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(2007) *** 1/2 R
95 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Satoshi Kon. Cast: Megumi Hayashibara, Toru Emori, Katsunosuke Hori, Toru Furuya, Akio Otsuka.

Admit it. When you think of Japanese animation (or anime), you think of bug-eyed kids yelping, "Pokémon, I choose you!" at a squat, rosy-cheeked yellow beastie with a lightning-bolt tale. Or maybe you're one of the legions of anime fanatics who have long appreciated more than just the kid stuff. Either way, your attention should turn posthaste to Paprika, Satoshi Kon's latest cinematic spectacle.

Like Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira (1988) and Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001), Paprika seems poised to win a deservedly sizable cult audience in America. Kon marries visual dazzle to unblinking pop existentialism in ways that make viewers' heads hurt so good. It's colorful and wildly imaginative, but it's also serious-minded and R-rated, so think twice before taking the young'uns.

In Paprika's near-future world (adapted from Yasutaka Tsutsui's revered novel), scientists have developed hardware to revolutionize psychotherapy. If approved by the government, the "DC-Mini" will allow therapists to enter, witness, and capture for later study the dreams of their patients. When a DC-Mini goes missing during the testing phase, the potential consequences become horrifyingly clear: in the wrong hands, the device has the power to destroy minds.

As one character puts it, "This calls for Paprika!" Indeed the spritely dream-warrior alter ego of mild-mannered Dr. Atsuko Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara) is a sort of superhero. She's also a sensitive, soothing analyst to her trial patient, a troubled police detective named Konakawa (Akio Ohtsuka). His shuffle-play, movie-inspired dreams plague him with heart-pounding dangers and coded meanings that only Paprika can prod him to understand. "She really is a woman of your dreams," he marvels.

When the dream terrorist with the missing device begins remotely to infiltrate the waking thoughts of her colleagues, Chiba must mobilize her "dream detective" secret identity before everyone she knows—including herself—goes crazy. The perils of Paprika pulse with astonishing, free-associative imagery and mad non sequiturs, including a recurrent, ominous parade of dolls, toys, household appliances, religious icons, and landmarks (one of the most towering and most ironic being the Statue of Liberty). In a nod to Disney, Kon at one point throws in a pink elephant, which I suppose, since Dumbo, is the animation equivalent of the kitchen sink.

The tradeoff for wondrous design and dynamic graphic-novel composition is stilted dialogue and characters that are as caricaturish as they are vivid. The Chairman of the Foundation for Psychiatric Research is a literal chair-man; bald and wheelchair-bound, he's a dour dead ringer for X-Men's Professor X. The more sympathetic Chief (a diminuitive doctor) and the childlike, corpulent tech wizard Dr. Tokita (known as "the king of geeks") are more original in appearance, but disappointingly shallow in emotional detail. Paprika functions best as an allegory, with the characters representing philosophical points about the human condition (control is not only an illusion, but a delusion: discuss).

With American animators deeply committed to CGI, filmmakers like Miyazaki and Kon are ever more precious in their hand-drawn stylings, abetted tastefully with computer techniques. Better yet, Kon's fetchingly loopy film navigates intellectual terrain that even live-action features fear to tread. Should dreams be a sacred refuge from reality? Or tools of psychic healing? If so, should technology be used to exploit them? The film-long meditation on technology's intersection with body and soul brings to mind the debate over stem cells.

In large part, the Philip K.Dick-esque narrative critiques our tenuous postmodern grip on reality in a world saturated with dubious amusements. Kon explores the "areas where the repressed conscious mind vents": dreams, cyberspace, and the movies themselves. Like the DC-Mini, the internet and the movies have potential for misuse, but also the enabling of knowledge and reflection. With Kon guiding our dreams, we're in good hands.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 11/27/2007

Distributor: Sony Home Entertainment

Paprika looks and sounds vivid in Sony's DVD special edition, true to its theatrical exhibition if not improved on home video. The preferred original Japanese-language track is thankfully provided, as well as dubs in English, French, and Spanish. The film also comes with a battery of fascinating extras. A feature-length commentary by Kon, music supervisor Susuma Hirasawa, and associate producer Morishima has a collegial tone in recalling the challenges and friendly arguments from the film's conception to completion.

The featurette "Tsutsui and Kon's Paprika" (30:06) details the differing but complementary visions of the novelist and filmmaker, as well as the film's production. "A Conversation About the Dream" (29:03) brings together author, director and voice talent Megumi Hayashibara (Paprika/Chiba) and Toru Furuya (Tokita) to discuss their experiences, the characters and favorite scenes, as well as the film's heady themes and even their own dreams! "The Dream CG World" (15:09) features an interview with CGI director Michiyia Kato discussing how CG is made to co-exist peacefully with hand-drawn animation. Finally, "The Art Of Fantasy" (12:07) allows art director Nobutaka Ike to give his perspective on the animation choices necessary to best bring Kon's vision to life.

Last and least (but always welcome) is a gallery of previews: "Coming to Blu-Ray," Youth Without Youth, Angel-A, Interview, Tekkonkinkreet, Moliere, Tokyo Godfathers, Vitus and Resident Evil: Extinction.
Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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