The Dreams and Nightmares of 'Paprika'


By Anston Yu
Published on July 5th, 2021

Satoshi Kon's Paprika is another legendary anime film that puts the effects of dreams, aspirations, and repressed desires on the human psyche in a new light.

The movie starts out with our daring protagonist in possession of a piece of technology that allows them to enter anyone’s subconscious. They receive orders from some higher-up, mandating them to complete a mission by altering the subconscious of their target and manipulating them to suit their needs. The story progresses, with more and more buildup (with the aid of an artful soundtrack, if I may add), which climaxes in the main protagonist coming face to face with their worst nemesis. Not the target they were ordered to deal with, but their own suppressed desires, in the form of a person from their past that they cannot let go of. After a hair-raising epic, the protagonist gets their happy ending; all is well.

Sound familiar to you? Well, yes, this does sound an awful lot like Inception, the brainchild of Christopher Nolan that made waves in the cinema community, and is widely considered one of the best films of the past decade. Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, dreams, spinning tops, rotating corridors, the like. Dominic Cobb, the protagonist of the film, uses experimental technology to infiltrate the minds of his targets. He is convinced by Saito to target Robert Fischer, an industrial opponent of the former. And, to top it all off, he faces an adversary in the specter of his late wife in his memories.

Whether or not you’ve seen that, though, is irrelevant to this article. For this article addresses another film- one all too similar to what was mentioned, but different all the same.

The most startling difference between this film and Inception is likely its medium, or the media through which it is expressed. Instead of the realistic, 3D, cliched mannerisms we saw with Inception, this film chooses to express its message through pictures. To be more precise, through the animation of such pictures. That’s right, this is an anime film.

But not just any anime film- Satoshi Kon’s Paprika has constantly been cited as a masterpiece in its own right. Look no further than its release date- having been released 4 years earlier than Inception in 2006, it can be said that Inception gains a lot of its inspirations and ideas from Paprika, and not the other way round.

Of course, this is not meant to denounce Nolan’s work in any way, but to simply state the simple- that this “anime film” can be similarly artful to their traditionally accepted

3D counterparts.

With that in mind, then, what is Paprika about?

The premise is that of a piece of technology called the “DC Mini” which allows its users to enter the subconscious of other human beings (sounds familiar, I know- it’s something that we’ll come across again and again). Our protagonist, Doctor Atsuko Chiba, is one of the scientists in charge of development of this device, but calamity strikes when an unfinished version of it is stolen and used upon Chiba’s colleagues. The plot continues unfolding, which is where we are revealed to a nefarious plot concocted by the chairman of the company she works for, Doctor Seijiro Inui, who was firmly against research in the first place and vows to “protect all dreams”.

What about her nemesis, you ask? Something I left out earlier on is that Chiba has used the device to access other people’s subconscious, under her alter-ego of “Paprika” (hence the name of the film). The plot sounds simple enough, but the true beauty of the film lies not in its story but in its expression of the dreamscape of the subconscious, including how its inhabitants change. While Inception relies on budget-consuming practical models, and the spectacle derived from the special effects of the subconscious world, Paprika excels in exploring the desires of its characters and the appeal of the subconscious through its art.

First off, in terms of the appearance of the worlds the characters inhabit, exaggerated elements bring out the contrast between reality and the subconscious. The ‘normal’ world is dull and simple color tones unrelated to characters often fall on the darker side of the spectrum, whereas the scenes move slowly, even when something important is happening. The ‘subconscious’ world, though, is much more of a sight. Compared to the still order of the typical landscape, the subconscious world proves to be much more chaotic, with characters and elements straight out of picture books- postboxes with mouths, giant robots with human faces, a row of dancing cell-phone headed ladies, and multitudes of dolls dominate the screen when the world is being traversed, which sets the premise for the huge difference between the realms.

This difference is mirrored by Chiba herself. Her appearance during the day might be extraordinarily stereotypically “scientist”, but her image in her dreams is a free-spirited girl with fair hair and a bright shirt. She acts different too- her no-nonsense self is replaced by a carefree, banterful persona, capable of solving any and all problems. This polarization is cited to be a large source of pain for her, but good news! Her state of being separate from who she wishes to be is addressed in the story, and *spoiler alert*, there’s a happy ending.

Among the wacky imagery of Paprika’s world, the whimsical and fantastical concept of dreams clashes deeply with cold, hard reality. The end result of this, though, is the chance for Kon and Co. to be able to showcase their ability to animate just about anything- the difference between the two worlds is so large that really anything and everything fits in between. And it’s damn good animation- comparable to that of Studio Ghibli’s finest works.

Let’s be real. Our dreams are our only solace from the nightmare we call reality (unless if you are prone to nightmares / insomnia, in which case i hope you get help!!), and Kon pays tribute to this idea by making Paprika a piece of art. If you ever find yourself in need of such solace when life gets too hard, why not kick back, relax, and watch this spicy movie?

Subscribe to our newsletter

View our latest posts

Subscribe to our newsletter