The plot is a molasses coat hook, a cobweb parachute, a steam shovel made of butterflies. The story won't hold up in Satoshi Kon's Paprika--nor should it, this being an animated psychoanalytic sci-fi thriller--and so you hold on to what you can, which above all is your first impression of the title character. She comes before you as a Tokyo girl with bobbed hair the color of spice, a flirt who plants lipstick kisses on her business cards, a motorbike rider and night-cafe talker with a wardrobe that can change in the blink of an eye. She crosses rooftops by flashing from one neon sign to the next, as if every famous face were hers. But back on the ground, if anyone pays her more attention than she wants, she escapes by simply fading from sight.
Paprika is the young woman of everyone's dreams; or rather, to take the movie's plot as literally as it allows, she is a psychiatrist who somehow can enter people's dreams at will. It's a lot more fun than sitting in a chair and listening to patients drone, though also considerably more dangerous. By the end of the movie, nothing less than the whole waking world will be at risk; but whatever impossible complications this wonder-doctor may encounter during her very intimate, boundary-dissolving interventions, those first, high-flying images of her will carry you along. Paprika stays in your mind as pure freedom and pure exhilaration.
That can't be said of the straitened character for whom she serves as the inner self. The Paprika whom people meet in their dreams is a projection--maybe even a wish fulfillment--of the unsmiling Dr. Atsuko Chiba, a pale and angular woman who invariably wears a suit and keeps her hair pinned up. Unlike her magical alter ego, Dr. Chiba doesn't romp through the night sky. She deals with the day's business as experienced in a corporate tower: troublesome colleagues, a blood-chilling boss, political interference with her research.
But even though cold, controlled Dr. Chiba dwells in the world of the reality principle, she nevertheless faces problems that go beyond the mundane. A device for mind infiltration has vanished from her lab, having been stolen, perhaps, by a dream-terrorist; and as if that's not bad enough, her institute's chief of research has suddenly gone insane. You will not be surprised to learn that these two events are related. After the chief lifts his arm in an imperial salute and marches about stiff-legged while spouting nonsense--like a Dadaist in the Café Voltaire, you'd think, bent on world domination--he falls into a sleep from which he cannot be awakened. With her computer, Dr. Chiba taps into his mind and sees that he's dreaming of a parade, with confetti (though nobody's around to throw it) and music (performed by a band of marching frogs) and a float on which the chief sits enthroned, surrounded and cushioned by thousands of dolls.
Is this the chief's own dream? Or is somebody sinister dreaming it for him?
The answer, of course, is number two; and you won't need to steal an experimental psycho-gizmo to figure out who's the culprit. Despite Paprika's continual melting of one narrative into another--despite its hypnotic swirl of stories within stories--Kon preserves the predictable outlines of each of his genres, including the one that explains whodunit. If you are the sort of moviegoer who insists on being surprised by a plot, then you may be disappointed that you can identify Paprika's mastermind by sure and familiar signs. But surprises abound everywhere in this movie, not just on the level of "Who made that happen?" I'm not sure I know why anything happens in this picture; but I'm confident that as you tick off the conventions, Kon will keep startling you with their new and mysterious possibilities.
In fact, Hollywood clichés turn out to be integral to one of the two main categories of dream that Kon proposes in Paprika--the good category. Throughout the film, Dr. Chiba/Paprika is engaged in treating one Detective Konakawa, a square-jawed, mustached he-man straight out of a thousand hard-boiled police procedurals. The curious thing about Konakawa is that his dreams are a collage of American-style films: a circus picture, a Tarzan adventure, a spy thriller, a police procedural (of course). Konakawa keeps insisting to Dr. Chiba/Paprika that he doesn't like movies and never watches them; but an expert psychoanalyst recognizes denial when she hears it. The cure for Konakawa's crippling anxiety must lie in the kind of collective dreaming practiced in movie houses.
This kind of dreaming is shared, but it's also democratic and voluntary and unfolds over time. (First you watch a circus picture, then you watch a Tarzan adventure.) The other kind of dreaming in Paprika, the parade dream in which the chief is trapped, is also shared, but in the wrong way. It's dictatorial, coerced and locked into space. Instead of scenes succeeding one another, objects pile up in one place into a mad, random accumulation. The trappings are celebratory--like so many parades, this one pretends to be marching toward triumph--and yet there's a horrific mirthlessness to it. So much of the jumble consists of toys, as if your joining this procession (or being joined to it) were a matter of infantile regression.
But in Konakawa's movie dreams, there's always a tinge of adult regret, and the whiff of grown-up sexual desire.
If all of this sound complicated, I can tell you that Kon's source material, a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, is said to be even more convoluted. You can, if you like, simplify still further by watching Paprika just for the pictures, secure in the knowledge that you're getting the best damned delirium your moviegoing dollar can buy. (True to his love of genre, Kon bases his drawings on a classic style of comic-book graphics--then compacts and intensifies, as if pressing ten frames into one.) If you're feeling ambitious, though, and want to interpret and not just dream, you can watch Paprika as a cartoon feminist Civilization and Its Discontents, and Kon will reward that reading, too.
How might the movie be watched by its own resident psychiatrist? I suppose that depends on whether you ask the outer Dr. Chiba or the inner Paprika. They sometimes disagree--but that's another swirl in the story.