Io9 is reporting that anime director Satoshi Kon has passed away, at the age of 47. Details about the cause of death have not been released. Kon first earned attention in the west for directing the anime psycho-thriller PERFECT BLUE. His other credits include the charming TOKYO GODFATHERS, PARANOIA AGENT, and PAPRIKIA (which Io9 cites as an inspiration for INCEPTION). Kon was in pre-production on a new film, to be titled THE DREAMING MACHINE.
‘It is man’s responsibility to control science and technology”–The Chairman
“The dense forest turns into a shopping district. The 24-bit eggplant will be analyzed!”–Victim of the DC-Mini
It is hard not to be decked by this film. The first few minutes blast past with such mind-bending, visual élan that it could almost, in itself, stand as an elliptical and enervating short subject. PAPRIKA, the latest anime film from Satoshi Kon (PERFECT BLUE, TOKYO GODFATHERS), loosely based on the serial-novel by famed Japanese sci-fi writer Yasutaka Tsutsui, is pure visual ambrosia. While the movie is sure to leave you scratching your head even as you careen from one 2-D, 3-D, CGI animated set-piece to the next, there’s no doubt the movie is one benevolent bully dressed to the cinematic nines. Whether anime/fantastic cinema buffs accept it as a psyberpunkish cautionary tale regarding the conflict of unfettered aspirations vs. soulless technology, or as a definitive statement on the endless possibilities of dreams and cinema, will depend on the viewer’s ability to deal with the overpowering “spice” of the end product’s neuron-battering bravura (this is very much a “head movie”).
The breathless prologue, set to composer Susumu Hirasawa’s bouncy, irresistible score, hurls us into the dreams of noirish haunted detective Captain Konakawa (Akio Ohtsuka), the dream imagery shifting breathlessly from a sinister circus (with a nod to BEING JOHN MALKOVICH) to TARZAN serials, to a spy sequence, to a romantic scene from the 1953 ROMAN HOLIDAY, before ending in a surreal, nightmarish chase. Konakawa is, in fact, having his anxiety neuroses treated by a peppy, fearless gamine named Paprika (Megumi Hayshibara), a “dream detective” aided by an (as-yet unapproved) piece of psychotherapy tech, The DC Mini.
The plot proper (which bears some similarities to Wim wenders’ 1991 UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD, Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER, and the WILD PALMS mini-series) reveals that “Paprika” is the dream-avatar of the alluring but icy Dr. Atsuko Chiba (Hayshibara again), who works at the Foundation for Psychiatric Research. She and the rest of the DC-Mini team, including the grossly obese childlike creator of the device, Dr. Tomika (Toru Furuya), and Chief Shima (Katsunosuke Hori), are appalled to learn that two of the headsets have been stolen: even worse, security codes have not been programmed in. The device, created as a therapeutic aid by which physicians could treat patients through their subconscious dreams, can now be used as a weapon to control the dreams of others from afar (“Implanting dreams into other people’s heads is terrorism!” Tomika indignantly declares). Compounding their search for the offender is the knowledge that a colleague may be responsible for the theft. It’s not long before their co-workers, victimized by the “dream terrorist,” begin to lose their marbles.
As Atsuko/Paprika, Tomika, and Chief Shima, plunge in and out of each other’ s dreams attempting to discover the identity of the terrorist responsible for the dangerous collective dream threatening to subsume humanity , Konakawa discovers that his own dreams (chasing an elusive fugitive he never caught) might have tangential impact on the case. To complicate things further, Chairman
Inui (Toru Emori), who has been resistant to the development of the DC Mini (he is mouthing pithy platitudes like “there is always conceit and negligence behind misconduct”) is eager to pull the plug on the project.
The mind-boggling imagistic feast on display, epitomized by Kon’s surreal dream parade of Shinto statues, flute-playing frogs, appliances, giant geisha dolls, umbrellas and all manner of machines and bric-a-brac is a gorgeous, iconic image: it succeeds, helped by Hirasawa’s aural vortex, in balancing the right combination of sheer awe and terror. On one level, the image stands as a pure expression of the collective unconscious, yet, with its blend of the atavistic and contemporary, is it also a sly criticism of Japan’s fractious identity? A case could be made that it is just that: Kon, in one of his previous features (MILLENIUM ACTRESS) underscored this point by having his characters dive in and out of films that portray various epoch’s in Japan’s history.
The mix of awe and horror is also nicely encapsulated in the sheer mania of the scene where Chief Shima breaks from a serious dialogue on the stolen DC Minis to indulge in a lunatic monologue including lines such as: “Even the five court ladies danced in sync to the frogs’ flutes and drums!” He then caps this nonsensical rhapsody by crashing through the top floor window of the facility (he’s unharmed). Brief as it is, it’s a glorious, manic masterpiece that contrives to be funny, terrifying and exhilarating.
The film also makes the spot-on connection between dreams and movies, which makes sense as Film is the medium that bears the closest comparison to dreams. Captain Konakawa, who serves as the audience identification point, dreams in terms of various film genres, yet, due to his own internal traumas and a past, tragic friendship, can’t no longer enjoys movies (something that Paprika considers less than healthy). When he’s plunged into the disturbing circus venue of his reoccurring dream/nightmare, Paprika, dressed as a clown talks to him in cryptic camera composition terms, telling him he has “crossed the line of action” and “needs to narrow the line of exposure. This is Panfocus.”
This all ironically ties into Tomika’s assertion that those who implant dreams into other people’s heads “are terrorists.” After all, what is Film but the pursuit of planting dreams in other people’s heads? If the supporters/abusers of the DC Mini are “terrorists,” then the whole process of making films is a kind of consensual terrorism arranged between director and audience. The crackling culmination of this point comes as Konakawa, emerging triumphant from his “dream film” runs through the wall of a minor villain’s butterfly-hung “Sanctuary Room” to save Paprika/Chiba: Konakawa’s decision to “Finish His Movie” and in fact, become the hero, is mirrored by Chiba’s decision to reconcile her Chiba/Paprika selves. The seamless juxtaposition of disjointed dream imagery and movie mechanics is one of the movie’s high-points.
In addition to that, the movie makes telling points by addressing the connection between dreams and the Internet when Konakawa visits a cyberspace bar to compare notes with Paprika. Much like the main characters’ dream avatars, the Internet allows the user to create alternate personas and fantasy lives that may or may not mirror their true identity: cyberspace allows the psyche unlimited freedom to reimagine itself. (Consider the twit you run into on YouTube).
Paprika raises this question in her dialogue with Konakawa: “Don’t you think dreams and the Internet are similar? They are places where the respressed conscious vents.” Does the sanctity of the subconscious survive if technology, in the form of the Internet or DC Mini usurps that pristine dream state? That said, the film’s dizzying, sprinting mixture of hand-drawn and 3-D animation and CGI, is a staggering achievement. It’s hard not to physically cheer when Kon rips through a hyperreal action set-piece in which Paprika, trying to escape the Dream Villain’s tentacle barrage, runs into an office, jumps into a painting of The Sphinx and Oedipus, turns into the sphinx, is brought down by the spear of a villain who transforms into Oedipus, drops into the sea, changes into a mermaid, flees only to be swallowed by a anthropomorphic-faced whale, is expelled through the blow-hole as a doll-like figure, only to land into the middle of the dream parade. Beauty and horror zoom past the iris in bright primary colors, and it’s a testament to Kon’s total mastery that the viewer barely has time to think about the holes in the plot.
The movie is rich in the smallest details: check out the terrific credit sequence, with Paprika’s face reflected in a series of mirror shots in various expressions of disgust to a come-on; the fall of rain-drops on an auto’s windshield, making a set-piece of a simple two character dialogue. Is the movie at times too slick, too loose, and too philosophically opaque for its own good? Well, yes. The main villain declares: “The dreams are horrified that the safe refuge is destroyed by technology.” The argument is clear: that the dreamer loses the purity of the dream when science intrudes. Yet, isn’t the villain doing the same thing that he accuses the “terrorists” (Paprika, Tomika, Shima, etc.) of doing? The cure is as bad as the disease, and it’s confusing when, after the bad guy has apparently been dispatched, he resurfaces as a dark colossus bent on devouring Tokyo with his dream-delusion.
It’s hard to really get a fix on Paprika: to what degree does Chiba really control her dream self? There are times it seems like she can or can’t be independent of Chiba. It seems, also, that Kon, as much removed from the content of anime’s disreputable “hentai” genre, can’t resist at least one violation scene with the heroine (in both her guises), when Paprika, pinioned as a butterfly girl, undergoes a form of rape at the hands of a minor villain. The smashing coda to this scene is that the main villain, who is puritanical, takes control of his underling’s flesh to upbraid him for his lack of control (it’s also a nifty reference to the film THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT). The capper to this almost reads like a rebuttal to all the salacious actions rife in Adult Anime, and carries a kind of self-reflexive irony.
The movie never really concludes the question of whether invading the dreams of others is morally questionable, but the city-wasting finale is a doozey – replete with giant dolls emitting glass-shattering, sonic shrieks, psychiatrists transformed into towering robos, and the odd and truly sublime image of grinning salarymen swan-diving off building roofs. It all climaxes with the uplifting image of Chiba accepting her Dream Self to battle The Chairman, rising from an egg, becoming a child, transforming into the perfect synthesis of the two halves to end the chaos.
As in his earlier work, PERFECT BLUE, which featured protagonist Mima zapping back and forth between real and “reel” life, Kon is fascinated with the image of Doppelgangers, and the dichotomy of Reality vs. Illusion. Characterization is strong and there is also a fairly understated, but affecting Love Story underneath all the sturm and drang. Kon, one of the most versatile anime talents working (a back-to-back viewing with his 2003 TOKYO GODFATHERS shows just how versatile he is), has crafted a visionary masterpiece that is beautiful, scary, funny, suspenseful, horrific, and like the best dreams, isn’t easily shaken or forgotten. Those hungering for more exposition in their movie might feel punch-drunk on the gorgeous, unlimited mindscape flying by, but everyone else should dive in without reservation.
The Sony Pictures Classic Release (November 27, 2007) a single disc with a good widescreen print and fine Dolby stereo sound. The original Japanese-language soundtrack is set as default with subtitles in English, French and Spanish. Other audio tracks include English 5.1, French 5.1, Spanish, and filmmakers’ commentary from Kon and composer Susumu Hirasawa. The DVD also provides a number of Special Features that should be of particular interest to the viewer without diminishing the enjoyment of the original product.
The first, “Tsuitsui and Kon’s PAPRIKA: Making of-Documentary” is absorbing in delineating the original scribe and Kon’s attitude toward the source novel and the adaptation. Tsutsui, who retired from writing following the novel’s finish, called it “the summation of my career in terms of bothentertainment and psychoanalysis” and the tortuous process of writing it (he based the novel’s dream imagery on his own, and as a result, the writing process was attenuated). Kon, particularly, going for a loose adaptation (“Remaining rigidly true to the novel is pointless, because the novel will always be superior. It is tough to recreate visually”) details the formidable task of scripting the film: Kon began storyboarding before the final third of the script was completed.
“A Conversation About The Dream” features voice actors Megumi Hayashibara (Atsuko Chiba & Paprika), Toru Furuya (Doctor Tomika), and Kon and Tsutsui. The commentary is generally light-hearted with Hayashibara and Furuya discussing the challenges of their individual roles; Furuya especially found it hard to provide the right vocal timbre for the morbidly obese, childlike Tomika. Both actors offer favorite scenes. Among the highlights of the commentary, Hayashibara talks about the challenge of making her character fall in love with Tomika.
“The Dream CG World”: This is an overview by CGI director Michiya Kato on the use of 3-D CGI to achieve the disorienting, perspective-warping sense of dream-state. Perhaps 1/3 to ½ of the movie utilizes some form of CGI, which breaks down “to about 350 scenes.” Among the highlights: the rippling effect in Konakawa’s dream chase; which took 3 months to achieve; the reoccurring Parade Scene, which called for 5-6 angles of falling confetti (requiring 65,000 pieces being animated).
“The Art of Fantasy,” featuring commentary by Art Director, Nobutake Ike, who also worked on TOKYO GODFATHER (visually, a far more subdued film) details the challenges of providing a color contrast between the alternate states of reality and dream through which the characters bounce back and forth.
PAPRIKA (Sony Pictures Classics, 2007). Directed by: Satoshi Kon. Written by: Seishi Minakami and Satoshi Kon, based on the serialized novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui. Voices: Megumi Hayshibara, Toru Emori, Katsunosuke Hori, Toru Furuya.
When reviewing disreputable genres, it is not uncommon to extoll the virtues of little known films in the hope of starting a buzz that will attract attention to films that might otherwise be obscured by more high-profile projects. To some extent, this happened with PERFECT BLUE, the anime psycho-thriller that received an art house theatrical release in 1999. In a year that saw some excellent animated films – ranging from PRINCESS MONONOKE to SOUTH PARK to TOY STORY 2 – PERFECT BLUE received some of the best critical notices; it turned up on a few year-end “best of” lists, and one or two critics even ranked it higher than Hayao Miyazaki’s PRINCESS MONONOKE. Is this the Little Movie That Could? Or is it another instance of well-meaning critics hyping a small movie because it is small? The answer is: a little of both, actually. PERFECT BLUE does not completely deserve the accolades it received, but its virtues are more than apparent enough to explain why critics would want to give it a boost: general audiences in the U.S. are not eager to give anime a chance; and whatever its flaws, PERFECT BLUE offers much that is intriguing.
The film has style and then some—maybe too much, in fact, but the visual interest always remains high, and the storyline is intriguing. Under pressure from her managers, Mima, a semi-successful pop singing idol, leaves her band to pursue a career as an actress in a psycho-thriller TV show called Double Blind (which seems to be a rip-off of Silence of the Lambs). The writer of the show can’t figure out what to do with her character until he comes up with a brutal rape scene that has less to do with drama that with destroying her innocent image (tellingly, she wears the same costume during the scene that she used to wear on stage). Unfortunately for Mima, an irate fan is outraged by this new tarnished image, and sets out to save the “real” Mima from this tarnished “imposter.”
The film does a great job of establishing identification with Mima, and the suspense sequences are handled with aplomb. The violence packs a punch, but so do the quieter moments, as when Mima logs onto a fan website devoted to her, and realizes that whoever is running it knows far more about her private life than anyone possibly could, without spying on her. There are also numerous satirical jabs at the entertainment business and at the world of fandom. (Besides the mad stalker, there is also a contingent of cynics, who comment periodically on the Mima phenomenon—sort of the equivalent of “Trekkers” who look down on “Trekkies.”).
What damages this otherwise excellent effort is two things: one plot oriented, the other stylistic. The script resorts to the kind of lamebrain thinking that affects many thrillers, in which the characters do stupid things in order to keep themselves vulnerable. In this case, the story nearly destroys audience credibility early on, when a fan letter addressed to Mima explodes in her manager’s hands, badly lacerating them—and then no one calls the police! Even if we assume that Mima’s managers don’t care about her personally, they should care about the welfare of their meal ticket.
The film’s second fault lies with a certain stylistic excess in terms of playing self-reflexive games with the audience. In order to portray Mima’s mental deterioration under the duress of being stalked, the events of her “real” life story begin to mimic the events of her “reel” story on the TV show. This would no be confusing in and of itself, but the film takes another step, during a prolonged sequence midway through, wherein Mima repeatedly goes back and forth between “real” and “reel” life—and then wakes up as if from a dream, leaving us to wonder whether any of what we have seen actually happened. This all leads to a revelation at the end that leaves at least one question wide open, and also relies on a rather high degree of coincidence. (The killer’s psychosis rather too neatly dovetails with Mima’s delusions, in order to continue the visual imagery of Mima struggling with her phantom alter ego long past the point when she is actually struggling with a flesh-and-blood opponent.)
These stylistic quirks, however, are part of what makes the film interesting, and if occasionally they lead to artistic dead-ends, more often they bring the film to life. The milieu is effectively displayed, and the struggle of Mima to make the transition from a kind of semi-stardom to an actual acting career is involving. Audience identification with the character is effectively achieved, making her more than just an objectified victim. The televised rape scene is particularly interesting in this respect, with the cameras stopping at a crucial moment, necessitating that the cast hold their awkward positions. The actor’s whispered “I’m so sorry” to Mima somehow rings true, making the scene more believable than is safe for comfortable viewing. In fact, the whole sequence seems like a commentary on anime’s predilection for stripping its heroines down and subjecting them to all sorts of graphic sexual violence. (It’s just a little too bad that, once filming resumes, the scene goes on way past making it dramatic point and ends up becoming the very thing it seeks to criticize.)
The great thing about Manga Video’s DVD (originally released on May 2, 2000) is that it allows you to go back and appreciate what you liked about the film, while what you disliked gradually fades in significance. PERFECT BLUE rewards on subsequent viewings, and anime fans (not to mention fans of thrillers in general) should not be deterred by critical comments regarding flaws that are outweighed by virtues. The disc presents the film with good Dolby stereo sound (also in Dolby 5.1, if you have the equipment to access it) and a clear, widescreen print (of the unrated director`s cut) that captures the visual beauty of the backgrounds and leaves de rigueur sex and violence intact. (Despite Roger Corman`s quote, much used in the press materials, that PERFECT BLUE resembles a combo of Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock, the real stylistic reference point seems to be Dario Argento; the film even recreates the broken-shard-of-glass-in-the windowsill-impaled-through-the-abdomen, as seen in Argento`s Deep Red.)
Even better, for the purists among us, the disc contains both the English-dubbing and the original Japanese-language soundtrack, with the option for English subtitles. The print itself is from the American theatrical release of the dubbed version, so the credits are in English and include the names of the American voice actors, even when you’re listening to the Japanese dialogue—a surreal experience, to be sure.
The disc also includes numerous extras. In a real stroke of genius, the supplements are gathered in a menu area called “Mima’s Room,” designed to look like the fan website seen in the film itself, run by the stalked known only as “Mr. Me-Mania.” A behind-the-scenes video shows three Japanese singers recording the vocal tracks for the band’s signature song. If you’ve watched the Japanese version and found the subtitles insufficient for following the lyrics, you can access the English-language version from the extras menu without having to sit through the film again. (By the time you’re through, you’ll be hearing the song in your sleep, believe me!) There are interviews with the American voice actors, who mostly answer abstract questions on how they identify with their characters, what they think of pop stardom, and things like that. Most amusing is the voice of Mr. Me-Mania, who admits he has no idea how his character hooked up with the conspirator who supplied him with all the inside info he put up on his site.
There are also interviews with the Japanese voice actress, who talks a bit more specifically about getting the role of Mima and working with the director, Satoshi Kon. Kon himself answers several questions about the making of the film, but finds it hard to explain specifics when asked to analyze the meaning. He does insist that some confusion on the part of the audience was inherent in the storytelling, but adds that he did not go out of the way to emphasize that.
Finally, there is a photo gallery of images from the film, set to music; lists of other Manga DVD and video releases; and a page of web links you can access if you have a DVD-Rom drive on your computer. Beware, however, if you’re looking for the film’s trailer: it’s not identified in “Mima’s Room”; you access it by clicking on the apparent web link for the Perfect Blue site while the disc is in your DVD player instead of in a DVD-Rom drive. Other web links will take you to trailer-type collages of scenes from other Manga releases. (Presumably, this was done so that you could still get something by clicking on these points even if you don’t have a computer with DVD-Rom capabilities.)
Overall, Perfect Blueis an intriguing film that has a powerful visceral impact while also inviting a certain amount of thought on the part of viewers. It warrants the kind of special treatment given by Manga on this DVD, and the supplemental materials do enhance the viewing experience. If the film itself is not without its flaws, the strengths are more memorable, and this disc brings them to the forefront.
PERFECT BLUE (Manga Entertainment, 1998). Directed by Satoshi Kon. Screenplay by Sadayuki Murai, from the novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. Japanese Voices: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuiji, Masaaki Okura. English Voices: Bridget Hoffman, Bob Marx, Wendee Lee, Barry Stigler.
[NOTE: The DVD portion of this review is based on the original 2000 DVD from Manga Video (available below). The film was subsequently released on DVD as part of the “Essence of Anime” series, pictured at top.]