Confession: My exposure to anime is limited to watching and digging Ghost in the Shell about a decade ago and a handful of Hayao Miyazaki movies in recent years. And now there's Paprika, a movie that both dazzled and bewildered me. The "dazzle" is easy enough to figure out: Directed by Satoshi Kon (Tokyo Godfathers and Millennium Actress, the former I've actually heard of), Paprika looks like a billion yen. "Bewilder" is harder to track: Even given my below-average anime experience, this film makes as much sense as "All your base are belong to us."
You'll want to know what Paprika is about. Here's the old college try: It's no spoiler to say it was all just a dream. The Foundation for Psychiatric Research has invented a machine, the DC Mini, which enables doctors to treat patients better by recording and interacting with their dreams. The device is stolen, and the unknown villain begins manipulating the dreams of the good guys to the extent that they don't know when they're dreaming and when what's happening is real. Then, it gets worse when everybody is affected, and the dream world and the awake world become indistinguishable.
One good guy is Detective Kogawa Toshimi (Akio Ôtsuka), who has dreams that wend their way through movies such as From Russia with Love and Roman Holiday, so I like him already. Another protagonist is Dr. Chiba Atsuko/Paprika (Megumi Hayashibara), by day a female scientist developing the DC Mini for government-sanctioned use, by night a superhero philosopher-queen who illegally swings through her patient's dreams on a mission of healing.
But this synopsis makes the movie sound cogent, and Paprika will never be accused of that. The plot keywords on imdb.com do a better job than I can to describe the spirit of the film. Among them: "head split in half," "trapeze," "Statue of Liberty," "tentacle rape," "piloted giant robot," and "unsolved case." Another, "twist in the end," works too. I was surprised how much I like Paprika, looking back on it, when I can't say I understood it much at all. Me like pretty pictures, I suppose.
The primary ingredient missing in Paprika is verbal. The robust images — chief among them, an apocalyptic parade led by a frog band, samurai, big-eyed kitties, Chinese dragons, and an army of baby dolls — compelling though they are, lack deeper power without comprehensible context. The context provider — the script, essentially — is mush-mouthed. What it produces are sentences — like, "The nonlinear waves created by surges in the bioelectrical current can be applied to create new synapse connections by adjusting the BTU output" — which are genuinely meant to clear the air of any confusion. They don't. This may be one foreign-language film that might be better experienced without subtitles.
Even beyond the dialogue, the intricacies of the plot are left unarticulated. Plot incoherence keeps the stakes from being spelled out: I know there's danger, but I don't know why or what to be afraid of. I don't know what the rules of the film are. A 100-foot tall, red-kimono-clad baby doll that attacks enemies with a warbling screech is good stuff in my book. But the danger it poses doesn't transgress beyond the physical. In a movie hip-deep in the subconscious, a little emotional and intellectual substance is called for. It's the least the accompanying images deserve.
Opens Friday, August 10th
Studio on the Square