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May 21, 2007

Kon is On with Paprika

Japanese animator discusses dreams, nightmares and masterful new film

The dream-tripping Dr. Chiba, who moonlights as the title character in Satoshi Kon's Paprika (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

T he exact moment when is hard to say, but animation has clearly turned Japanese. Of course, to most people, bringing up Japanese animation immediately calls to mind anime and images of Speed Racer and Astro Boy, the seemingly low-rent style that gets checked now as nostalgia. But closer observers -- particularly Disney -- recognize that most Japanese animators are quickly taking over through personal style (Hayao Miyazaki's mixture of European landscapes with fantasy) and by grappling with themes from identity (Mamoru Oshii's adaptation of Ghost in the Shell and his "superlivemation" experiment, Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters) to mass-market monoliths like Pokémon or the various giant robots and girls in short skirts who fight evil.

And then there's the work of Satoshi Kon, whose mesmerizing, visually impressive work is emerging as an international fan favorite. Kon's latest, Paprika (opening Friday in New York), follows a therapist who moonlights as the spunky title character by using the DC-Mini, a device that allows the user to enter people's dreams. A prototype goes missing as the government debates its legality; then there's that pesky side effect where a person using the device can make anyone think he's still dreaming -- even if he's awake. It's up to Paprika to find out who stole the device and why dreams are invading the real world.

"The difficulty I faced in adapting this book into a film was not about the fact that it was very popular," said Kon, through a translator, during a press junket in April. Paprika is the second of Yasutaka Tsutsui's novels that Kon has adapted, the first being Perfect Blue. The dream imagery does come from the book, but as he did with Blue -- by adding in an entire plot element about the Internet and its effect on the heroine -- Kon merges his own ideas. "It was more about their structure of the story," he said. "At certain points we have to produce imagery that is interesting and progressive to the story."

Kon's style could be considered hyper-realistic, forgoing anime stereotypes in favor of characters that could just as easily be flesh and blood. His films often look toward different media, from the Web in Perfect Blue to the use of film and even the Japanese studio system in Millennium Actress. There are sly references to his previous work as well; at one point in Paprika, a movie theater screens all three of Kon's past films and a creepy parade sequence features Maromi, an ominous character from his Paranoia Agent series.

"For us, the parade is a symbol of a nightmare," Kon said. "Usually when nightmares are portrayed in a film and anime, it's very dark. For Paprika, we wanted it to be disgustingly decadent and grossly colorful -- and that was our idea." Among the dolls and frogs playing brass instruments, Kon notes the parade is "composed of a lot of things that people have thrown away as society progresses."

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"He is, I think, a very savvy director, as well as artistic," said Thomas Looser, an associate professor of East Asian Studies at New York University "He's well aware of some of the basic issues that a lot of different kind of anime are playing with, and he tends to bring a lot of [them] in." Temporality and digital representation are heavily explored throughout Paprika, which starts innocently enough as its pixieish title character throws herself from scooter to billboard backed by an infectious J-pop score that will keep viewers awake for days. "[Tachigui is] just not a mass-market movie," Looser said, comparing Kon to Oshii's boundary-pushing blend of animation and live-action. "On the other hand, Satoshi Kon produces movies that are enjoyable to watch, but complicated."

That said, Looser acknowledged Kon's interest in dealing with diverse issues that address more specific audiences. Paprika takes full advantage of dream imagery, with its alternating reality and dream world where characters morph into the Monkey King from the Journey to the West folk tale and a caricature of Akira Kurosawa explaining how to line up a shot. "Of course there are some things that won't translate because of cultural barriers," Kon said, quickly adding how such details can be inferred by audiences. (Looser concurred -- to a point: "I would bet you anything that the vast majority of Americans would never pick out Kurosawa.")

The only Japanese entry in the 2006 New York Film Festival, Paprika also achieves a fluidity that can't be pigeonholed into conventional realms of "anime" or "animation." Looser noted Kon's unusual (for Japanese animation, anyway) emphasis on Hollywood-style narrative; while Kon agreed, he claimed he focuses on visuals over plot. "My interest is left in the creation of images and how to use images -- how images can be employed in interesting ways to tell a story," he said.

Paprika's own success won't affect how far Kon will go in the future, though it may be his own imagination that keeps him from Miyazaki-like levels of fame. Yet while Miyazaki clearly likes to think of himself on par with Disney epics filled with sprawling landscapes and lush orchestration, Kon is pushing forward with his parade of adult topics, proving animation isn't just a medium to hawk products. It is a venue for social criticism, exploring otherwise unfilmable ideas and -- most importantly -- allowing dreams to become tangible, even if they are nightmares. "It's easy to get trapped into the rules of the real world and to try and keep it realistic," he said. "I think that's not very good. I wanted to be able to expand my own imagination."



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