One way to think of movies is as this century-long hallucination we've all been having. They've invaded our waking lives, filling us with hopes and fears, but they've also invaded our dream lives, even our collective dream life, the pool of images and ideas we draw from to make sense out of the world. Now, add to that perspective Philip K. Dick's notion of reality as a consensual hallucination and you'll start to get a handle on Paprika, Satoshi Kon's sci-fi meta-thriller, which not only invades our dreams but is about invading our dreams. A head- scratcher in the best sense, Paprika uses the anime medium to blur the boundaries between real and imagined, awake and asleep, online and off, on-screen and off, mind and matter. I often couldn't tell which metaphysical plane we were passing through, which left me both giddy and anxious.
The movie opens with a little toy car driving into a spotlight. Out squeezes a clown, followed by an entire circus parade of animate and (what we used to think of as) inanimate objects: dolls, frogs, kitties, refrigerators, fire hydrants, you name it. But if you look closely, you see that each parade participant has a more specific cultural reference - not just a kitty, but Hello Kitty. And maybe the parade consists of all the flotsam and jetsam we've left behind in our desire to entertain ourselves during the age of mechanical reproduction. It's all come back to haunt us, like being stuck in the House on the Rock overnight. "Anime should not be just another means of escape," Kon told The New York Times, and Paprika takes that idea very seriously. Once you've fallen into its dream world, its rabbit holes within rabbit holes, there's no means of escape.
But there is a spiritual guide through its labyrinthine plot: Paprika, the alter ego/avatar of a lab researcher who's helped develop a device that allows one to enter somebody else's dream, even rearrange the furniture. Dr. Chiba is one of those seriously beautiful, beautifully serious female scientists that sci-fi creators are so fond of, but Paprika is an impish sprite who's part Lara Croft and part Tinkerbell. When she shows up in Dream Land, ready to take on all comers, watch out. And wouldn't you know it, duty soon calls: Someone has gotten hold of three DC Minis, which were supposed to be used for therapeutic purposes, and is wreaking havoc with them. People's dreams are being invaded, merged, colonized by "terrorists" bent on what, we're not sure. But if this keeps up, the world will go quietly insane.
And so may you if you try to follow Paprika down every single rabbit hole, dropping breadcrumbs behind you. You'll probably be a lot better off if you can just let go of the controls and enjoy the ride, repeating to yourself over and over again, "It's only a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie." Speaking of which, Kon introduces a character named Konakawa, a police detective who's after the thieves who stole the DC Minis but who's also a movie nut. He used to love them, but now he can't even watch one, so haunted is he by a homicide he was never able to get to the bottom of. As the name implies, Konakawa may represent Kon himself, a movie nut haunted by his own lost innocence, life before he went to work for the Dream Factory. "Don't cross the imaginary line," Konakawa says at one point, explaining a camera-angle no-no but also issuing a more general warning.
Too late. And surely Kon must know that or he wouldn't still be in the movie business. But what's interesting about Paprika is that he's not just out to show us a good time, he's also out to show us a bad time. That circus parade, which is like the "Be Our Guest" number from Beauty and the Beast, only with all the fun removed, may be as close as you can get to an audiovisual representation of psychosis, the doors of perception flapping like a hummingbird's wings. I found the movie's dialogue beyond clunky. ("The anaphylaxis of the DC Mini is expanding exponentially.") And I wished it had been dubbed, so I could concentrate more on the imagery. But nobody's going to Paprika for the dialogue. They're going for the head-trip, the slightly disturbing sense that, if you follow your dreams these days, they may wind up following you.