The Look of Love #5: Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2007)

Satoshi Kon’s Paprika imagines a world in which we’ve created a way to record and entering our dreams at will, so that we can rewind, pause, and zoom in at key moments at any time, as if our dreamscapes were DVDs. A DC Mini, a device created by Dr. Tokita, allows this radiant possibility, but the technology hasn’t been perfected. Anyone who steals a DC Mini can tap into and manipulate the dreams—and ultimately the conscious mind—of anyone who has used the device. Even worse, dreams can be merged with the invention, so that aspects of one person’s subconscious slides into another’s, even when these aspects conflict.

This is Japanese anime, so you know the device will be stolen. In fact, that part pretty much occurs at the outset. What moves Kon’s futuristic fable into the cautionary-tale realm is that, as the DC Mini is used more and more, it becomes harder to separate dreams from reality. A parade—frogs playing flutes, dolls come to life, confetti that’s really metallic butterflies, creatures never seen in nature—dances and struts to eerie music on the city streets. At first, this is part of one person’s particular dream. By the end, they’ve entered actual streets.

Again, this is a Japanese anime, so there’s a 90% chance this will lead to citywide catastrophe and possible societal meltdown.

The only two people who have a chance of stopping the madness are Dr. Tokita, DC Mini’s inventor, and his project supervisor/head psychoanalyst Dr. Atsuko Chiba. Tokita is a gargantuan slob of a man-child, utterly brilliant at engineering but socially inept in any other way. He eats five entrees in one meal. His apartment is a mess of outdated toys, porn, the remnants of bachelor food, and gadgets. He radiates unbridled energy. He appears to almost consume space.

Chiba is everything Tokita is not—female, icy, thin, sexy, and adult. Despite the fact that Tokita created the DC Mini, it’s clear that the only reason the project ever left the ground is because she shepherded its creation and use through the production process.

They share one trait: utter loneliness. Chiba’s even created an avatar for herself in the dreamworld—that would be Paprika—who’s hipper and younger than she is, and knows her way around dreams better than Chiba grasps real life. Tokita pours himself into his work; his only friend is his assistant, and that guy’s insanity starts the chain reaction of events in the movie.

During Paprika’s climax, in which Tokita has been transformed into a giant-version of a childhood toy and is rampaging downtown (long story), something curious happens. Chiba tries to slow down this crazed version of Tokita down, by reminding him that he likes her, that he loves something about the world he’s destroying.

This doesn’t go as well as she would be hoped. Tokita picks her up and swallows her.

She’s not, however, dead. Again, the distinction between dream and reality is intentionally muddied here. Rather, she’s entered him physically, such as her Paprika is in some way a psychic part of him, as her avatar wouldn’t exist without Tokita’s invention. Robot Tokita continues his rampage until he’s blindfolded by psychic internet bartenders who act as guardians of the dreamworld. (I know, I know—it makes sense within the context of the movie.)

He careens into a building at full speed. He’s stuck.

It’s here that things get really weird. A giant, translucent Dr. Chiba walks into the frame. The only explanation I can offer here is that, by eating Chiba, Tokita’s actually allowed to enter his dreamscape; this devastated Japanese city is partly his fevered imagination, so it makes sense that whatever he consumes would become part of his system. In any case, there she is.

As she calmly walks towards the robot, though, his position between skyscrapers echoes something that happens at the movie’s beginning.

Our first glimpse of Tokita is when we see him, literally stuck in an elevator. When the doors open, he’s revealed, back to camera (and to Chiba, who’s waiting to get in), to be unable to get out. In this instance, Chiba tugs him out, with both of them ending up splayed on the floor. Chiba shakes herself off and says something derogatory to Tokita, who’s chagrined and embarrassed.

This time, though, Chiba half-remembers the exchange, and half-imagines what she wishes she had done.

Kon splices together Chiba’s imagined elevator scene with the super-sized Chiba pulling the robot out of his tight squeeze. In the parking garage, they sit on the floor, catching their breaths. After the elevator doors close, after a beat, they begin a quiet exchange:

Tokita: Sorry.
Chiba: You’re such a slob.
Tokita: I know.
Chiba: You’re fat, slow, and sloppy. [pause] It’s not the outside that counts, but there’s a limit to that, too.
Tokita: Yeah.
Chiba: To think, a food disposal like you is the genius of the century.
Tokita: I swallow everything.
Chiba: I know. You’re so much fun.

The words alone don’t convey the effect of the scene. We see the conversation entirely in close-ups between Chiba and Tokita. As they talk, she leans into his back, as if she wants to breathe him in. She’s admonishing him, sure, but she does so because she wants him to live as long as possible. Her early nagging of his habits—it occurs throughout Paprika—makes more sense when we consider them as acts of love. She adores this lovable beached whale.

What’s especially touching is that their embrace and conversation, of course, is being seen in real-life, too. Chiba’s affection is broadcast in outsized form.

Paprika, looking on, understands what’s happening: “Atsuko is dreaming.” On the face of it, that’s obvious. But think about it more carefully, and something more subversive is apparent. Technically, Paprika is the dream; she’s a projection of Chiba. The declaration of love between giants—this unbelievable event—is the real thing, whatever that means in Paprika.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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4 Responses to The Look of Love #5: Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2007)

  1. Michael says:

    Walter, really nice post about Paprika. That sort of coda or connection between different sections of the film/dreams is one of the things I love about the movie. I remember watching it and when the film cuts back to that scene in the elevator, I was sitting there going, “wow…”. And nice connection to the theme of love that you’ve been developing here at QB.
    Now that you’ve seen Paprika, how would you rank it among Kon’s other work? I’m not familiar with his other films myself.

  2. Walter says:

    Michael, thanks for the kind words. I think Paprika is the summation of Kon’s career so far. Everything in his oeuvre is present: the blurring (and erasing) of the border between dream and reality; the warnings about how technology is at once empowering us but also allowing us to become solipsistic and lost in our own heads; the breakneck pacing; the sharp, thin-lined drawing style; the concentration on troubled but strong women at the center of his narratives. Since you like this one, I’d strongly recommend Millennium Actress, which addresses many of the same films, and adds a sense of playful self-referentiality–though Paprika does that, too (Check out the movie posters the detective walks by at the end of the movie. You’ll see both Tokyo Godfathers and Millennium Actress.) Anyway, MA is effectively a movie within a movie, in which the protagonist plays out her life in movies of a variety of genres. (Now I need to check out his TV series, Paranoia Agent, which I’ve not seen at all.)

  3. Michael says:

    Walter, thanks for the quick summary of the themes/techniques in Kon’s films — very helpful, actually, and these are things I’ll look for as I go through his work. Based on your recommendation, perhaps I’ll try Millennium Actress first, and then continue from there. I’m planning to watch Parpika again at some point, as there’s so much going on visually that it’ll definitely reward repeat viewing.

  4. Randa says:

    I hated Paprika, was squirming, until that final climactic scene, which is so brilliant. Thanks for revisiting it here and exploring it.

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