successful. why are there all the real-life comic-adaptations in the US and none using animation? I think Spiderman would have been a huge hit also in an animated version. but why is nobody doing it??

@ Paprika

I largely agree with Benjamin. The film is not stuck between action and idea simply because there is (almost) no real "action" except for a few brieve chases, and these always lead the characters to confront hidden aspects of themselves, their feelings, desires, past. So the "action" is a necessary element to fully develop the idea, it's never there just to entertain as in the "death star"-archetype (love that expression!)
But still, great coverage of this extraordinary movie!

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