Saturday, June 02, 2007


I opted to pass on the Brattle Anime Marathon today; I felt a little out of place at the last one, in part because anime is not my strongest area of geek expertise - just because I gave my niece a Totoro stuffed toy for Christmas and got a reaction of "I'm sure Dagny will love her Japanese... bunny... thing" doesn't mean that I am not incredibly ignorant when compared to those who do eat, drink, and sleep this stuff (I strongly suspect that the trivia question about Survive Style 5+ was throwing me a bone). I like anime in large part because it's a great source for imaginative science fiction; while that's not the only anime I like, the form itself doesn't have much more special appeal to me than Japanese pop culture or animation in general.

Besides, I had a strong feeling that I wasn't going to make it to the end awake, and I also wanted to catch two Red Sox games and the two Zhang Yimou films that the Brattle would be showing after the anime folks clear out tomorrow. There's only so much weekend to do that and get the grocery shopping done and actually get rested up for another work week. So I made up for it, a little, by catching Paprika at Kendall Square. Yeah, it's the Chlotrudis Monday night movie, but... Zhang Yimou again. I'm sadly lacking in seeing Zhang films that don't involve punching and kicking and hacking at each other with swords, and mean to correct that while the Brattle is showing them.

In short: Pretty darn great, enough that I can forgive certain plot holes a truck could be driven through (and I'm not generally forgiving that way). In long...


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 June 2007 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run)

That star rating generally indicates that Paprika is a nearly perfect film, which I'll admit isn't the case. Here's the thing, though - there is just so much good stuff crammed into it that I'm willing to overlook that. It's a dense, beautiful piece of work that I love despite its faults.

It initially looks like an ordinary murder mystery, albeit one with a sci-fi twist, as Detective Toshimi Konakawa's dreams lead him to a confrontation with the unknown target of his investigation. The twist is that he's being shadowed by "Paprika", a young woman who is able to enter his dreams with the "DC Mini" headset. But it turns out there's another mystery: The developers of the DC Mini have discovered that some of their prototypes - unapproved as yet - have been stolen. Attractive-but-severe Atsuko Chiba, overweight, immature genius Kosaku Tokia, handsome Morio Osanai, and diminutive lab chief Torataro Shima follow a trail that leads them to Tokia's assistant Himuro, but the technology has become increasingly dangerous, as now the dreams and even waking moments of anyone who has used it (which includes the entire research team) can be invaded, and one dream in particular is driving them mad. The wheelchair-bound chairman of the lab, Seijiro Inui, is calling the DC Mini and science in general an affront to nature and is shutting the program down.

A lot happens in this movie. Claiming that a film feels longer than its running time is often an indication that it drags, but here it's a testament to adapter/director Satoshi Kon's efficiency and good pacing: Despite bringing the film in at a tight ninety minutes, he has plenty of time for the mystery to take several twists and turns and for a side plot like the origins of Konakawa's cinema-influenced nightmares to play out. He's also a master of this animated medium, and as such frequently allows his visuals to carry the movie. Time is never wasted describing with words what the audience can clearly see.

And what the audience can see is glorious. The images are stunning, full of innocent images made dangerous and dangerous situations shot through with whimsy. Kon fills his disturbed dream worlds with intricate parades and detailed crowds that fill the entire screen, but seldom falls prey to self-indulgence. Rather than linger too long on these painstakingly realized sights, he quickly has Paprika or the other characters doing something that advances the story rather than just gawking along with the audience. The style is mostly hand-drawn, although there are digital techniques used at appropriate times: A virtual-reality bar is appropriately slick and shiny, tracking shots don't contrast too much with the rest of the movie's look. The character design (credited to Masashi Ando) is very nice, and flexible to boot: Paprika undergoes an impressive number of transformations, and a younger Konakawa is instantly recognizable. Normally-proportioned characters like Paprika, Chiba, and Konakawa exist seamlessly next to the half-sized Shima and gargantuan Tokia. Maybe Tokia belongs to the former category, though; as much as Kon tends to show him as being to big for elevators or chairs, he's one of the most realistically drawn overweight animated characters I can remember seeing; his weight seems to hang properly, rather than being perfectly rounded.

The voice acting is, as far as I can tell not speaking Japanese, very good. Even serious, adult-oriented animated films from Japan can sometimes lean heavily on very enthusiastic line readings, that's extremely rare here. Only Akio Otsuka really gets to indulge in that, and it's not screaming; Konakawa's film-inspired dreams lend themselves to a slightly stylized delivery by the end, which got knowing and appreciative laughs from the audience. The most impressive job requires a slight spoiler warning - it's something revealed early on in the film, but also something I appreciated not knowing beforehand, so jump to the next paragraph if you want to stay safe. Megumi Hayashibara is excellent in what turns out to be a dual role of both Dr. Chiba and Paprika; she's got a strong, assertive delivery as Chiba but doesn't sound less intelligent when she raises her voice a register to give Paprika a younger, more playful sound. If I can get back to character design for a second, Kon and Ando give these characters very distinct looks, but transition scenes seem very natural. All those factors make Paprika an impressive film, but far from a perfect one. The grandiose climax is in some ways more aggravating than awe-inspiring; I'm not quite sure whether it took place in reality or a dream world, and saying that it doesn't really matter is hard on my hard-science-fiction-loving soul. It's also kind of unnecessary; the resolution to Konakawa's story shows we don't need something apocalyptic to feel excited and, besides, aren't we all a little desensitized to seeing Tokyo get leveled by now? The villain has at least two different and mutually exclusive motivations given at various points. And though Kon supposedly cut a lot of technobabble from Yasutaka Tustsui's original novel, there's a lot left in, and I know just enough science for to think they should have stopped while they were ahead.

That said, the technobabble does get beautifully skewered in one scene where the characters (and audience) are alarmed by the transition from pseudo-scientific nonsense to flat-out aphasia. And even if the film doesn't seem to outright dismiss the emotion, it never forces a scientist or engineer to say "we were wrong to attempt to learn new things and develop new therapeutic technologies; doing that is just a dangerous act of hubris, since there are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know." Not making the science fiction fans in the audience gag on that in order to make it an easy fable is worth half a star by itself.

Nearly perfect? No. But I love Paprika dearly; I can't think of another movie to come out in the U.S. (so far) this year that I enjoy more.

(Originally at EFC)

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