Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Paprika, the latest Japanese anime from director Satoshi Kon (Tokyo Godfathers), recycles so many tenets of the genre that its cautionary message and occasionally disturbing images mostly feel tired rather than startling.

The form's loyal fans may enjoy the familiarity of the visuals and storyline, but the film seems too ordinary for almost anyone else. An official selection of both the 2006 Venice and the New York Film Festivals, “Paprika” will be released in a platform mode by Sony Pictures Classics May 25.

Dr. Atsuko Chiba (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara) is a research psychotherapist involved with a cutting-edge technology called the DC-MINI, a device worn around the head while sleeping that broadcasts the users dreams onto a TV monitor. Atsuko hopes the DC-MINI will allow her to better analyze patients unconscious desires and psychological problems, but when one of the prototypes is stolen from her lab, a frantic search begins to uncover the thiefs identity. In the wrong hands, the DC-MINI could be used as a dangerous weapon, erasing the user's identity and personality.

Soon, Atsuko's lab assistants start behaving erratically, and she determines that whoever has stolen the DC-MINI can remotely manipulate other peoples mental stability, driving them into madness.

To help track down the burglar, Atsukos boss contacts Toshimi Konakawa (voiced by Akio Ohtsuka), a police detective who has personal experience with the DC-MINI; hes been using it as part of his therapy to handle job stress. However, when the detective signs on to find the DC-MINI, he soon discovers an unexpected complication: The therapist, a gorgeous virtual-reality woman he loves, named Paprika, is actually Atsukos alter ego.

Based on a novel by respected science-fiction writer Yasutaka Tsutsui, Paprika feels derivative, rehashing anime conventions without much ingenuity. As is typical in the genre, manmade technology is created in an attempt to improve the lives of human beings, but innovation only brings destruction and terror to those who dare to tamper with nature. Also, the sharp line between reality and fantasy gets blurred, producing a surreal dream-state that often defies narrative logic in favor of stylish animation.

The characters battle with the forces of evil has apocalyptic stakes. In Paprika, as in so many other anime projects, the very fate of the planet hangs in the balance. (Now that the villains in James Bond movies have ceased desiring world domination, this megalomaniacal quest belongs strictly to the bad guys in anime films.)

The animation–supervised by production group Madhouse, which has among its credits the exceptional 2001 anime Metropolis–is impressive, but the films noir-toned look no longer seems as striking simply because its been repeated in so many animated vehicles. As Paprikas narrative moves from the real world into the dream worlds of its characters, the visual flights of fancy start to lose their spark as a result of the uninvolving story.

While its a weakness of the Madhouse style that human characters expressiveness is either overblown or impassively stoic, director Satoshi Kon doesnt help matters by making his heroine a dull automaton. Kons female-driven actioner flies in the face of the usually male-centric anime storylines, but Atsuko doesnt register strongly, making the novelty negligible.

Moreover, the examination of the Atsuko/Paprika doppelganger lacks psychological impact, all the more ironic since Atsuko has devoted her life to psychotherapy. Instead, Kon and his animators fixate on the characters physical beauty, reducing her to little more than a pretty face for the teenage-boy audience to ogle.

Not surprisingly, Paprika feels most confident with the story of the male character. Although less time is invested in it, Toshimis attempts to decipher his recurring nightmares involving the number 17, dead bodies, and B-movies provides the films only emotional connection. The investigation into the missing DC-MINI is neither compelling nor easy to follow, flopping between reality and fantasy with increasing volatility. While Toshimis urgent struggle to unlock painful childhood memories makes the film more concrete, the eventual revelation of his repressed past is relatively minor.

That said, before the overblown finale, Kon comes up with a memorable sequence involving Atsuko/Paprika and the films ultimate villains that speaks to the nature of identity and the terror of losing the very fabric of oneself. Its chilling, and for a moment Paprikas leaps of narrative logic feel justified, touching on universal themes of self-knowledge in a hallucinatory way. But then the film again settles into trite conventionality and the extraordinary moment passes.

Paprika aims to be a dazzling journey into our dream world, but the results are largely sleep-inducing.


MPAA Eating: R
Running time: 90 minutes

Director: Satoshi Kon
Production companies: Paprika Film Partners, Madhouse/Sony Pictures Entertainment
US distribution: Sony Pictures Classics
Executive producers: Jungo Maruta, Masao Takiyama
Co-producer: Satoki Toyota
Screenplay: Seishi Minakami, Satoshi Kon
(based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui)
Cinematography: Michiya Kato
Editor: Takeshi Seyama
Music: Susumu Hiasawa


Atsuko Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara)
Seijiro Inui (Toru Emori)
Torataro Shima (Katsunosuke Hori)
Kosaku Tokita (Toru Furuya)
Toshimi Konakawa (Akio Ohtsuka)