Let’s get one thing straight, Inception didn’t rip off, pay homage to or draw from Paprika. Yes, they share the same high-concept of people interacting with each other in collective dreams, but there are two distinctly different and diametric approaches and understandings of how dream spaces work that make them two unique films. That being said, there are enough similarities to make the two serve as interesting companion pieces.
When the dream machine of a group of scientists is stolen, they find their device intended for psychotherapy has now been turned into a weapon that begins flooding the minds of those connected to the network to a particularly absurd and freaky dream by one of the patience they treated of a parade of bizarre creatures and objects. Chiba Atsuko (Megumi Hayashibara) attempts to hunt down the mind terrorist while her dream persona while her dream ego Paprika becomes involved in the life of Detective Kogawa Toshimi (Akio Ohtsuka).
From the onset, Paprika uses dream space as a way to throw space, logic and science to the wind. Static images turn into objects that can be accessed in dream spaces, or windows that allow one to traverse through dream space quickly. And the parade becomes a form of surreal horror, filled with all manner of the absurd and fantastical. It’s a film with little creative constraint.
And I simultaneously admire and admonish the film for that. The results lead to all number of visually enticing sequences that demonstrate the psychological power film has at twisting our mind’s ability to make associations and connections, but it also leads to an anything goes attitude. In contrast to Inception where there’s a set of rules that correlate to dream space, Paprika lacks the structure of rules that allow there to be constraints which lead to compelling narrative conflicts.
It’s hard to have stakes when Paprika seems to be able to conjure up any number of solutions to a particular problem. If she can get just about any place through a few jumps through televisions and billboards and take an image of any item and turn it into something she can use, there’s no compelling limitations and control that allow the film to build meaningful structures of power which result in conflict.
The film tries to address this problem with Chiba being much feebler and out of control of the world in real life, and her detective work in trying to discover who stole the device is the most compelling part of the film, but by the end of the film she’s swept away as the character who must make the emotional growth while her dream ego Paprika gets to be conduit through which the film resolves the narrative conflict.
A more interesting exploration of dream space is Kongawa’s story. He’s a patient being treated by Paparika through his dreams and these dreams are a compelling exploration of the similarities between film and dreams. Roman Holiday, Tarzan and other films slip into Kongawa’s story as he tries to deal with his own personal inadequacies and deepest fears that manifest themselves in his dream space.
In segments like this, Paparika is a fascinating exploration of dream space as both filmic and psychological. In this regard, it shares thematic similarities to Inception. But the film’s broader story and more cinematic spectacles demonstrate a lack of restraint that is simultaneously compelling and frustrating. As I’ve become disillusioned with Inception’s stifling control and constraint, Paprika is reminds me that the other extreme leads to bloated creativity, which, in turn, leads a film to implode in upon itself.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing