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Paprika too spicy for some tastes

By Philip Martin

This article was published August 10, 2007 at 2:19 a.m.

— Gleefully incoherent, creepy and disturbingly sexy, Paprika is the latest anime mind buzz from Japan, a hot ticket among the otaku - a word for rabid fandom that is taken as an insult in Japan but embraced by American appreciators. The rest of us may find the movie worth seeing if only for its hallucinogenic imagery and free-associative dream logic.

While I found it impressive, I couldn't help but feel culturally disadvantaged by some of the visual puns and what I take to be meaningful symbolism. Watching anime is like hearing a foreign language in which you are fluent but not native: However much you believe you understand, you can never be sure you totally get it. This puts critics on the defensive - I can claim to love the films of Hayao Miyazaki but I'm not sure I receive them they the way the director intends. At least part of what I like about Paprika is the pure novelty of it - and asense of liberation that comes from watching the product of a culture in which I have no participation. Anime borrows a lot of characters and conceits from American pop culture, but it uses them in unexpected ways.

Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers) works Western archetypes into Paprika, which takes place largely in the dream worlds of various characters. As he did in Perfect Blue, Kon blurs the line between dreamsand reality. While it's possible to follow the track of the narrative through the riotous wilderness of dolls' heads and drumming frogs, it's probably more profitable to lie back and let the colors wash over you. Paprika is a movie you can soak in, an articulated dream that raises questions, not the least of which has to do with the manufactured dreams we call cinema.

We can dispense with the plot by saying it has something to do with theft of experimental psychotherapy equipment, three prototypes of a device called the DC Mini, from a team working on using new technology to help psychiatric patients. The DC Mini allows therapists access to their patients' dreams - they play like movies on computer screens.

The project's lead researcher, a severe young woman named Dr. Atsuko Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara), has been making unauthorized use of the device to help police detective Konakawa (Akio Otsuka) search his recurring dreams for clues that might help him solve a murder he's investigating. (Chibahas a spritelike alter ego called Paprika who is able to enter Konakawa's dream world - as he imagines himself the star of several Hollywood movies, she's right there by his side.)

Soon it's apparent that the stolen DC Minis are being used to breach the borders between dreams and reality as nightmares begin to bleed into the streets.

That's pretty much all the plot description I've got the nerve for - the story wends and loops and becomes less and less germane as Kon fills his frames with singing inanimate objects and flesh-crawling images worthy of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. Though the animation styles are worlds apart, the film seems a cousin to Richard Linklater's rotoscoped films A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life.

Dense and imaginative, Paprika is a cartoon for adults, although maybe not for grownups. If you are of the tribe that Hitchcock called "the Plausibles," if you feel let down by movies that turn on fantastic or improbable eventualities, then you'll likely be frustrated by the movie's fluid physics. Paprika is not a film for children either, but it requires of its viewers a certain credulity, a willingness not just to suspend disbelief but to be transported - dislocated - to a place where everything is provisional, malleable and utterly alien.

Paprika is a trip, and whether it's for you depends on how much you like to travel.

MovieStyle, Pages 44 on 08/10/2007

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