Animation works a little different in Japan, where some of the most talented directors have made it their passion and left the country more open to its possibilities as a result. Why, then, did the acclaimed director Satoshi Kon choose to reveal his last movie in film festivals scattered all over the world, culminating in a limited theatrical release in the United States, instead of making any particular effort to sell it in Japan? Your guess is probably as good as the broad speculation I could insert here.

 

It won in four different festivals around the world, also placing second at the Central Ohio Film Critics Association after Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007), but its limited release in the United States nabbed it just short of one million dollars. Hopefully, it wasn’t as expensive as it looks.

 

The movie: A tiny car drives into the center of a circus. The door opens and a clown bigger than the car itself pries herself out and proclaims “And now, boys and girls, it’s show time!”

Everything in the circus – elephants, stilt-walkers, fire-breathers, and acrobats – begins parading. Detective Konakawa slips through the cheering crowd and meets the clown girl on the stairs, whispering “No question, he’s definitely here.” She points out that someone onstage is watching him, but before he can react, the spotlight hits him and the man bellows

 

“Ladies and gentlemen! Please turn your attention to that man! Viola, one, two, three!” The curtain beside him drops, revealing Konakawa trapped in a small cage as the audience cheers. Exasperated, he looks to where he was a moment ago and sees himself shout “There he is! Get him!”

 

The audience, all with Konakawa’s face, darts from the stands and surrounds the cage, bending the bars as they reach for Konakawa. He struggles to brace himself as the floor gives out and he falls through the ceiling of the big top. But before he can hit the ground, the clown from before, now dressed as a beautiful trapeze artist, swings by and valiantly catches him, and they swing to safety through a jungle, dressed as Tarzan and Jane.

 

“He got away again!” growls Konakawa.

“You’re the man who got away,” the girl reminds him.

 

A branch from out of nowhere hits them, breaking their grip, and the assassin on the train begins strangling Konakawa with a wire. The girl sits up behind them and realizes what’s happening. Acting fast to save him, she grabs a briefcase, raises it above her head, and whacks the man in a zoot suit with her guitar.

 

“Great, gimme another one!” calls Konakawa, adjusting his camera.

 

“Got it!”

 

But then, Konakawa spots a shadowy man slipping through the crowd around the scene. He gives chase, pursuing the man into a building, but as he rounds a corner, a shot rings out and an innocent bystander in the middle of the hallway drops dead, while the shadowy man makes his way out the exit at the other end. Konakawa tries to chase him, but the hallway elongates, twists and fades to white, leaving him hurtling through space.

 

“But what about the rest of it?”

 

He wakes up next to the girl from his dream, who removes the devices behind their ears and tells him “everyone is startled the first time they try it.”

 

Konakawa is one of the first volunteers for “dream therapy,” using a device that, once perfected, will allow people to enter their dreams “even while they’re wide awake.” His current homicide case, featuring the same man shot in his dream, has caused him disorienting stress. But the first session has him already falling for the warm, exuberant and fun-loving therapist, who leaves him until his next appointment with a calling card that reads “Paprika.”

 

But Konakawa has no idea where this case will lead him very soon, when an unknown party steals three prototypes of the device, allowing them to enter the dreams anyone of they choose and control their psyche. When the chief of the department developing the project goes berserk and jumps out a window, the mystery begins, and the answer can only be found in the dream world. Luckily, the people on the case have a secret weapon: Paprika, who we soon learn is a dream fabrication herself, created to go beyond the capabilities of her very different real-world counterpart.

 

Paprika follows its own sort of logic that always stays consistent. It’s intriguing and never incomprehensible. But it’s still a mind trip, taking us in and out of dreams that it creates with as much imagination as you will ever see in one movie. Following it is visceral and thought-provoking at the same time. The dubbed lines in the English version are not the best – though the voices match well – and some scenes require some knowledge of Freud to appreciate, but to dwell on either is much like fretting over the shape of the bowl holding your ice-cream sundae. No movie can quite make up for missing this one.

 

The actors:Voice acting often goes unappreciated, despite the efforts Robin William, Eddie Murphy, and others to prove that it can be a true display of their talent. However, most of the voice actors in Paprika are not big name performers. Still, sometimes a big name only brings just that; Paul St. Peter gives Detective Konakawa exactly the kind of voice you’d expect a gruff “good cop” to have, and Cindy Robinson is just lovable as Paprika. They were chosen with care, as is not always the case.

 

The director:Sadly, there’s less to report here than there should be. Satoshi Kon was on his way to prominence as an animator in Japan, creating three beautifully mature movies about pop stars, aging actresses, and homeless cultural rejects forming a makeshift family together. But Paprika, based on the 1993 novel of the same name, was the one he waited nine years to direct, and it’s obvious that when he finally got to do it, he was ready.

 

Really, the public can’t take too much of the blame for the obscurity this time, as most states were never even given the option to see it. After debating whether to send it straight to DVD, Sony Pictures Classics nonchalantly threw it into select theaters in New York and Los Angeles, where it took in a slow stream of money for almost four months. Other limited releases have done less with more. Christopher Nolan proved that the idea can form a major box office blockbuster when he drew inspiration from Paprika to create his 2010 film Inception.

 

Though he began work on another film called Dreaming Machine, Mr. Kon was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in May 2010, retreating from the public eye to keep his failing body out of the spotlight. He died in August of 2010 at the age of 46. Keep your eyes open for Dreaming Machine, which his company is now struggling to complete for him, despite a lack of funding.

 

Final Score:

 

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