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Friday, Dec. 1, 2006

Out of your head in a dreamworld

Can dreams drive you crazy? Is the boundary between dream life and so-called real life permeable? Satoshi Kon has been making brilliant animations based on these and similar questions since "Perfect Blue," his 1998 feature debut about an idol singer whose life, inner as well as outer, is invaded by an obsessed fan.

Paprika Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Paprika in the animation of the same name (C) 2006 MADHOUSE/SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT (JAPAN) INC.

Director: Satoshi Kon
Running time: 90 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (Dec. 1, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

His latest and, he says, last investigation of this dream-vs.-reality theme is "Paprika," which premiered at this year's Venice Film Festival and has been selected as a possible nominee for an animation Oscar. I have no idea if his film will make it into the final five, but it is definitely different from not only the talking-animal, 3G animation for kiddies that is now standard in Hollywood, but also the manga-based, sci-fi fantasy that the Japanese animation industry exports in large quantities to the world.

True, it has SF elements, the main one being a gizmo called the DC Mini that looks like a futuristic hearing aid and can transmit the wearer's dreams -- think of an MP3 Web site that allows you to share dreams instead of tunes.

But instead of focusing on his hardware or spinning the usual good-vs.-evil SF story, Kon takes his audience on a wild, fantastic ride into a land of extreme dreaming, where primal desires and fears (absolute freedom, appropriation of one's identity by a malevolent Other) come to gaudy, phantasmagorical life.

His imagery is at once everyday (marching household appliances) and nightmarish (Japanese dolls with uncanny grins that walk, talk, and in one memorable case, makes like Godzilla). His story, based on the fiction of Yasutaka Tsutsui, may not make much rational, left-brained sense, but works at a deeper, right-brained level, like a fairy tale for adults (or at least older teens), told with affection for its mostly oddball characters and a puckish sense of humor about their -- at times -- mad adventures.

Sounds like good, trippy, if slightly scary, fun, doesn't it? But this head movie is cunningly designed to mess up minds -- even the characters lose track of the many transitions from dream to reality and back again.

Kon's heroine exemplifies this duality. Atsuko Chiba (voiced by Megumi Ha-yashibara), a psychotherapist at a mental hospital research center, is the epitome of cool, poised professionalism, who has the absolute trust of her short, balding, excitable boss, Dr. Shima (Katsunosuke Hori). More importantly for the story, she not only investigates patients' dreams, but is able to enter them with the aid of a "psychotherapy machine."

The alter ego she assumes on these inner trips is the polar opposite of her real world self, being a sexy, sprightly pixie named Paprika who trips through dreamscapes with blithe abandon and shape-shifting ease. She is less a therapist than a sort of angel of deliverance who appears when her patients are more confused -- or endangered -- than they can cope with on their own.

The only ones who know Paprika's true identity are Dr. Shima and Tokita (Toru Furuya), the grossly obese, nerdy inventor of the DC Mini. Then three of the devices are stolen from the lab -- and Atsuko and Tokita fear that the thief may use them not to cure minds, but destroy them.

Their fears prove well founded when Dr. Shima starts spouting bizarre nonsense. Atsuko, in the persona of Paprika, enters his dreams and finds a parade of dolls and the aforementioned ambulant appliances. One of the marchers is a sinister talking Japanese doll who resembles one of the doctor's assistants, Himuro (Daisuke Sakaguchi).

Is Himuro the culprit? Is the doll truly Himuro? What exactly is going on here? As the dream invasions continue and spread, the saturnine hospital director, Inui (Toru Emori), takes notice, as does a macho police detective, Konakawa (Akio Otsuka). Inui responds by forbidding the development of more psychotherapeutic hardware, but the malevolent force behind the invasions is already beyond the control of mere technology. Meanwhile, Konakawa, a comically square-jawed, down-to-earth sort, finds himself caught in a recurring bad dream -- no longer the pursuer but the pursued.

In films like "Sennen Joyu (Millennium Actress)," (2001) and "Tokyo Godfathers" (2003), Kon worked in a far more realistic vein than the fantastic Japanimation norm -- making some fans question his use of animation to begin with. Why not just film real actors in real settings and be done with it?

In "Paprika," however, Kon states the case for animation with an imaginative force and clarity that blows such objections away. His imagery, poised uneasily between the cutesy and the creepy, is more richly suggestive of the dream state, with its visually abstracted, emotionally unstable flights of the psyche, than the usual sort of live-action film, even with CG additions.

The character designs, supervised by Masashi Ando, may have a reassuringly conventional Japanimation look -- Dr. Shima is the brother to eccentric hakase (professors) in dozens of anime -- but there is nothing conventional about Kon's vision, which undercuts realistic expectations at every turn with a visually strange, but persuasive internal logic. (Somehow those appliances and dolls belong together.)

Did I understand that logic at first go? Not really, and "Paprika" would reward a second viewing -- and more. But not just before bed, please.

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