Kon's head-tripping anime universe, which also includes Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue, is about as obsessive and personal as cinema gets. Still, playfully giving us what we want (murder, mayhem, a little sex), it toys with the notion that we in the audience deserve to share screen credit. Paprika, wherein a high-tech "dream machine" allows the titular shrink to enter and analyze the subconscious states of various neurotics, is a warped hall of mirrors that leads by twists and turns to a mass urban nightmare à la Godzilla. Dreams and "reality" -- as if even Kon's near-photographic drawing style could ever be mistaken for vérité -- become indistinguishable. The movie comes on like a mix between a vintage surrealist short and a state-of-the-art blockbuster -- the two modes corresponding, Paprika says, to the early and late cycles of REM sleep.
Don't get it? Join the club. Paprika, based on a serialized novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, isn't a movie that's meant to be understood so much as simply experienced -- or maybe dreamed. Here's what I know for sure (and plot-wise, it isn't much): Paprika, aka Dr. Atsuko Chiba, learns that her laboratory's dream machine, the DC-Mini, has gone missing, along with the inventor's untrustworthy research assistant. Lab chairman Seijiroh Inui, looking like a cross between David Carradine and Max von Sydow, says the theft proves further that the DC-Mini shouldn't have been created. Undeterred, vivacious redhead Paprika goes looking for the errant device, digitally jacking into her colleagues' dreams and discovering clues that include menacing geisha dolls and the recurring nightmare of a guilt-ridden police detective -- who happens to hate movies. Our therapist adventurer -- who loves movies, of course -- alternately appears as Tinkerbell and the Little Mermaid (don't tell Disney) before being pinned like a butterfly by one of the human villains, another of whom transforms into a skyscraper-dwarfing monster known as the Lord of Darkness.
Kon's company isn't called Madhouse Studio for nothing. Crazy from its first image of a spotlit circus clown straining to squeeze himself out of a miniature car, Paprika, like the best work of Kon's compatriots Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) and Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), is a movie in which, minute to minute, basically anything can happen; the narrative is almost completely unbound. But Kon wouldn't be his genre's supreme self-reflexivist if he didn't insist on revealing frames within the frame -- which here include not just characters' dreams, but movie and laptop screens, plus a Planet Hollywood-esque elevator that stops on floors devoted to Tarzan and James Bond. Kon's critique of capitalist entertainment, with its consciousness-colonizing force, is evident in his characters' fantasies, which, though surreal, take rather depressingly conventional forms -- a circus, an amusement park, a confetti-strewn parade that features walking kitchen appliances. Not even our dreams are free of product placement.
Paprika seems to know that, like popular movies, the DC-Mini has the power not only to liberate minds, but to corrupt them. Indeed, the villains superimpose a new reality upon the planet, its details drawn from our collective unconscious -- and it seems the best our polluted psyches can come up with is basically a bad Godzilla sequel. No wonder the film's chief detective is cinephobic! And yet Kon, whose films have found him merging with masters such as Hitchcock and Ozu, Kurosawa and Ford, never succumbs to cynicism. On the contrary, he maintains a charming faith in cinema's ability to seduce fearless new audiences, even one viewer at a time, as his own cult masterpieces have done. Buy a ticket to the right picture and become reborn. Could Kon's fanciful cure for the blockbuster blues have come along at a better time?