It's the last movie of esteemed anime director Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers
, Paranoia Agent
) before he died of pancreatic cancer in 2010 at the age of 46. Unfortunately neither I nor Tomoko liked it.
The thing that surprised me was that it's based on a 1993 novel of the same name. You'd expect something based on a novel to have a stronger plot, but a little reflection showed me that Kon's film has a more coherent storyline than I'd realised at the time. There's a dream machine that's been stolen by someone who might be a terrorist. People get killed. Good guys fight bad guys. There's even a detective story and a whodunnit factor. In that case, the real question is "why does it come across as plotless nonsense?"
It blends reality and dream worlds, which is Kon's favourite theme. Of all those titles I named in the first paragraph, only Tokyo Godfathers
doesn't have rubber reality, while furthermore his next film had been going to be Dreaming Machine. (Madhouse is trying to complete it in his memory, but they're having funding difficulties.) The plot involves a recent invention called the "DC Mini", which is supposed to let dream therapists enter your dreams for the purposes of psychotherapy. Unfortunately its (very fat) inventor hasn't yet built in any security systems, which means that dreams could be hacked. Three prototypes then get stolen.
At this point, we have several promising plot avenues. These are:
(a) Terrorists with dream access! Alas, no. That's just a colourful hypothesis at one early stage and this film has no terrorists.
(b) Detective Konakawa's dream about an unsolved murder case. This sounds promising. How will it tie into the rest of the plot? Answer: it doesn't. It's got nothing to do with anything else and it's explained by him remembering something from his teenage years.
(c) Rubber reality. This can be fun, especially during the opening credits, but it gets repetitive (e.g. the dancing parade of household objects) and for me, personally, rubber reality tends to make me stop caring about a storyline. If anything can happen and what I'm looking at might not be real, this undercuts my involvement in the story. "He woke up and he was all a dream." Fortunately Paprika isn't that bad because it's a blurred-boundaries version of The Matrix rather than Alice in Wonderland, but it's still not my favourite thing in the world.
(d) A lead character, Dr Chiba, who has a fantasy alter ego in the dream work, who has red hair and is called Paprika.
(e) The bad guys and their plans. This actually works.
Where the film fails, I think, is with its characters. Theoretically the plot's driven by love. Most of the characters are in love with someone else and the film's biggest turning points centre on a confession of long-hidden feelings. However this doesn't come across in the film itself. I only realised it just now, analysing the movie's plot for this review. The film feels as if it's underpinned by Kon's fascination with rubber reality, not its character work. Dr Chiba is boring. Dr Tokita is surprisingly colourless for someone who, on paper, should have been wildly eccentric. (He's so morbidly obese and passive that we almost stop seeing him as a person.) Paprika is a dream creation. The most lively and engaging character is Dr Shima, but he's also relatively unimportant and not in love with anyone. Villains become more interesting when we discover that they're villains, but it would have been better if they'd been interesting beforehand too.
You can have a modest amount of fun playing spot-the-references. There's Saiyuki (English title: Monkey) when Paprika's flying on a cloud with a headband and staff. Individual shots reminded me of Hayao Miyazaki, Blade Runner, The Little Mermaid or Ghostbusters, although some or all of those will have been me seeing things that aren't there. A character does an impression of Akira Kurosawa when he's being interviewed about movie-making. Also, at the end, the most prominent posters in those cinemas are of Kon's other three movies.
There's also an undercurrent of childhood/teenagers vs. being an adult. The main villain's dead and dessicated inside, whereas against that several other characters are either man-children (Tokita), haunted by events from long ago (Konakawa) or have a name that's pronounced the same as the Japanese word for "childish" (Osanai). Kon's not pushing that, but it's there.
It's boring. It's beautifully animated by Madhouse and it got a five-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, but it's boring. Tomoko wanted to bail after the first half-hour. It also didn't help that she's never liked Megumi Hayashibara, although I'm not sure why. (If I avoided all anime which had Hayashibara as a voice actress, I'd have hardly watched anything at all.) It desperately needed underpinning from stronger character work, which it doesn't get. The finale in particular only makes sense as the culmination of character development that the film's underplayed almost to non-existence.
I'd probably like it better on a rewatch. I think a lot of what the film's missing is, technically, already there. This is clearly a beautiful, elegant work of art... but on first viewing, it's a snoozer.