The Wrath of Kon: Paprika

Matt will present a panel entitled “The Works of Satoshi Kon” at Nan Desu Kan in Denver this Saturday, September 12th at 2:30 PM in the Humboldt panel room. Cheggitout! Satoshi Kon’s first feature, Perfect Blue, was something of an oddity…

Matt will present a panel entitled “The Works of Satoshi Kon” at Nan Desu Kan in Denver this Saturday, September 12th at 2:30 PM in the Humboldt panel room. Cheggitout!

Satoshi Kon’s first feature, Perfect Blue, was something of an oddity for a first-time anime director: a narratively-gripping, expertly-crafted thriller. Perfect Blue has a reputation for being confusing, but unlike so many anime features where that confusion comes simply out of poor planning or weak writing, Perfect Blue’s layers of reality (and unreality) are very much intentional elements that serve the film’s themes. In short, the film was clearly guided by Kon’s unique directoral vision.

His follow-ups, the films Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, plus the 13-episode series Paranoia Agent display the same thematic elements as Perfect Blue, proving that Kon is no gun-for-hire: rather, a clear auteur with consistent elements of style and theme he carries from one project to the next.

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Paprika, released in 2006, is the fullest expression to date of Kon’s signature styles and themes. It’s also a visually dazzling work, second to few modern animated films in fluidity and detail. Unfortunately, it’s also his least emotionally satisfying work. More on that later.

Paprika starts by dropping us headfirst into one of Kon’s favorite themes: the thin border between fantasy and reality. The opening sequence takes place inside the dreams of Konakawa, a detective who’s been employing the services of Paprika, a kind of dream psychologist. She can enter the detective’s dreams, you see, using the “D.C. Mini,” an experimental device.

Doppelgangers and multiple personalities are another constantly recurring theme in Satoshi Kon’s films. Here, Paprika is actually the alter-ego of Dr. Chiba, a scientist working on the D.C. Mini project. Dr. Chiba is cool and calculating and has trouble expressing emotion; Paprika is flirty and adventurous. Initially, Paprika appears only in dreams while Dr. Chiba stays in reality, but as things begin to blur, as they often do in Kon’s works, we see Paprika and Chiba interact.

In any case, the members of Dr. Chiba’s team have a problem, because one of the D.C. Mini units has been stolen. The thief has been hijacking people’s dreams, causing chaos which eventually breaks into reality and threatens the world.

All of Kon’s favorite elements make an appearance throughout the film. Kon likes to play around with self-reflexivity: in Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress the main characters are actresses, and we’re often unsure if what we’re watching is the “reality” of the film or the movie-within-the-movie. Paranoia Agent features a hilarious episode which goes behind the scenes of an in-production anime series. In Paprika, Detective Konakawa’s dreams are filled with memorable scenes from Tarzan, Roman Holiday and From Russia With Love. It turns out he was an amateur filmmaker in high school and he is haunted by an 8mm film he was never able to finish.

Kon also comes back over and over again to obsession. In Perfect Blue, Mima is stalked by a serious Tsutomu Miyazaki-type. But Kon doesn’t always portray obsession as negative. In Millennium Actress, the TV producer who tracks down the reclusive actress in question is obsessed with her films, but uses his knowledge for good, bringing happiness and closure to the end of her life.

Paprika’s obsessee is Tokita, the inventor of the D.C. Mini. Tokita is a genius, but has the emotional capacity of a child, preferring to obsess over his inventions and toys than think about the moral implications of the D.C. Mini. Tokita is also obese, perhaps a first for anime. Kon often has multiple characters who are physically deformed or simply imperfect in some way.

Again, Paprika is, so far, the deepest and fullest exploration of Satoshi Kon’s animated world, and a simply gorgeous film to boot. But this exploration and experimentation comes at a price: it’s also Kon’s least character-driven work, a disappointment after Millennium Actress and especially Tokyo Godfathers delivered much of their emotional “oomph” by centering their narratives around compelling, sympathetic characters. Interesting as it is otherwise, it’s hard not to see this film as a step backward.

But listen. As a recent episode of Anime 3000 pointed out, it’s important to remember that there are directors out there doing great work, and not all of them are named “Miyazaki.” In the world of Japanese cartoons, a visionary (and as overused as “visionary” has become, I hope I’ve made the case that it can fairly be applied here) compelling as Satoshi Kon shouldn’t be overlooked.

11 Comments

  1. I think it’s still a fairly character driven film, but it’s more subtle than his previous works. I rather liked the romance angle they played. I thought it was unexpected, and gave the characters a nice splash of “color.”

  2. The music by Susumu Hirasawa is also superb as usual, and I love the moments where the sound is like a disturbing electrical buzz which gives me an unsettling feeling similar to that of David Lynch’s films.

  3. As you mention in your article Satoshi Kon’s works all has his unique stamp on it in revisiting the same themes and concepts in his works. All his work seems consistent not only in that sense because I find it all to be of a uniformly high quality. I agree that as rich and vivid Paprika is visually the characters do seem to have less space to develop.

    Strangely I find myself enjoying his first film the most. The uncertainty about reality is important in informing the audience about the state of this characters mind, even though he leaves much room open for interpretation in what to believe. In Perfect Blue this blurring of boundaries is disturbing where as in Paprika it is far more exciting and celebratory.

  4. In my experience, everyone already a fan of Kon or at least familiar with him found Paprika underwhelming. Those for whom it was the first exposure to his work were blown away. This is consistent with my own perception of Paprika as a visually stunning, but uninspired act of self-cannibalization, to the extent of being able to see an element and immediately determine the prior project from which it was lifted.

    >> In Perfect Blue this blurring of boundaries is disturbing where as in Paprika it is far more exciting and celebratory.

    PB was my favorite as well, a masterful arrangement of Kon’s signature tricks into a truly immersive (and unnerving) watch. In Paprika, they seemed merely strung together for shock value – it felt like one of those rap videos where everyone is flashing expensive jewelry and car accessories for no point other than to look cool.

  5. Paprika remains the shiniest of Kon’s works for me — Millennium Actress is my second favourite *movie* of all time, nevermind anime; Perfect Blue was possibly a little too overtly Hitchcockian for my likes to be considered Kon’s masterpiece. So I was already a Kon fan when I came to Paprika and I was anything but underwhelmed. The scene transitions (I’m a sucker for clever segues) stirred something in my gut that felt entirely too much like murderous envy, the voice acting…well, wasn’t it a departure for Kon to tap not one but four A-Grade seiyuu from arguably ‘mainstream’ stables? I didn’t see that hurting the movie at all.

    Someone mentioned David Lynch (although only musically). I’m not so much responding to that as simply running with the ball. I think Lynch could learn a thing or two from Satoshi Kon, mostly along the lines of clearly demonstrating psychosis, delusion, paranoia, etc *without* making the audience feel it. Sometimes a Lynch film leaves you feeling slightly insane — never so with Kon, who is to me infinitely more skilled when it comes to exploring psychological anomalies, not *getting lost in them*.

    Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress and Paprika are one work to me, something I refer to as the Joyuu Trilogy (although I may have read that somewhere and am being a cryptomnesiac), and Kon did say that after Paprika, he was moving into newer territory, away from the themes explored in these films — possibly hinted at through the movie posters in Paprika.

    I think the reduction in character-driven narrative (negatively: dumbing down; positively: refinement) was deliberate — he’d done it before and perfectly in two or three other films.

    Perfect Blue was Satoshi Kon in Hitchcock-Thriller mode: minimalist, almost silent at times, contemplative bath scenes and poignant dialogue that would be banal out of context, a tiny cast, plot twists aplenty.

    Millennium Actress, as one reviewer so wonderfully put it, was ‘one medium celebrating another’. Everything that was twisted and uncertain in Perfect Blue was nostalgic and soft-lensed in Millennium Actress. The fantasy hinted at in Perfect Blue is given free reign via the concept of epic studio movie making (as opposed to Perfect Blue’s cop drama), and the ‘actress’ loses herself in the roles, thereby defining herself for the audience. PB is about the birth of an actress; MA is about the passing of one.

    Paprika is about the ‘actress’ in everyone, even a cold, dedicated scientist. Compared to the former two movies, what we have here is Satoshi Kon in Spectacle, vivid, big budget, huge voices, riotous soundtrack, crazy monologues laced with gorgeous aphasia…of course you can’t have those and remain as character-driven as PB or MA. Thus I believe it was a choice, not a sacrifice.

    And is it any coincidence the opening scene to Paprika is a circus? 🙂

  6. Kon is a true talent. I remember some years back in NYC, when he introduced the screening of Millenium Actress, and the crowd went nuts.

    I have liked all of his films, and I did like Paprika. Granted, it is not a film you can just watch once–it needs at least a couple of viewings to get the film (and even then, many still might not “get” it).

    His films may be animated, but they certainly match most live-action films. That, and they also leave a lot of animated films in the dust.

  7. Enjoyed Paprika but it fell short of the ground breaking work on Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. Still wish this was more character driven b/c frankly could care less about Tokita so the their “dynamic” bored me.

  8. Matt, IMO only one of the directors out there doing great work is called Miyazaki, and that one’s losing his mojo.

    I love Paprika. It’s so strong on how women are, and I love the procession of unwanted objects – I recently saw an old print of the yokai of unwanted objects, and it recalled Kon’s fabulously creepy street party so strongly.

    I interviewed Kon for a British magazine when it came out, and he proved to be one of the cleverest and most interesting people I ever had the pleasure of interrogating.

  9. Helen,
    Oshii? Hosoda? Yuasa? Okay, these guys might not be “great” yet (or in Oshii’s case, not great anymore) but at least they’re doing interesting stuff.

    And yeah, Miyazaki seems to have lost the mojo. I’m heartened by positive reviews for The Borrower Arrietty; maybe Ghibli have finally found a worthy successor in Yonebayashi.

    I’m glad you mention women, a topic I can’t believe I totally left out here. Strong female characters (rare enough in film and TV in general, let alone anime) are a big part of what I love about Kon’s stuff.

    Is your Kon interview available out there on the wired somewhere? I’d love to know what he had to say.

  10. I don’t think my Kon interview is online anywhere, but maybe I’ll put it up there myself at some point.

    I love Oshii, but the fact that I love early Oshii more than recent Oshii (and come to that early Shirow more than recent Shirow) has a lot to do with the fact that I hate to see great creative talents becoming photocopies of their own legend. Hence the joy of the good reviews for Arrietty – I haven’t seen anything but clips yet, so I can’t judge, but it would be so good to have another great Ghibli movie.

    Hosoda gives us another Wrath of Khan quote, that revenge is a dish best served cold. Or maybe we should make that: living well is the best revenge. Summer Wars is a dazzling achievement and gives me great hope for his future works.

    Yuasa is brilliant, yet a lot of his work leaves me admiring but unmoved. Maybe I’ll grow into it. Takeshi Koike’s Redline is a very hopeful indicator of more great things to come. And Rintaro blew me away with Yona Yona Penguin – inventive, artistically dazzling, with a core of sweetness and simplicity and an iron-clad sense of character and plot that Ponyo could have used.

    There is always hope. Creative talent will find an outlet somehow. But there’s also always more junk than good stuff.

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