Monday, July 16, 2007

Review of Paprika

After far too many delays "Paprika" (2006) finally came out in St. Louis. An unaccountably staggered and severely limited release has all but slit it throat in terms of sales and buzz, but I can't say it arrived damaged or limping. Satoshi Kon's latest animated cerebral adventure through psychology, history and pop culture hasn't lost the electrifying energy or breathtaking audacity that has positioned him as one of the world's most creative anime directors.

The plot, courtesy of novelist Yasutaka Tsutsui, is perfect for Kon: a psychiatric device that can gain access to dreams (called the DC Mini) is developed and no sooner than the prototype is finished it falls into the wrong hands. The premise seems weirdly similar to the rather patchy, but worthwhile, "The Cell" from 2002, but Kon inevitably spirals from traditional thriller/sci-fi genre territory into the type of post-modern, global-scope insanity that makes his films so unique, enthralling and relevant. However, while the director's most fruitful bounty comes from his voracious pan-cultural appetite, I fear that it may also contain the seed of his downfall. I'll get to that later.

Firstly, I should gush a little about the film. Kon relishes in experimenting at the borders between reality and fantasy. He mines the region for a couple of good insights and a lot of brilliant visual plays. Though the film doesn't have the sheer technological specs to wow audiences with fine-grain textures, shimmering lighting effects or jaw-dropping realism, Kon nevertheless pushes the medium of film to new limits by giving us something on which to gorge our mind and our eyes. Pixar may have visuals; Kon has vision. It is his boundless ingenuity of presentation and his ability to bring imagination to life that dazzles.

The charismatic centerpiece of this combination of creativity and chaos is Paprika, the dream-version idealized alter-ego-of-sorts to scientist Chiba Atsuka. Fan will recognize popular voice actress Megumi Hayashibara of "Cowboy Bebop" and "Neon Genesis Evangelion" fame, doing her usual grade-A work. Atsuka is a quiet, restrained professional who developed the DC Mini in the real world, but becomes a sexy, savvy action hero when she enters into the realm of dreams. Her transformation is a bit like that of a superhero, but with the darker implications of a repressed splinter personality and the almost embarrassing indulgences in ego-spurred fantasies. Though the film suffers quite a bit from a lack of character development (one character, Himuro, is never even introduced before we are expected to care about his possible defection and/or death), Atsuka enticingly hints at a complicated and interesting persona that I only wish could have been further expounded.

Paprika, though far more cool, is fairly two-dimensional (that's a joke, but not even that funny if you've seen the movie). As a literal character (rather than a dream construct) she is probably too awesome to provide any tension or risk. I can't deny that she's genuinely irresistible to watch as she leaps into posters, channel surfs into TV screens, transitions into advertisements and merges into paintings. It is astounding to watch, especially in the opening credits, well worthy (as Mad Dog points out) of making it on to my recent list of favorite credit lead-ins. It also serves as the perfect fit for Kon's own self-reflexive play on the nature of film as a medium.

Oh, were you wondering whether Kon's love of movie history was waning? You probably weren't, but let me reassure you anyway. "Paprika" follows the cinephilic pattern of "Perfect Blue" (where a pop star turns actress only to have her life, career and "art" crammed into a blender and set to puree), "Millennium Actress" (the biography of a fictional actress told through an alternation of cinematic and political history) and "Tokyo Godfathers" (a contemporary Japanese social drama remixed for the thirteenth time out of a screenplay that has, more often than not, been filmed as an American western!). Kon's latest includes a handful of direct nods like poster art and revisionist scenes from such classics as "Tarzan" and "Roman Holiday," and plenty of other references both obscure and overt. Plus one of the characters, I won't reveal who, has a connection to the film industry that is both touching and original.

"Paprika" is not without it flaws, but I hope I've already established by this point that it is well worth everyone's time and ticket/rental expense. If you haven't seen "Millennium Actress" (2001) yet, go out right now and see that too. The primary inkblot on the cel is the failure to anchor the film to any significant reference point in reality. The characters aren't well enough defined or given enough time to interact for us to believe the vendettas and romances that play out. More significantly, the film lacks the sense of an outside world with off-screen people, current events and everyday life.

It opens with a magnificent dream sequence and within minute establishes the presence of a dangerous force able to manipulate reality and tamper with the character's consciousnesses. By bursting out of the gate full-speed, Kon gets a chance to maximize the ground he covers in terms of dream imagery, visual distortions, optical illusions, clever juxtapositions, comical surrealism and unsettling horrors, but he misses his chance to make us really care about the characters or appreciate their circumstances. Strange as the events we witness may seem, the lack of contrasting reality makes the dream world somewhat arbitrary and confusing. Some symptoms (generally shared by "Perfect Blue"):

1) The sense that there are no consistent rules that the characters must obey. Their adventures are stirring, yet inexplicable.

2) The inability to distinguish which feats are simple versus difficult. (How easy is this dream device to operate anyway? Can you really do anything in the dreamworld?)

3) The feeling that the movie never gets any further or closer to resolution (the narrative arc, while fast and engaging, is utterly flattened).

One could argue these minor complaints by saying, "Well that's exactly how dreams and dream logic works!" but I don't consider that a good enough excuse for poor structure and loose plotting.

Though I wouldn't necessarily call it a flaw, there is also a certain amount of repetition that seemed expendable, especially since the film trades so heavily on being infinitely fresh from scene to scene. The opening dream sequence I mentioned earlier loses some of its luster on the third round. Alternatively, there is a crazy parade led by a refrigerator and populated by Japan's entire commercial GNP (you know, stuff like amphibian flutists, doll thrones and TV-headed robots) that is so delightfully cluttered and intricate that the repetition doesn't lose interest. The same goes for the soundtrack's two best pieces (the film theme and parade theme by composer, Susumu Hirasawa, distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowd), that are so dense and irrepressible that their frequent reprisals never failed to get me grinning.

Finally, though I generally dislike using a review of movie X to make comments about movie Y, I will indulge myself. I can't help but draw some comparisons to "Ratatouille," another animated movie current in theaters that takes its title from the kitchen. While I loved Pixar's latest, as I usually do, I felt that the company has really started to lose some of its originality and wonderment in recent installments. The film is fun, shiny, uplifting and all that, but fundamentally formulaic, overly sugary and a bit empty. It's kind of like riding a pogo stick with a cookie cutter on the bottom. Sorry; but there were too many adjectives to fit a better metaphor to. Anyway, though no one should miss "Ratatouille," I think "Paprika" is the better film and ultimately the one I'll go back to again and again.

Walrus Rating: 8


Mad Dog said...

I have to wonder if Kon just got impatient to get to the good stuff, and that's why he didn't spend more time at the beginning setting up rules and character development. For the record, I feel that Atsuko was handled with just the right soft touch, since it definitely showed she had a deeper personality, but it didn't ruin it by overexplanation. I really liked the unlikely romance between her and the other character. I think it was not only reveal of her personality, but a nice play against stereotypes.

One thing that I think would've been interesting was if the progression of the movie HAD followed how people actually dream. Dream cycles start off short at the beginning of the night and get longer and longer as you reach the peak of your REM cycle and then taper off until you wake up. Maybe it would've eased us into the craziness and relied less on it at the end to resolve the story. I mean, did YOU understand that kooky resolution? It was pretty out there and random.

But I KNEWWWW you'd eat up the film school stuff with a spoon. :p

And for the record, although you're right in saying I'll watch Paprika more often, I'd say that Ratatouille is the more solid, well-rounded movie and possibly deserving of a higher score.

FilmWalrus said...

I think Kon could have left the opening in-media-res if he had done the development as he went with more insights into the character's lives and the society around them and the operation of the lab, but he was pretty crushed for time.

Also, I like your idea about the dream cycle scene lengths. I think it makes you a PSYCHOLOGY NERD!

As for Ratatouille, while I did like it and rate it about equal to Paprika, I did see it with an audience of friends, in a good mood after a batch of less films. I think years from now, when the graphics dazzle me less and my views are less based on the experience of going, I will probably be quite harsh on the film. It is fundamentally so trite and formulaic under all the eye candy and warm sentiments.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Paprika! It was shown at Venice Festival last year. I watched some scenes and it stroke me!

I hope to watch it wholly as soon as possible!